By Eleanor Ringel Cater
I have a very cool Johnny Depp story. I met him in 1994, when he was doing press for his new movie “Ed Wood,” directed by Tim Burton. It’s the true story of the ‘50s filmmaker once reputed to be the worse filmmaker of all time.
I have a few other nominees myself… but anyway, that was who the movie was about. Depp played Wood, an eccentric who often showed up on set wearing a pink angora sweater.
The film, which is now something of a cult classic, won Martin Landau an Oscar for his role as Bela Lugosi, the once and future Dracula, who had a small part in the film within the film.
Back to ’94…I was Depp’s last interview that day. He’d spent much of the week making headlines and front-page photos by trashing various hotel rooms or lashing out at photographers who caught him walking around New York.
When I entered the hotel suite — somewhere on Central Park South — there stood the most beautiful human being I’d ever seen, male or female. He was like David Bowie — with a luminous androgynous beauty.
But here’s my point. Depp was dressed simply—sweater and jeans, I think. And he couldn’t have been nicer or more cooperative during the interview, even though he’d probably done about a dozen one-on-ones (as exclusive interviews were called) earlier that day.
Here’s what I’m getting at …eventually…vis-a-vis Depp’s recent career: His penchant for disguise, on screen or off.
When we were done, I left, then lingered around the hotel lobby, hoping to catch one more glimpse of him. And after 10 minutes or so, there he was…. not dressed as he was when we talked. He had changed into the exact same outfit he wore in the photo plastered all over the papers a day or so earlier.
As I understood it, he didn’t want to attract attention.
Except he did.
So he did it did it cleverly, suggestively. He skulked out the door, pretty much unnoticed.Still, anyone who’d seen that photo would’ve taken a second look. And sure enough, by the time he was half a block down the street, people had noticed him. It was only a matter of minutes before the paparazzi showed up, cameras flashing.
Let me make this clear. I like Depp… for his work, his energized interview after a long day. And, finally, for his quick-sketch lesson in how to draw attention to himself without actually seeming to want to draw attention to himself.
Which brings us to his new movie which isn’t drawing nearly enough attention. It cost about $225 million and over the five-day holiday weekend has earned a projected $49 million. Meanwhile the animated sequel DESPICABLE ME 2 has raked in about $140-plus million.
The critics have been dancing all over THE LONE RANGER’s grave, and I was prepared to join them. But this isn’t a stinker. It’s not transcendent ,but it’s a lot better than a dozen other bloated would-be blockbusters that have gotten away with murder -— and millions.
Off the top of my head, I’d rather sit through THE LONE RANGER again than 6 minutes of MAN OF STEEL or WHITE HOUSE DOWN (or its twin OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN) or, Lord help us, FAST AND FURIOUS 6, which has cowed critics into writing bend-over-backward “youthful” raves about its crash-bang histrionics.
I was as ready as anyone to blast Depp’s western. Why thrust an irony-ridden sword into the heart of a relatively harmless, certainly pure-in-heart Western hero who’d galloped along to “The William Tell Overture” eons ago, giving pleasure to a lot of kids who grew up in a far more innocent time.
My theory about the Lone Ranger is, if someone had hired Stan Lee in, say 1982, ditched the horse (Silver) and given The Masked Man some super powers, he might’ve made “The Avengers’ cut.
So, I figured I’d hate the film. Instead, I enjoyed its off-hand classic-western references, from “The Searchers” to Sergio Leone, with a bit of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Blazing Saddles” and, most obviously, “Little Big Man” (check Depp’s ancient story-teller and the crazy “Custer” character; heck, they even lift, “It is a good day to die” from the Dustin Hoffman/Arthur Penn picture).
Okay, I have to own up to a love of westerns. Yes, the finale is overdone…I mean, over-over-done) and the picture goes on a good half hour too long and some of the “homages” come off more like lazy clichés.
But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a white stallion rear up on a picturesque cliff or wandered into a fancy brothel that’s pure Hollywood — but it is also the Wild West as some of us would like to remember/imagine it.
As you probably know from the previews, Depp doesn’t play the Lone Ranger (Armie Hammer). He appears as the hero’s famous sidekick, Tonto. But if the previews didn’t keep, well, hammering it home (sorry, Arnie), you wouldn’t necessarily know it was Depp because his face is slathered in caked chalk-white make-up, with black lines running down his cheeks like inky tears.
What I’m getting at is, Depp has always had a penchant for disguise—whether it was back in New York, using a false disguise as he left that hotel, or his breakthrough feature film, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, for which he sported white-face and a black fright wig worthy or ERASERHEAD.
Because he was such natural leading man material, I found this an immensely clever (and refreshing) move on his part.
If filmmakers wouldn’t hand him character parts, he’d create them for himself.
But for the last 10 years or so, I’ve found myself thinking, he’s facing the same dilemma as any gorgeous female star, be she Elizabeth Taylor or Nicole Kidman. Getting older isn’t what your fans — or the camera or the studios want.
The “Pirates” movies revived his career; actually, they shot him into the stratosphere. He was made up, but still quite recognizable. And quite adorable, as the PIRATES’ grosses, to say nothing of an Oscar nomination proved.
But Depp has been distracting us from his real face for several films now. Think about it: white face and a what-tha’? pageboy wig in CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. White face and a plastered down black wig for the soap-opera vampire, Barnabas Collins, in DARK SHADOWS. White face, Technicolor eyes and a red clown wig as The Mad Hatter in ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Whiteface, again, and a mad-scientist’s frizz, plus a garish white streak borrowed from the Bride of Frankenstein in SWEENEY TODD.
So here are a few films in which Depp looks like Depp. He acts like Depp. too. Which is to say, pretty marvelous.
ED WOOD: A hilarious and sharply crafted tribute to Ed Wood who, as I said, is generally considered one of the worst directors ever to aim a camera. The film focuses on his career in the 1950s, when he churned out such beyond-bad opuses as “Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
As Depp plays him, Wood is an endlessly enthusiastic schlock-auteur who, like the self-invented filmmakers of today, used whatever was available — whether it was stock footage of stampeding buffalos or members of his truly bizarre stock company of actors.
They include: a beatnik ghoul-gal self-dubbed Vampira (Lisa Marie). A bogus psychic named Criswell (Jeffrey Jones). A 400-pound former wrestler (George “The Animal” Steele). A would-be transsexual (Bill Murray at his best). And a star in free-fall, the aforementioned Lugosi, very washed-up, yet oddly poignant.
You’ll also recognize Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette as the women who shared their lives and sometimes, their wardrobes with Wood. Burton, Depp and all the rest pull off this cockeyed tribute with a tattered affection and a tawdry soulfulness that are irresistible.
DEAD MAN: The Wild West becomes the Weird West in Jim Jarmusch’s mytho-poetic meditation on a beloved genre (this and THE LONE RANGER might make a fascinating double bill).
Depp stars as a mild-mannered accountant who goes West and finds himself an outlaw. He embarks on a surreal journeythat takes him from so-called civilization to a natural state, both savage and enlightened. Depp’s charismatic passivity serves the picture well, as do some amazing turns in the supporting roles.
Among those who turn up on the Wild Frontier: Robert Mitchum, John Hurt and Gabriel Byrne. They — and Depp — craftily off-set Jarmusch’s taste for hipster whimsy and elliptical narrative. I still think about this movie…
BENNY AND JOON: Well, here’s the movie that made me fall in love with Johnny Depp years and years ago. This antic, enticingly eccentric comedy-romance happily embraces the “who’s normal anyway?” spirit of the late 1960s, when films like “King of Hearts” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” were all the rage.
Benny (Aidan Quinn) is a hard-working mechanic who’s put his life on hold to look after Joon, his mentally unbalanced younger sister, played by Mary Stuart Masterson (You know her best from “Fried Green Tomatoes”).
Enter Sam — played by Depp — an angel-faced oddball who affects the physical appearance and deadpan comic persona of Buster Keaton, with a strong dash of Charlie Chaplin thrown in.
The picture’s premise — that there’s nothing so good for the mentally ill as the terminally whimsical — may be borderline precious, but the exceptional cast carry it off with heady élan and a buoyant sweetness.
I can’t guarantee the movie’s airily waggish charms will take with everyone, but anyone with a weakness for poets, madmen and silent-movie clowns will revel in its quixotic flights of fancy.