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Career Watch: Can Depp Transcend His Rep for Onscreen Quirk?

by Susan Wloszczyna
April 21, 2014 6:19 AM
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Peter Mountain/Warner Bros. Johnny Depp in 'Transcendence'
Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean."

For most actors, playing a cyber-age Dr. Frankenstein whose consciousness is converted into an artificial-intelligence experiment that threatens humankind would be considered a rather unusual role. But casting Johnny Depp as a mad scientist in the just-opened sci-fi thriller “Transcendence”? It barely registers a ripple on his scale of bizarre characters. 

Even critics who bemoaned his mystical twist on Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” and his campy take on Barnabas Collins in “Dark Shadows” are dissing this toned-down version of Depp – to the point that "Transcendence"’s 20% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes ranks among the star’s lowest ever. Richard Corliss of Time speaks for many as he describes Depp’s performance as “subdued to the point of entropy,” while adding, “If he can’t overplay, he doesn’t play at all.”

Signature line: “Savvy?” – Capt. Jack Sparrow in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)

"The Lone Ranger"

Career peaks: Depp’s resume is split into two distinct periods – before “Pirates of the Caribbean” and after. The Kentucky-born high-school dropout originally wanted to be a rock musician but broke into movies opposite Freddy Krueger (Depp’s sinkhole-style bedroom death scene is a classic) in 1984’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” He acquired unwanted teen-idol attention on the Fox crime series “21 Jump Street,” which premiered in 1987 and ran for four seasons.  In the first of their eight collaborations, director and creative soul mate Tim Burton rescued Depp from his fate as a TV heartthrob and redefined him as a lonely outcast with cutlery for hands and a craving for companionship in 1990’s “Edward Scissorhands.” 

In his struggling artist phase, the actor would quickly rack up a string of eccentric misfit roles with varying degrees of box-office success, most notably in “Benny & Joon” (1993), “Ed Wood” (1994), “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) and “Sleepy Hollow” (1999) . Depp even slipped in a few more grounded characters, earning praise for his undercover FBI agent in “Donnie Brasco” (1997). As Burton once said of his favorite star’s mercurial nature, "He's more like Lon Chaney than a leading man."

Depp in "Dark Shadows"

Depp’s popularity as a mainstream attraction would soar to a new heights as high-seas scalawag Jack Sparrow, his loopy rum-soaked, gold-toothed and bandana-bedecked buccaneer who has steered the “Pirates” franchise (No. 5 is expected in 2016) to a worldwide gross of over $3.7 billion in a little more a decade. While the actor has since impressed in the occasional dramatic challenge, including Peter Pan creator James M. Barrie in “Neverland” (2004) and as gangster John Dillinger in “Public Enemies” (2009), he continues to be drawn to colorful offbeat outsiders such as the throat-slashing barber in “Sweeney Todd” (2007) and the daft yet dapper Mad Hatter in “Alice in Wonderland” (2010).

Depp with Al Pacino in "Donnie Brasco"

Biggest assets: In civilian life, he might dress like a boho street urchin with his fedoras, byzantine tattoos and nerdy specs. But though he is about to turn 51 in June,  Depp can’t disguise the fact he still is drop-dead gorgeous and a pretty cool dude, too, even if he is verging on whimsy fatigue professionally.  As a performer, he’s never been afraid to take a risk –  Willy Wonka’s potentially off-putting horsey dental work and fey accent in 2005’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” did nothing to dampen its ticket sales. And, despite his predilection for kooks, the actor can be surprisingly versatile at times. As he has said, “I am doing things that are true to me. The only thing I have a problem with is being labeled.” He is the rare actor in this day and age who can confidently be described as one of a kind. 

Awards attention: Not only did the first “Pirates” movie raise his asking-price sails considerably, it also led to Depp’s first Academy Award nomination for his supporting role. He was later nominated in the best actor Oscar category for both “Neverland” and “Sweeney Todd.”  He has also collected 10 Golden Globe nods and won once, for “Sweeney Todd.”

Latest misfire: A reunion with veteran “Pirates” director Gore Verbinski that paired Depp with Armie Hammer, hot off of “The Social Network,” in a re-invention of a long-branded cowboy hero. What could possibly have gone wrong with last summer’s “The Lone Ranger”? Plenty, kemosabe.  At least one box-office analyst labeled the Old West adventure as being “the kind of bomb that people discuss for years to come,” considering the expectations raised by the talent involved. The film did gross $260 million worldwide, but that amount did little to offset estimates that the movie cost $225 million to make and at least $150 million to market. Depp would be nominated for his first and only Razzie for his efforts.   


  • cadavra | April 23, 2014 12:22 AMReply

    Do you think the afore-mentioned Lon Chaney was critically maligned in his day? "Those awful characters? That frightful make-up? Why doesn't he do something important instead of these dreadful melodramas?" No, he wasn't. They loved Chaney for his uniqueness. Depp deserves nothing less than the same.

    And as I have said elsewhere and often, SHADOWS and RANGER were botched by lousy marketing (and SHADOWS by the world's worst release date--the week after THE AVENGERS). Both are already getting second looks by critics (such as A.O. Scott) who feel they didn't give them a fair chance at first.

  • Reini Urban | April 21, 2014 10:38 PMReply

    I believe you are very confused about Johnny Depp's character in "Transcendence".

    > cyber-age Dr. Frankenstein whose consciousness is converted into an artificial-intelligence experiment


    > that threatens humankind

    No. He helps humankind. He advances technology by using superior Artifical Intelligence technologies, esp. nanotechnology, biology, medical treatments. He uses it for the good.
    Threatening are only the confused terrorists, who tried to kill all important AI researchers for confusing radicals fears.

    > But casting Johnny Depp as a mad scientist in the just-opened sci-fi thriller “Transcendence”?

    Come on. This scientist is his first good and positive character since long time, besides The Lone Rider. Confused are just most critics who side with the radical anti-modernists in the end. But that joke goes to the writer.

  • haresh | April 21, 2014 7:28 AMReply

    Hi, your article is good. Thanks for sharing this information.
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