Friday, January 11, 2008

Hollywood Hunks Go Psycho

Johnny Depp as Sweeney Todd. Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. A pirate. Hunter S. Thompson. It all goes back to Burton giving him a break as Scissorhands. In the introduction to the invaluable Burton On Burton Depp explains in no uncertain terms that this was his way out of hunk-of-the-week purgatory, irrelevance and obscurity as that-guy-from 21 Jump Street a "fascistic" show about hunky undercover cops in schools full of hunky young criminals. Thus began a career of challenging roles.

If Depp had stuck to straight, boring leading romantic male roles, he might've been discarded by the system after one flop too many. Instead he wanted to be an actor. "Character actor" is a term generally applied to those too physically imperfect to adorn the advertising campaigns, like Steve Buscemi or Phillip Seymour Hoffman. They can be GREAT actors, but are usually typecast. Hoffman actually manages not to be, but Buscemi is going to be the weird squirrelly guy 9 times out
of 10 if he wants to work.

The choice of a pretty boy to challenge oneself as an actor is the ultimate fork in the road. Does he actually want to ACT, to choose a variety of characters and sink or swim, or does he want to star with Kate Hudson in a drama about coming home to the family for Christmas and falling in love with his high school sweetheart, and go on autopilot? Character actors are the only true actors there ever are, if they don't get typecast as the same kind of weirdos every time. They can be a wonderful variety of weirdos. They can enjoy their jobs as actors to the fullest, have some fun. As long as they don't take themselves too seriously, like most of them do.

Johnny Depp had the talent and prudence in his choice of roles to ensure that in time, people looked forward to seeing what kind of weirdo he'd be next. Come for the pretty face, stay for the depth (Deppth.) 12 year old girls and 35 year old movie geeks alike hold him in high esteem. Being somewhere between those two demographic poles myself, I admire the fact he takes RISKS enough to overlook Willy Wonka and hope for a gem of a performance like Sweeney next time around.

To varying degrees, other hunks in the 90s began to follow his lead. This wouldn't have been possible without him, there's really no precedent. The Corey Feldmans of the 80s, the Robert Redfords of the 70s, the Frankie Avalons of the 60s...all actors, but especially pretty boys and women, hate having their good looks caked in makeup or prosthetics. Even the good-looking and talented actors of the post-Baby Boom movie scene (there were no young male leads in old Hollywood, unless you count Mickey Rooney) waited until they were losing their hair before getting really weird, like Jack Nicholson playing The Joker or Dustin Hoffman playing Captain Hook. Who so happens to be a pirate.

Brad Pitt seemed like a good contender for the mantle during the 90s. Christian Bale did in the 2000s. Ultimately both have all but chosen unique roles every time without taking real risks and being transgressive. Pitt's exception was 12 Monkeys, which was followed by similarly imaginative movies like Fight Club and Se7en, but whose roles for Pitt were merely variations on masculine leading men. I haven't seen Interview With The Vampire but c'mon, it's essentially a romantic lead, even if he's not playing a human being. At the end of the day, he's still comfortable doing the same cocky alpha male act in unchallenging pablum like Ocean's 12 and Mr & Mrs Smith and The Mexican.

Bale has been in a much finer track record overall, including an excellent childhood performance in Steven Spielberg's Empire Of The Sun, but what makes his recent roles in unpredictably varied films as The Machinist, Equillibrium or The Prestige so humdrum is that the performances all rehash the same hunky stoicism. American Psycho was the risky, transgressive breakout role and he hasn't attempted any character that crazy since. The irony of him playing Batman is that none other than Tim Burton wanted to acknowledge his Batman as an insane person, whereas the more refined fellow Brit Chris Nolan had the Batnerd mandate to direct Bale as a straight-up square jawed leading hunk.

So not only did Burton give a dramatic break to Depp, a young pretty boy whom no one expected real talent from, he gave a dramatic break to weirdo comic Michael Keaton just the year before...not exactly a leading hunk, but this was pre Mars Attacks! when Burton took far more risks. Soon after that, he was fine to cast hunky Marky Mark Whalberg in Planet Of The Apes and what's-his-pretty-face in Big Fish. I digress.

Johnny Depp is on the short list of great actors of this generation. He's not consistently brilliant, but taking chances makes all the difference. His actor's ego is not based upon his status in gossip magazines, or how good he looks on the posters. He enjoys acting for it's own sake, and his ego is based on the quality of his performances and the films he chooses to be associated with. And because he is pretty, girls will still swoon over him no matter how ridiculous he gets. That's called having your cake and eating it too, but it's only possible when backed up by real talent.

The bizarro version of this actor-y type? Probably Nicolas Cage, a decent enough looking fellow who started in romantic comedies and dramas and steadily began to accept roles in ridiculously crappy stuff like Ghost Rider, Next, and the Wicker Man remake.

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