James Dean, Johnny Depp, and the Pursuit of Rebellion
"The only greatness for man is immortality." - James Dean
"Life's pretty good. And why wouldn't it be? I'm a pirate, after all." - Johnny Depp
From a modern perspective, how would we view James Dean if he hadn't smashed his Porsche Spyder into a Ford Tudor while recklessly speeding through the California hills one otherwise uneventful summer day in 1955? If he had gone on to pursue other roles (which we'll assume he likely would have), and had his career continued to prosper, would we still view him as a rebel without a cause, as a brilliant, beautiful actor who represented youthful angst and exuberance better than anyone before or since? Could he have maintained that persona, both publicly and privately, as he aged? Perhaps more importantly, would he have wanted to in the first place? Isn't it possible that our retrospective opinion of him has been exaggerated by temporal distance, the immediacy of his death, and what we presume to have been his untapped potential? Maybe Dean was a one-trick pony who died before he was exposed as such. Or maybe not.
I suppose the answer to these questions would largely depend on what sort of roles Dean would have went on to pursue. Giant, his third film and the last one he worked on before his death, was his conscious attempt to preemptively (and, as it turned out, unnecessarily) circumvent future typecasting. In the film, Dean plays a man who discovers oil on a plot of land bequeathed to him by a female member of a wealthy Texas ranching family. As he grows older, and as his fortune continues to grow, he gradually devolves into a megalomaniac whose unrequited love for his benefactor's sister-in-law, along with his hubris, ultimately leads to his undoing. In short, he plays a pretty despicable character.
In making Giant, James Dean was trying to reinvent himself for the sake of his art. He was rebellious, sure, but he did seem to have had a cause. After being used as a set piece to showcase the glory and confusion of youth in his previous films, Dean's role in Giant appeared to represent his contempt for, or at least his dismissal of, such an ideal. In a way, this role was the most truly rebellious thing that Dean did in his entire life. He was presented with an option to gain fame, money, and success by continuing to follow a very strict template, yet he instead elected for freedom, freedom of expression and freedom of will. And this is why he should be remembered as a rebel, for the decision he made as a young man to purse his career with integrity.
Still, while his performance in Giant is excellent (he posthumously received an Academy Award nomination for his performance in 1956), we'll never know if audiences would have continued to be interested in this new version of their golden boy heartthrob. Would he have been able to sustain his integrity if audiences didn't want to accept him as a diverse actor? After all, Giant, a film he chose to star in based on his personal rebellion, isn't what he is remembered for. What he is remembered for is Rebel Without a Cause, a film where he played someone else's version of a rebel. This says a lot about how we idealize fictional characters (which is fine; that's kind of the point), and disregard the heroes and villains living among us in the real world (which isn't fine, because they're, ya know, real). Sometimes life truly is stranger than fiction, but for some reason, we often don't appreciate the two in equal measure.
In the nearly 60 years since his death, Dean has continued to live on as the ethereal embodiment of counter-culture non-conformity. Throughout each subsequent generation, disenfranchised youth have sought comfort and refuge in the spirit of the actor. Even today, when people think about the great rebels of the 20th century, James Dean is usually atop the list, a notch or two above Kurt Cobain and a mountain above the man who was once considered Dean's spiritual progeny, Johnny Depp.
The Depths of Depp
Once upon a time, the cinema-loving world at large was infatuated with Depp and his on-screen presence. It seemed as if the man could do no wrong. After struggling to get work early in his career, he received his first major role in 1986, starring as police officer Tom Hanson in the 1980s Fox cop drama, 21 Jump Street. In hindsight, the television show was absurd - an hour long PSA about a squad of youthful looking police officers in their mid-20s infiltrating various high schools to disrupt juvenile criminal behavior. Nevertheless, Jump Street was supposed to be the vehicle through which Depp could kick start his career, and it was. The show was a moderate success, but Depp became a massive star. Coupled with his irreverent attitude, his boyish good looks transformed him into a teen idol adored by millions of teenaged girls - a position he, in true rebel fashion, reportedly loathed. Still, what could he have expected? He was uniquely handsome, unapologetically brash, and of course, wildly rebellious at a time when that sort of thing was coming back in vogue.
In 1990, Tim Burton approached Depp for the lead role in Edward Scissorhands - a typically quirky Burtonian dramedy about a modern Frankenstein infused with tremendous emotional capacity. Among other things, Edward Scissorhands is the anti-teenage romantic comedy. Sure, there are teenagers, romance, and comedy (albeit a darker brew), but the heart of the film rests in the bladed digits and stitched face of a grotesquely Gothic Depp. The film examines just how vital the sensation of touch is in establishing interpersonal communication, and Depp's portrayal of the freakish Other provides a revelatory sense of gratitude for something as simple as fleshy fingers. Yet, as fantastic as his performance was, Edward Scissorhands was the film that would lead Depp to be perpetually typecast as a weirdo, but that wouldn't happen for over a decade.
From his breakthrough performance in Edward Scissorhands, Depp went on to star in some of the most critically acclaimed films of the last 20 years, including (in chronological order) Benny & Joon, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, Donnie Brasco, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chocolat, Blow, and From Hell. These films garnered Depp universal critical acclaim, and he became a household name. With each new role, he seemed expertly positioned to reinvent himself as an artist. Within a very short period of time, and based on some shrewd character choices, Depp matured from a pretty face with a Puckish attitude into a mature adult capable of taking on sophisticated, complicated characters with chameleonesque perfection. The roles above were perfectly suited for him because they allowed him to exhibit his unpredictable eccentricities, but they were still grounded in a sort of visceral realism. Even though he obviously favored playing the oddball, his commitment to the characters' humanity made him more relatable and endeared him to a large audience. These films were propelled more by intimate character studies than they were gaudy special effects or fantastical storylines, which brings us to the second half of Depp's career thus far.
Johnny Come Lately
Early in his career, Johnny Depp was considered the heir apparent to the youthful, rebellious spirit of James Dean. He moved a lot when he was a kid, and his parents divorced when he was in his teens. He claims to have Native American heritage, but this has never been substantiated by any reputable source. He made some fantastic films, he got arrested a few times, and he dated a quirky shoplifter. He hung out with cool people and looked totally badass smoking a cigarette. He played guitar in a pretty wretched rock band, and name dropped interesting books at press junkets. When you add these things up on paper, they would seem to point toward an individual with a rebellious nature, but with Depp, that's not the case. It's not the case because there's nothing at all rebellious about the contrived front that he has created through his insecure longing to be perceived as odd. He's become a victim of his own construction, and it's hard to say if he'll be able to overcome the limitations he imposed on himself or if he has any desire to.
Since 2003, Depp has appeared in 20 films, which means he's basically working non-stop. While his work ethic is admirable, his career is suffering from a lack of discernment. He's been wandering around in other people's imaginations for so long now, his once dexterous and talented acting muscles have begun to atrophy. It's as if he has so deeply invested himself in weirdness that he's forgotten how to ride the bike that brought him here in the first place - idiosyncratic characterization that is nonetheless grounded firmly in reality.
It's become increasingly difficult to take the pirate seriously. Whereas he used to portray distinctly specific characters, it now seems that he's pretty much intent on resting on his Keith Richards-inspired laurels. Over the last decade, Depp has played some variant of the kooky, swashbuckling Stones' guitar player no less than eleven times - four (!!!) Pirates movies (with a fifth in pre-production), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows, and this year's colossal flop, The Lone Ranger. While these are nominally different characters, they all blend together under the unified theory of thespian weirdness of which Depp is the chief architect. Along the way, he's attempted to switch things up with a few portrayals of real-life characters in movies like Finding Neverland (J.M. Barrie), Public Enemies (John Dillinger), and The Rum Diaries (Hunter Thompson), but to little success and even less critical fanfare.
Here's another problem with Johnny Depp: He's become far too self-aware of his own fame and far too interested in his cultural importance. His repeated insistence that's he's just a regular guy is trumpeted so loudly, and so often, that it's a little difficult to take this position at face value. At this point, it actually feels more like false humility than charming sincerity. I'm sure Depp is a regular guy in the sense that he probably likes motorcycles and Led Zeppelin, but let's be honest here, regular guys don't walk away from films when their 20 million dollar financial demands aren't met. Furthermore, regular guys don't claim to be pirates.
I get the feeling that Depp wants to be perceived a certain way and is willing to make bad movies in order to protect the image he's attempted to construct. He takes on eccentric characters because he wants to push the image of his own eccentricity while simultaneously insisting he's just like you and me. Given the talent that he once displayed, this is extremely frustrating. What he thinks is his greatest asset has become his biggest liability. It was cute the first five times he played a flailing caricature of a washed-up drug addict, but the weirdness is starting to get old. It's not interesting to be weird for weirdness' sake; it actually gets a little boring after a while. In fact, at this point, the strangest thing he could do would be to take on a realistic role.
Once upon a time, Johnny Depp represented counter-culture rebellion in much the same way as James Dean did during his brief career. Now he basically just represents Disney.