Happy birthday Johnny Depp!

Laura Kelly Jun 14, 2013
Johnny Depp

As the rogue-ish screen idol turns 50, Laura Kelly asks why the world still loves Johnny Depp...

Mooching around California, New York, Provence and London with a cigarette permanently hanging from perfect pouted lips, under sky-high cheekbones, Johnny Depp has been the epitome of Hollywood cool for almost 30 years.

The films have been spectacular too – Edward Scissorhands, Donnie Brasco, Ed Wood, Public Enemies and, of course, the Disney ride that became a blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean. Who else has enough antic energy to polish that turd of a premise?

From swooning girls (and their mums) to hardened rock’n’rollers like Keith Richards, or visionary directors such as Tim Burton, and even a homoerotically obsessed New York hardcore band called Gay for Johnny Depp – women and men alike love him. But can it stay that way?

This week Depp turns 50. As a man who toasted his good mate Hunter S Thompson’s life by shooting him out of a cannon after he died, we can only imagine how he’s marking the occasion. But after the party, it’s the sort of milestone that makes a man take stock. Sure, he’s been blessed with great genes, but is he in danger of becoming less James Dean and more Jack Nicholson?

In 2013, is it actually still cool to be so fond of fags that you insist on a private jet so you don’t have to stop puffing away over the Atlantic? Is there a limit to how many times Captain Jack Sparrow can captivate us?

And the biggest question of all – can you still look glamorous on the red carpet with a 27-year-old blonde bisexual on your arm, when the mother of your kids is at home with your 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter?

Psychologist Scott Allison, author of Heroes: What They Do and Why We Need Them, says it’s last year’s split from Vanessa Paradis, after 14 years together, that could dislodge Depp from our collective heart. It’s down to a psychological quirk called the ‘halo effect’.

“The presumption is that because he’s physically attractive, he must be virtuous and brave,” he explains. “Johnny Depp has great acting talent and we often make the mistake of thinking that greatness in one area of your life means greatness in all areas.

"Once we idolise someone, we have this expectation that they’ll behave themselves – they’ll show virtuous behaviour in exchange for the adulation we give them. If they don’t live up to their end of the contract we’ll often turn against them.”

Former Orange Juice drummer turned Rolling Stone journalist Steven Daly has just written a big, hard-backed wedge of a coffee-table book about Depp, Johnny Depp: A Retrospective, and he could not disagree more strongly with Allison. “Has his halo slipped after the break-up? No,” he says. “No, no, no, no, no. I don’t think there’s been any transformation in him. He has what people used to call core values.”

Columnist Holly Baxter, editor of feminist online magazine The Vagenda, agrees that Depp’s personal woes haven’t hurt his public standing. In this, his longstanding arch attitude to the media may have helped him.

“He doesn’t court celebrity magazines or sell his marriage photos to sycophantic journalists at Hello! and OK!” she says. “His characters often make use of self-deprecating humour, and he never seems to take himself or his role in the world too seriously.”

Turning 50 isn’t a problem either, she argues. “With men, it doesn’t really seem to matter how old they are. Leonard Cohen is still cool to people who have grandfathers younger than him. For women, of course it’s a different story – few are able to get away with acting like children in middle age.”

Unsurprisingly, Depp agrees. “Growing old is unavoidable but never growing up is possible,” he insists.

Baxter specialises in critiquing women’s media – she’s currently writing a book on the topic – and she says one of the unusual things about Depp is that he gets positive attention from both women’s and men’s magazines. “He’s unthreatening but cool to both genders, and he gets away with a cool kind of androgyny which still doesn’t make him less masculine in the eyes of men. In that way his image is a little like Russell Brand.”

Although paparazzi have found it’s a bad plan get on his wrong side – he allegedly told one lot to stay away from his kids or “I’ll bite your nose off” – the stories that come out about Depp have tended towards the heart-warming rather than the salacious.

Waiters have gone to the papers to report his penchant for leaving $4,000 tips, and he made one little girl’s dream come true when he showed up unannounced in full pirate garb at her primary school to answer her call for help with a “mutiny” against her teachers.

Last week he hit the headlines for convincing the casting director of his latest film, Transcendence, to employ two homeless guys from Albuquerque as extras in the movie, following which a source told The Sun: “Johnny always likes to help out the community when on location.”

Even Vanessa Paradis appears unable to stay mad at him – he plays guitar on her new album. While on promotion duties for the record, she seems to be without bitterness, saying: “Love doesn’t necessarily stay what it is.”

For Daly, the “only chink in his armour” is Depp’s willingness to keep making Pirates movies. The first may have been a surprise popular and critical success – and the film to really propel Depp into the stratosphere – but the rest are the very definition of the law of diminishing returns.

Never one to follow a careerist path, Depp’s choices have been properly esoteric – if not wilfully awkward. Risk doesn’t faze him. “I think that it’s important to want to surprise the audience,” he argues, “to want to surprise yourself, and I think that it’s important, each time out of the gate to go, ‘This may be the one where I lose big’.”

We may not fancy another Pirates film, or heaven forefend, a sequel to Dark Shadows, but if Depp’s doing it, you know it’s because he believes in it. The only strategy he has ever professed is: “I refuse to do any movie that would make me want to throw up.”

So far it’s a winning tactic. As Daly points out, Depp is yet to really make a fool of himself. “It’s difficult to do things without embarrassing yourself,” he says. “Look at John Lydon – he made all the Pistols records and then a few classic records with PiL.

"But what should he be expected to do over the following 30 years? He can’t just go away and hide, so he hangs around and embarrasses himself in butter ads. The thing about Depp is he has never truly embarrassed himself.”

As he blows out his 50 candles on Sunday, Depp can be comfortable in the knowledge that there are few in Hollywood who touch his level of respect, and fewer still who can combine cultish appeal with blockbuster clout the way he does.

With his Brando-esque performances, legions of male and female fans and a sideline in music (the excellent Dead Man’s Bones), Ryan Gosling is the only younger actor who even comes close to looking like a successor – but he’s still miles off Depp’s range of humour, darkness and pathos.

As long as Depp doesn’t decide to maroon himself on that private Caribbean island he has stashed in his back pocket, he won’t be going to Davy Jones’ Locker any time soon. Yo ho!

Johnny Depp: A Retrospective (Carlton Books, £30) by Steven Daly is out now in hardback

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