You don’t need me to tell you that Johnny Depp’s career has gone downhill. Oh, sure, he might’ve just been nominated for not one Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical award at the Golden Globes, but TWO – but no one, surely not even the HFPA, is pretending those performances are any good. Sure, in my review of Alice in Wonderland that’s not as deeply hidden in my archives as it should be, I said that the strange damaged persona that Tim Burton thrust onto the Mad Hatter was actually carried off fairly well by Depp, but when the last memory of that turn was that dance, any crumbs of respect are being brushed out into the street. And I didn’t even see The Tourist. (Don’t make me.)
But you know all this. You know the despair that’s slowly spreading through more and more people about how Johnny has descended into a rut where all he plays is gothic weirdos for Tim Burton or increasingly embarrassing repetitions of a screen persona that was so giddily enjoyable that first time out. Oh yeah, Captain Jack’s back this summer, but excuse me if I checked out of that cruise four years ago. I’m not here to moan. I’m here to mourn. I know Depp’s only 47 – a spring-chicken for an actor really – but given the corner he’s boxed himself into I find it hard to see if people are ever going to let him play different (or should I say normal) again. Perhaps if he takes an extended break, he can come back refreshed, rejuvenated, and free. Because at the moment, even when he gets roles outside of the box, they’re either well-played, but still oddball (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), haunted by Jack or the Mad Hatter or Willy fucking Wonka, or they’re devoid of life, like the only way Depp knows how to play a character is through a bundle of tics and whoops and gurns and when he can’t do that he shuts down (step forward, Public Enemies).
I am moaning. Forgive me. Why am I even chatting this stuff, when you’ve heard it dozens of times, or even thought it yourself? Answer: the other night saw my first encounter with What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a distant memory from almost twenty years ago. Watch some films from that era and it’s like a gallery of faded stars, actors who’ve slipped out of memory; this, though, is a veritable feast of people who’ve remained firmly in the public eye. It can only really function as an intriguing comparison point for Depp, though; Leonardo DiCaprio’s developmentally disabled Arnie is likely to be a singular character in any career, and the necessary playing of the interior life on the exterior existence is a far-cry from DiCaprio’s emotionally-stunted leading men of late. Juliette Lewis, meanwhile, has practically abandoned acting altogether, save for pay-day supporting roles and the odd Whip It; watching her generous, vivacious Becky here, it’s hard not to start mourning her too.
I digress. Gilbert Grape isn’t one of Depp’s crowning achievements, but what I want to celebrate is less the performance than what the choice of role allows for Depp’s performance. There’s an emotional perspicacity to Gilbert’s often trite ‘coming of age’ narrative, looseness to the character interactions that, somewhat ironically, means less movement – no tics or freewheeling exhibitionism, but a subtlety. Depp’s success here lies in the eyes, be it a momentary sexual spark with Mary Steenburgen’s Betty Carver or a mixture of rebellion and shame in his confrontations with the police. His vulnerability feels keen and real – the lack of confidence he has, which his enormous mother blasts into comparison when she hobbles into the police station to retrieve Arnie, resonates strongly as the sort of real outsiderness that Depp has lost the sense of in the past decade (which peaked, most beautifully, in Edward Scissorhands).
But there’s one thing in particular that I wanted to point out. What really typifies Tim Burton’s recent work (not to mention the mechanical Pirates trilogy) is how cold it feels – there is, if any, the barest connection to a recognisable human feeling. Depp’s Gilbert Grape is never effusively warm, but this reticence only makes the fraternal bond with Arnie, or the refreshed love for his mother, feel more honest, and more powerful, when they're foregrounded. Depp has lost himself in caricatures of emotions, and seems to have lost consciousness of the idea that a fantastical character doesn’t have to have to play emotions through unrecognisable expressions. I guess as long as the public repay him for these diminishing returns, we’re destined to lose sight of even more of Depp’s humanity, but Gilbert Grape reminds me that it existed, and I still see hints of it now and then. But what we need is them back in force.