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Johnny Depp and the Lie of the Heroic Misfit

The acclaimed actor played characters who made being an outsider seem inspiring. Now his greatest performances feel tainted by the disgraced man he’s become.

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Falls from grace are not uncommon in Hollywood, but few have been undertaken with the spectacular inelegance of Johnny Depp. Each day brings more news of his pathetic decline, each story inspiring a mixture of revulsion and cringe: Can’t he just go away? The latest ignominy was the announcement that he’d been fired from the Fantastic Beasts series. One needn’t cry for the 57-year-old star — he’s walking away with a lot of money — but it was nonetheless a shocking turn of events for an actor who used to be among Hollywood’s most bankable. Some celebrities are undone by addiction, flop movies, tabloid scandals, erratic behavior, domestic abuse allegations or bankruptcy. Depp has been tarnished by them all — so much so that it’s now physically painful to even see his name in print. It would be easier if he was simply ostracized, like a damned creature in a monster movie, forced to live the rest of his days alone. Just so long as we never have to hear about his exploits again.

The condemnation Depp is receiving, although thoroughly deserved considering ex-wife Amber Heard’s accounts of his violent outbursts, feels like the grim ending to a story that started off so promisingly. A career once known for its fearless choices now feels like a dire warning about our fascination with “rebels” and our willingness to admire actors with a penchant for portraying oddballs, misfits and too-fragile-for-this-world outsiders. It’s foolish to conflate the performer with the performance, but because Depp worked so hard to craft a specific lovable-eccentric persona, his real-life woes have very nearly atomized the entirety of his work. The outcasts he used to play have now morphed into the disgraced person he’s become. His fictional selves are warped by what we know of the actual man.

It wasn’t that long ago that Depp seemed like the model of principled, sensitive artistry. In the 1980s, he worked hard to be a respected actor, even if he was one of the teens killed in the first Nightmare on Elm Street and eventually became a heartthrob thanks to the cheesy TV drama 21 Jump Street. But Depp was one of those guys who wanted you to know that he rejected all that Hollywood fakeness. He never seemed comfortable with being thought of as a teen idol. “My job is to be an actor,” he said back then. “I want to do the best work I can in the best films and television that I can. I want to continue to grow. If you’re stuck in one place and you’re not allowed to grow, then what’s the point?”

If you’re determined not to be a pin-up, then you have to push against that cuddly impression that your fans have of you. You have to challenge them. Depp, who’d had a small part in Platoon, signed up for Cry-Baby, a John Waters film that satirized the whole idea of the teen heartthrob. But that same year, he took on the role that, for better or worse, encapsulates everything that was once great (and is now deeply problematic) about him.

In the late 1980s, Depp’s new agent sent him a script by Caroline Thompson about a young man with scissors for hands. “I was so affected and moved by it that strong waves of images flooded my brain — dogs I’d had as a kid, feeling freakish and obtuse when I was growing up, the unconditional love that only infants and dogs are evolved enough to have,” he later wrote. “I felt so attached to this story that I was completely obsessed.” Depp saw something in Edward — built by an inventor, the character was a gentle spirit unable to make sense of the outside world — that connected with his own childhood, which had been fraught with violence. (“It was a pretty radical — a pretty unpredictable — household that I lived in,” Depp said in 2016 of his upbringing, mentioning that both of his parents were abusive. “You never knew what was going to be coming next. It might be an ashtray thrown at your head. Or a shoe.”)

In Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, Depp brought to life a classic narrative trope — the damaged, innocent misfit — and gave him a Goth vulnerability, using his baby-faced looks to suggest all that was pure about poor, helpless Edward. (As an added bonus, the character’s razor-sharp fingers were a nifty metaphor for adolescent sexual anxiety and puberty’s terrifying transforming properties.) The film was part of cinema’s proud tradition of honoring so-called monsters — “It’s Frankenstein. It’s Phantom of the Opera. It’s King Kong,” Burton later said — but Depp’s brittle beauty made it feel crushingly new. Maybe he was still a heartthrob, but the depth of his soulfulness suggested a true artist beneath that gorgeous face.

It also established his big-screen persona, that of the delicate outsider. In a lovely essay in The Guardian from earlier this month, Hadley Freeman wrote about how Depp and peers Keanu Reeves and the late River Phoenix bucked the tradition of Hollywood leading men in that they “seemed embarrassed by their looks, even resentful of them. … This uninterest in their own prettiness made them seem edgy, even while their prettiness softened that edge. They signified not just a different kind of celebrity, but a different kind of masculinity: desirable but gentle, manly but girlish.” But there was also something slightly alien about these actors — as if they’d been beamed here from another planet, not entirely sure what to make of us — and Depp in particular played characters who felt lost in the world.

Indeed, in films like Benny & Joon and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, he depicts young men who simply lack the tools to function in “normal” society. But the quiet intensity of Depp’s performances convinced you that it was society’s problem and not theirs. Ever since the days of James Dean and Marlon Brando, young Hollywood actors have conveyed restlessness and rebellion — a very American brand of wounded masculinity — and Depp felt like the heir apparent, making being an outcast seem alluring, even a principled stance. (There’s something deeply Gen-X about his characters’ rejection of the mainstream — he was perfect for an age in which “selling out” was actually a thing worth getting mad about.) He made you believe that your own weirdness wasn’t so weird. He made you feel like you weren’t alone.

That celebration of outsiders continued with 1994’s Ed Wood, which found him reuniting with Burton for the second of eight films they’ve made together. As the infamously terrible (but enthusiastic!) filmmaker of Plan 9 From Outer Space, Depp showed what a true dreamer looked like: a talentless auteur who never stopped believing that his next opus would be his masterpiece. And, miraculously, Depp managed to infuse such futility with nobility, even optimism. “I admire the guy as a filmmaker,” said Depp, later adding, “I think he was a sincere man. He was doing his best to put his vision into the context of film. I admire that.” For Depp, Wood wasn’t a failure — he was true to himself, a quality worth emulating when everyone else is so concerned about fitting in that they sacrifice a piece of their very essence. Depp’s portrayal of the director was affectionate as well as comic. If Edward Scissorhands felt adrift, Wood was proudly an island unto himself. For an actor so concerned with authenticity, Depp’s embrace of Wood was a love letter to a fellow misfit who valued integrity more than popularity.

Depp would tackle Hollywood star vehicles — Nick of Time, again with Burton on Sleepy Hollow — but he seemed far more comfortable getting weird, whether it was in arthouse indies (Dead Man) or nervy studio projects (his adaptation of good friend Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). A superb crime drama like Donnie Brasco illustrated that he could do smart work within the mainstream, but by the early 2000s, it seemed like he’d be content to always be a little left-of-center, successfully subverting his early promise as a matinee idol to carve out an odder, more interesting career. Then he did the weirdest thing possible, which was to sign up for a film based on an amusement park ride.

Jack Sparrow, the eccentric captain at the center of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, wasn’t written with Depp in mind. (Screenwriter Stuart Beattie had envisioned Hugh Jackman.) But although Disney sought out Depp for the part, the actor claimed that the studio quickly started questioning his choice to make Jack so flamboyant. “Disney hated me,” Depp said in 2018. “[They were] thinking of every way they could to get rid of me, to fire me. ‘Oh, we’re going to have to subtitle him.’ ‘We don’t understand Captain Jack Sparrow. What’s wrong with him?’ ‘What’s wrong with his arms?’ ‘Is he drunk?’ ‘Is he mentally fucking stupefied?’ ‘Is he gay?’” Depp was offended that the studio would dare interfere in his creative process to find the character: “I mean, hadn’t they seen any of the work I’d done previously? You might want to take a look at that before you hire a motherfucker, you know?”

When the first Pirates of the Caribbean opened that summer, there was no guarantee it would be a blockbuster. But the film was that rare beast — a light-on-its-feet big-budget spectacle — that was highlighted by Depp’s delight in foisting such a bizarre hero onto the masses. Rather than feeling like a sell-out, Depp had pulled a fast one on the suits, delivering a performance as peculiar as any he’d ever attempted, but within the parameters of a crowd-pleasing event movie. Pirates of the Caribbean was a commercial triumph that got fairly good reviews — that last part is forgotten nowadays because the sequels were so bad — and, in a sign of how silly Hollywood is, it earned Depp his first Oscar nomination. Depp hadn’t compromised his artistry to become beloved, but he’d given the world a franchise dominated by a foolhardy, goodhearted protagonist who was as emotionally delicate and misunderstood as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. His performance was Pirates of the Caribbean’s best special effect.

The movie’s global success made him a superstar, but although it was fun for a little while to enjoy the absurdity of that fact, it quickly took a toll on the work. With the exception of Public Enemies, his 2009 collaboration with Michael Mann, and the engaging animated Western Rango, Depp started mostly doing bits and caricatures, forgetting to explore the souls of his strange creations and, instead, getting off on how quirky he could be. (Public Enemies is especially interesting because of his take on rock-star bank robber John Dillinger, Depp seemingly articulating how empty and corrupt celebrity truly is.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, this period was beset with collaborations with Burton, who had similarly fallen down the rabbit hole of his own shtick. You can defend Sweeney Todd because the musical is so good, but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland were outright abominations, director and star conspiring to vomit up a thousand pounds of glittery “weirdness” right into your face, turning family films into fantasias of strained whimsy and exhausting spectacle. (Of course, they were massive hits — people couldn’t get enough of Depp’s trademark idiosyncrasies at the time.) And then there were the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, which mostly served as a reminder that Jack’s wacky charms were by no means inexhaustibly endearing.

It’s a depressing debate exactly when Depp jumped the shark. The commercial and critical flop of 2010’s The Tourist? The commercial and critical flop of 2012’s Dark Shadows? The commercial and critical flop of 2013’s The Lone Ranger? The commercial and critical flop of 2014’s Transcendence? The commercial and critical flop of 2016’s Alice Through the Looking Glass?

I’d argue it was the accumulation of all those failures that contributed to the perception that Depp was “over” — the cultural winds shifted and, suddenly, he seemed like little more than a scarf-wearing, pretentious-poetry-spouting drip. In one of his finest performances, Depp had successfully argued that someone like Ed Wood, despite his feeble creative gifts, had held onto something far more valuable: his dignity. It’s a quality that the best Depp characters possess, bravely holding onto their sense of themselves even if the world labels them as freaks. But in real life, Depp had turned into a self-parody. He was no longer a courageous misfit spirit — he was one of the richest people in the world, still desperately trying to hold onto that image of the misunderstood outsider. It was the furthest thing from dignified.

What happened after is too depressing to recount in detail. The misspent fortune. The battles with his former business managers, accusing them of fraud. The end of his relationship with longtime girlfriend Vanessa Paradis. His terrible band. (Never forget that, initially, Depp had wanted to get into music, not acting.) The whirlwind romance with the much-younger Amber Heard. The stories about the private island he bought. That excruciatingly awkward apology video he and Heard made to Australians for illegally bringing their dogs into the country. And finally, of course, Heard’s accusations of abuse, which now suck up all the oxygen around Depp. He’s only made it worse by going after The Sun, unsuccessfully suing them for libel after the paper called him a “wife beater.” That final humiliation apparently prompted Warner Bros. to fire him from the Fantastic Beasts franchise, where he was playing his latest oddball, the evil wizard Gellert Grindelwald. (Reportedly, the studio didn’t want one of its films’ stars to be associated with the “wife beater” label.)

Now practically a pariah — I still remember people in my audience audibly bristling at his unwelcome appearance in Murder on the Orient Express — Depp fights on, vowing to continue this court battle. “My resolve remains strong and I intend to prove that the allegations against me are false,” he wrote recently on Instagram. “My life and career will not be defined by this moment in time.” It’s hard to see how it will not, especially considering that his and Heard’s legal fight grinds on. He once seemed like a beautiful weirdo — giving voice to the lonely outsider in all of us — but in recent years, that persona has felt like a cover for a much darker spirit. There’s an ugliness surrounding Depp now, both on screen and off. We like to romanticize our rebels and Hollywood bad boys, but there’s no sense of poetry to Depp anymore. It’s all been trashed. It’s as if Edward Scissorhands lost his sweetness.

With toxic male artists, there’s often a discussion about whether we should still enjoy their work. Is it morally objectionable to do so? Or is it important to separate the artist from the art? But with Johnny Depp, the question is more complicated because his best performances are so strongly connected to what we used to love about him — and what is now so objectionable. The innocence of Edward Scissorhands, of Ed Wood, of Jack Sparrow now feels like a ruse — a trick — and once that innocence is perverted, it’s very hard to bring it back. We wanted to believe that Depp was like his characters — too fragile and too beautiful for the meanness of this world. The sad realization of his fall from grace is that, actually, maybe he was always as horrible as the world we thought he was too good for.