As last week’s staggering box office take for the lukewarm “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” proved (at the time of this writing it's amassed almost $500 million worldwide), audiences are still fascinated and entranced by Johnny Depp, even when his dandy mugging is overpowered by anthropomorphic pirate ships, killer mermaids, zombies, and Penelope Cruz’s cleavage. His pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, eyes smeared with mascara, gold teeth glinting, a long bone stuck in his hair, is the most special effect in a movie stuffed to the gills with computer-generated concoctions.
But what makes Johnny Depp such a fascinating oddball, both in real life and on the big screen, is harder to pin down and seemingly impossible to explain, which is the unenviable task of Denis Meikle’s chunky and occasionally rousing biography, “Johnny Depp: A Kind of Illusion” (which has been recently revised, updated and, of course, re-released).
Meikle, an English horror movie historian who has previously written about Jack the Ripper’s cinematic incarnations and the legacy of the Hammer movie studio, takes a fairly broad approach to Depp’s life and career, which explains why the book clocks in at a whopping 483 pages before appendices. In intermingling gossipy personal details with unrefined looks at his films, he never quite manages to pin the actor down. The results, while never out-and-out boring, leave something to be desired, especially since Depp has been responsible for such a colorful filmography (and equally colorful life).
At first, all you can do is roll your eyes, especially when Meikle chooses to open the first proper chapter with the a hoary “script” – “Fade In. Owensboro, Kentucky. 1963. Music up.” It’s enough to make you want to fling the book across the room, if only your arms were strong enough to haul such a massive tome. Thankfully, such gimmicks are few and far between, although you’ll still get the odd aside here and there (when discussing a “21 Jump Street” episode which lambasts the English, Meikle shoots back with a “Puh-leeze”). Maybe the weirdness is an attempt to match his subject’s eccentricities, although he treats the actor’s most outrageous moments with a solemn detachment.
When writing about River Phoenix’s death at the Viper Room, a posh club that Depp owns in Los Angeles, Meikle describes the actor’s public reaction to the tragedy, detailing Depp’s own drug-fueled life with a brittle dryness (sample phrase: “Depp’s attitude on finding the results of such a course of action on his own doorstep was less than libertarian”). Huh? For a book that spends pages and pages on the ongoing struggle that was the Johnny Depp/Kate Moss relationship, there’s a distance in passages like these, an intellectualization of a very visceral event, that leaves the drama dead on the page. By relying on interviews from the time that Depp did for Playboy and other publications, as well as some kind of secondary psychological theorizing, Meikle never gets a true grip on who Depp really is. Why does he live in a hotel? Meikle suggests the answer might simply be “because.” And that’s not good enough.
Not that there’s a whole lot of insight to be found elsewhere – Meikle theorizes reasons for Depp choosing certain roles that are reductive and easy (“The Astronaut’s Wife"? Money. “Don Juan De Marco"? Vanity.), without giving anything much depth. More often than not, the focus is on how Johnny Depp fit into whatever project he was involved in, whether he was instrumental in shaping the character or if outside forces had more input.
There are, however, a few gems to be had – Meikle explores the role famed playwright Tom Stoppard had in overhauling Andrew Kevin Walker’s “Sleepy Hollow” script, which both strengthened the story and made it necessary for numerous side-stories that weakened the internal foundation of the plot. This bit exposes Meikle’s inner love for horror films and gives the book a kicky, smart-assy tone, if only for a few pages. There’s also a moment when Meikle discusses “Divine Rapture,” a movie that Depp made with Marlon Brando and his “Dead Man” co-star John Hurt. The movie, which Brando made in part to get his mind off the suicide of his daughter Cheyenne, was canceled midway through production and makes for a fascinating footnote to anyone’s Deppedia.
But these moments are uncommon, and aren’t exciting enough to make you overlook some glaring factual errors, like the author claiming that Leonardo DiCaprio won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” when that year the golden trophy went to Tommy Lee Jones for “The Fugitive.” (If this was “revised and expanded” couldn’t it also have been corrected?) Amateurish mistakes like this are what keep the book moored in the uncomfortable middle ground between trashy paperback biography (the book relies mostly on secondhand sources) and genuine exploration of a deeply flawed and fascinating actor. The book is surprisingly up-to-date, bringing things right up to the somewhat speculative pages on the new 'Pirates,' but far from complete. Depp remains, after nearly 500 pages, aloof and illusory. The stuff on the miserable performance of “The Tourist,” which Meikle notes came at the end of a banner year for the actor, is pretty funny though. [C-]
"Johnny Depp" is in bookstores now.