Film Studies: Nonchalant, daring, the coolest of stars... So why won't Johnny get his gong?

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The Independent Culture

In advance of Finding Neverland, there were whispers that this could be Johnny Depp's Oscar. The reasoning in this was not obscure.

In advance of Finding Neverland, there were whispers that this could be Johnny Depp's Oscar. The reasoning in this was not obscure. First of all, in Neverland, Depp would be playing J M Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, a respectable fellow. Second, the film was directed by Marc Forster, who recently guided Halle Berry to her Oscar for Monster's Ball. More important than those helpful circumstances, there was Depp himself, the actor of the moment, the coolest of stars, the nonchalant handler of his own career, the man who so steadily does the unexpected that he makes most other actors look starchy and cravenly professional.

Now, that is an intimidating package of reasons, and any student of Oscar knows that the Academy has yielded to less potent cases - they gave acting Oscars to Yul Brynner in The King and I, and Grace Kelly in The Country Girl. Anything can happen. Still, any such award next year to Mr Depp is going to have to overlookFinding Neverland, which is schmaltzy to a degree and a woeful looking away from the more creepy and intriguing aspects of the strange celebration of boyishness that Mr Barrie led. Depp does a very pretty Scots accent and he is always good to look at. You can believe that he might have written Peter Pan. His Barrie may certainly rate as further proof of his adventurousness. But it would be a travesty of the Depp cult to give it for Barrie when his Ed Wood was ignored.

Depp turned 41 this year, and I suppose that for a long time he has seemed a little too young to be taken seriously, or is it that he handles himself with such lightness that he does not make his own acting job seem hard enough for an Oscar? This is not facetious. Last year, Sean Penn in Mystic River (and 21 Grams) demonstrated the virtues of making acting seem like an immense travail, like passing a very large kidney stone and doing something you really don't want to do. Ever since Marlon Brando, a school of actors have let their own stunned exhaustion, and their tears, speak for quality. I don't always buy it (I think Penn can be a self-regarding ham), but if I were advising Depp on getting his Oscar I'd have to say, make it seem like hard work. (This has also become a basic part of George W Bush's presidential campaign.)

When Depp got a nomination (his first) in the same class as Penn's, the contrast was uncontainable. After all, even if he never quite settled on one accent for Pirates of the Caribbean, the sheer enjoyment in that film put it in a world religiously rejected by Sean Penn. Depp's was the drollest of movie pirates, and it was a performance founded in the confidence that we would find the whole venture as silly as he did and a perfect excuse for doing comic turns.

More than a decade ago, while still a child, Leonardo DiCaprio got a supporting actor nomination for his brilliant, strenuous performance as a mentally disabled boy in What's Eating Gilbert Grape. Depp gave a stronger, subtler performance in the same film and went unnoticed. But everything about Depp is so innately smart, it's hard to see him ever pretending to be anything less than hip. I begin to wonder whether the same, amused ease that kept all of Cary Grant's great performances out of the honours may not also be Depp's curse. But curse is a strong word - it suggests that Depp had come to the party seeking prizes, instead of fun.

If I tell you that Grant got not just no nominations, but hardly any campaign, for The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, Holiday, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, Suspicion, Notorious or I Was a Male War Bride you may begin to gauge the dreadful misunderstanding of acting. Yes, Grant got nominated for Penny Serenade (but he cried in that one) and for None But the Lonely Heart (where he played the sort of fellow he might have been if he'd never left England for America). Johnny Depp could do worse than study these lessons: tears are nearly as good as mental illness or being crippled for getting an Oscar, and a direct nod to your own humble origins is taken very well by that illustrious club the Academy. But no, Johnny Depp prefers to pretend, and he makes a habit of lending his presence to films so wayward or outrageous they do not have a chance at Oscar.

That eccentric list begins with Edward Scissorhands; doing Buster Keaton in Benny and Joon; Arizona Dream, that most unlikely of American romances, done for Emir Kusturica; the lead in Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man; superb as the "lost" cop in Donnie Brasco; as Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; The Ninth Gate for Polanski; Sleepy Hollow for Tim Burton - his most inspired partnership; Chocolat for Lasse Hallstrom; Blow for Ted Demme; and a London policeman in From Hell.

Few of those films ever sought to qualify as mainstream, but Tim Burton's Ed Wood was a deliberate excursion into the netherworld of Hollywood - indeed, it says more about Peter Pan than Finding Neverland. In addition, Depp sought out Marlon Brando, acted with him in Don Juan DeMarco and then directed the great man in The Brave, a picture that was never properly released.

It's plain that Depp's sentiments as an actor cling not just to Brando's quality but to the marked way in which Brando felt himself an outsider. In time, that status became self-perpetuating: Brando became the actor who would not act. It was as if he was teaching us a lesson about the desperate state of our movies.

Where will Depp stand in that story? On the surface, he seems so much more tolerant and amiable than Brando, and so much readier to look outside America. But when I listed those Cary Grant films that slipped by without a nomination - in all of which I can see Depp - it has to be noted that his world is less generous than Grant's, especially in the matter of comedy. So far, Johnny Depp has given every sign of realising that he is responsible for his career. That means going off and finding ventures worthy of him. And the list of films is varied enough. But are there enough great opportunities there, and does Depp have the box-office power or the will to insist on the big pictures?

DiCaprio is coming to our screens as Howard Hughes. I'd rather it was Depp (in truth, I'd rather it was the young Warren Beatty - but that moment has passed). Actors these days are in charge of their careers, for good and ill. And if it is hard to do good work, it is as hard to ensure the setting for it on a regular basis. I wonder if one day the Academy may not have to give Johnny Depp an honorary Oscar - that indicator of a failure in the system.

'Finding Neverland' is released on 29 October