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Friday, August 9, 2013

What’s Eating Johnny Depp?

Johnny Depp is pictured in an scene from the movie "The Lone Ranger." (Disney)

Johnny Depp is pictured in an scene from the movie “The Lone Ranger.” (Disney)

Johnny Depp’s “The Lone Ranger” is one of the biggest box office bombs of the summer, and it’s earned the actor yet more negative reviews of his work.

His roles in “Dark Shadows” and the more recent “Pirates” films were not well received either.

Critics are starting to ask what’s happening with the once highly respected actor.

You almost have to tell younger generations, ‘there once was a time when Johnny Depp was actually quite a good actor.’

– Renee Graham

Here & Now pop culture critic Renee Graham is a fan of much of Depp’s early screen work, including “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.”

“He doesn’t say a lot, but he plays so much with his eyes,” Graham said of Depp’s role as Gilbert Grape. “There’s no make-up, there’s no weird accent, he doesn’t have particularly strange hair, it’s just Johnny Depp kind of naked and acting. And it’s a really beautiful performance, even though it’s a very calm, soft-spoken role.”

Graham believes what really derailed Depp’s acting career — paradoxically — was his success playing Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films.

Since then, in films such as “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” everything Depp does seems to be a variation on Captain Jack Sparrow.

“So what you end up with are wacky accents, strange make-up and really sarcastic hair,” Graham said. “You almost have to tell younger generations, ‘there once was a time when Johnny Depp was actually quite a good actor,’ because you would never know it to look at what he does now.”

Graham’s suggestion for Johnny Depp’s career? She says he should take a page from actors such as Kevin Spacey and Michael Douglas, who reinvented themselves with Netflix and cable television roles — “House of Cards” for Spacey and “Behind the Candelabra” for Douglas.

She says that kind of work could also reinvent Depp’s acting credibility, if he’s willing to try it.


  • Renee Graham, pop culture critic for Here & Now. She tweets @reneeygraham.



It's HERE AND NOW. This week, the Walt Disney Company announced that it is going to lose as much as $190 million, thanks to the box-office bomb known as "The Lone Ranger."


ARMIE HAMMER: (as Lone Ranger) You want me to wear a mask?

JOHNNY DEPP: (as Tonto) The men you seek think you are dead, Kemosabe. Better to stay that way.

HOBSON: Well, the guys you just heard - Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer - blamed the critics for "The Lone Ranger's" failure. Johnny Depp told Yahoo! News that he believes most of the poor reviews were written seven to eight months before the film even came out. But Depp's performance in "The Lone Ranger" has also led critics to wonder what happened to one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation. One of those critics is HERE AND NOW's Renee Graham, who joins us here in the studio. Renee, welcome back.


HOBSON: So what is going on right now? Why all this talk of the end of Johnny Depp?

GRAHAM: You know, there's a lot to be said here, and people have to kind of remember who Johnny Depp used to be. He was, you know, this actor who came out of television doing "21 Jump Street," and he made this concerted effort not to be an empty teen heartthrob. And he started taking very interesting roles - although they weren't necessarily in the biggest films, but he very much became a critic's darling because he really seemed like he was willing to take chances. And everything has seemed to go off the rails in the last decade.

And what I find really interesting is in a recent BBC interview, he said that, you know, in the not-too-distant future, he might be walking away from acting. And at this point, I think a lot of people think he already has.

HOBSON: Although he's walking right into a lot of money with some of his recent hits like "Pirates of the Caribbean." But you are a big fan of his earlier stuff.

GRAHAM: I was a big fan of his earlier stuff. I was not a fan of "21 Jump Street," but when he started to make films that really seemed out - against the Hollywood mode, he seemed - and his generation of actors - let's sort of throw them there, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves - at that time, in the late '80s, going into the '90s, they seemed to be emulating more the sort of introspective, complex actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean. They had this brooding thing that people really seemed to connect to in the way they connected to with Brando and Dean.

What I found really interesting is that no less than Marlon Brando called Johnny Depp the most talented actor of his generation. Now, it seems like Johnny Depp is emulating Brando in the worst possible ways. And, you know, "The Lone Ranger" might end up being Johnny Depp's version of Brando's "The Island of Dr. Moreau." We'll have to wait and see.

HOBSON: When you talk about the good old days, it makes me, of course, think of "Edward Scissorhands."


DIANNE WIEST: (as Peg Boggs) What happened to you?

DEPP: (as Edward Scissorhands) I'm not finished.

WIEST: (as Peg Boggs) Oh, put those down. Don't come any closer. Just please. Those are your hands? Those are your hands.

HOBSON: Just hearing that, I want to go out and watch that movie again.

GRAHAM: That was his first collaboration with Tim Burton. He's made several films with Tim. And Depp came out with this fright makeup. He had this hair like an angry bird's nest and these razor-sharp blades for hands, and he was altering the thing, in a way, that made him a star. And it even made him an even bigger star. He wasn't going to be pigeonholed by his looks, and he seemed to revel in the opportunity to play offbeat roles. And it was like he was a character actor trapped in the voluptuous face of a leading man.

HOBSON: There was also Johnny Depp's performance in the title role of 1993's "What's Eating Gilbert Grape." Leonardo DiCaprio is his mentally-challenged brother, Arnie. Depp is his caretaker.


DEPP: (as Gilbert Grape) If anybody ever hits you or even just lays a finger on you, what are you going to do, Arnie? Hmm? You're going to tell me, and then I'm going to take care of it for you, right? And why will I take care of it?

LEONARDO DICAPRIO: (as Arnie Grape) Gilbert?

DEPP: (as Gilbert Grape) Hmm?

DICAPRIO: (as Arnie Grape) Because you're Gilbert.

DEPP: (as Gilbert Grape) Because I'm Gilbert. Because nobody hurts Arnie, right?

GRAHAM: That was a really interesting role. In a lot of ways, people will say it was the most normal role that Johnny Depp ever played. He plays this young man in a small town who is trying to take care of his family, his morbidly obese mother, his mentally handicapped brother. And there's a way that he plays well. He doesn't say a lot, but he plays so much with his eyes. There's no makeup. There's no weird accent. He doesn't have particularly strange hair. It's just Johnny Depp kind of naked and acting. And it's a really beautiful performance, even though it's a very calm, very soft-spoken role.

HOBSON: He also got a lot of acclaim for his work in the 1994 film "Ed Wood," where he played the real-life B-movie director, famous for such bad films as "Plan 9 from Outer Space." And as we hear in this scene, he was also a transvestite in that film.


DEPP: (as Ed Wood) I like to dress in women's clothing.

MIKE STARR: (as George Weiss) You're a fruit?

DEPP: (as Ed Wood) No, not at all. I love women. Wearing their clothes makes me feel closer to them.

STARR: (as George Weiss) You're not a fruit.

DEPP: (as Ed Wood) No, I'm all man. I even fought in WWII. Of course, I was wearing women's undergarments under my uniform.

STARR: (as George Weiss) You got to be kidding me.

DEPP: (as Ed Wood) Confidentially, I even paratrooped wearing a brassiere and panties. I'll tell you, I wasn't scared of being killed, but I was terrified of getting wounded and having the medics discover my secret.

HOBSON: You know, it's such a different Johnny Depp than the one we think of today with "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland."

GRAHAM: It's like he's had these two careers, and it's, you know, he was sort of coasting along in this way that everyone really seemed to enjoy. When he did "Ed Wood," it felt like he could literally do anything. And you couldn't imagine another young actor taking the chances he took in taking on that role. And then comes along the "Pirate" movies. He has made four of the "Pirate" movies. There is a fifth one in the pipeline.


GRAHAM: And, in a way, the biggest role he's had has completely consumed his career.

HOBSON: Well, let's take a listen to him in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." This is from 2003. He makes a memorable entrance as Captain Jack Sparrow, who gets challenged by the harbormaster when he ties up his ship and starts striding into town.


GUY SINER: (as Harbormaster) Hold up there, you. It's a shilling to tie up your boat at the dock. And I shall need to know your name.

DEPP: (as Captain Jack Sparrow) What do you say to three shillings, and we forget the name?

HOBSON: Renee, people loved this movie. He has made a ton of money. What's wrong with it?

GRAHAM: People loved the first movie. They may have liked the second movie, but at this point, I think they're getting tired of it. And I think the other problem is everything he does is the same. Everything is a variation on Captain Jack Sparrow. So what you end up with are wacky accents, strange makeup and really sarcastic hair. I think it's too much. He's got to take it to another direction. And it almost doesn't matter what role he does now. What keeps coming through is Captain Jack Sparrow.

HOBSON: And you don't think that's doing any good for his acting career?

GRAHAM: Not at all. You know, you almost have to tell through younger generations there once was a time when Johnny Depp was actually quite a good actor.


GRAHAM: Because you would never know it, to look at what he does now. It's really disconcerting. And the thought that when you hear Johnny Depp is going to do a movie, you just roll your eyes and think, oh, I'm not even going to bother seeing that. And I think that's really what happened with "The Lone Ranger."

HOBSON: Well, wouldn't all it take to win you back over is for him to do one film that was kind of the old Johnny Depp?

GRAHAM: Here's what I'm going to suggest, and this is...


GRAHAM: This is coming from someone who's...

HOBSON: In case you're listening, Johnny Depp. Here it comes.

GRAHAM: In case you're listening, from someone whose acting career ended in the fourth grade, what you need to do is reinvent yourself. Get off the big screen for a while. Look. All the best roles at this point are on cable TV.

HOBSON: Or Netflix and stuff like that.

GRAHAM: Or Netflix. So, you know, there's lots of opportunity to do different things. You know, look at what "House of Cards" did for Kevin Spacey, "Behind the Candelabra" for Michael Douglas, "Angels in America" and "You Don't Know Jack" for Al Pacino. These were big-time screen actors who looked at the roles, and not where the roles were, and it really put their careers back on track or reinvented them in a very different way. I think that exists for Johnny Depp, if he's willing to try.

HOBSON: Renee, if he does not take your advice and he keeps doing the kind of movies that he's doing, is there any actor out there from his generation that you think could come in and fill the void?

GRAHAM: From his generation, perhaps not. I don't know what Keanu Reeves is doing these days. River Phoenix is 20 years gone. Brad Pitt is busy being Brad Pitt. I would say, of a newer generation of actors, probably Ryan Gosling.

HOBSON: Or Leonardo DiCaprio?


HOBSON: Because a lot of people think DiCaprio is really great.

GRAHAM: I'm not one of those people. I think he is fantastic in "Gilbert Grape." I don't think he's been as good since. I know he's got - he's had big movies and he's got some Oscar nominations, but there's always something affected and off about his acting. He just looks like a large child trying to play a grownup.


GRAHAM: I know. I'm sorry.

HOBSON: You can - you know what, Renee, your Twitter, @reneeygraham...


HOBSON: available for anybody to send you tweets about that one. Maybe I will, too. Anyway, pop culture critic Renee Graham. Thank you so much, as always.

GRAHAM: Thanks, Jeremy.

HOBSON: And you can let us know what you think at We do want to take a minute now to thank two young people who are moving on and probably will be running the show one day.


HOBSON: First, Elizabeth Tizzy Hope Brown(ph). She's been interning with us this summer, and she returns to the George Washington University this fall. Thank you so much, Tizzy.


And thanks to Shardon Brooks(ph), two of the best-named interns...


YOUNG: ...ever, as well. Shardon and Tizzy, as Jeremy said, where do we line up to work for you?

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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