Who's a pretty boy then?

Johnny Depp is. But maybe he's too gorgeous for his own good. John Lyttle on the star of Don Juan DeMarco and Ed Wood

Johnny Depp doesn't want to be taken at face value. He says his face is his (mis)fortune. Those almond brown eyes, those part-Cherokee cheekbones, that who-needs-collagen pout; sure, they landed him his first break in movies - catch him as the dreamboat in Nightmare on Elm Street, the one who's dragged through the mattress by Freddy and shot back as a geyser of blood - and in the television series 21 Jump Street, the vehicle that made him as big as... oh, Leif Garratt, a wet dream for teeny boppers the world over. But - Faustian bargain-basement contract at the ready - it also made the world view Johnny like some object, some product, some toy. Like he was a dumb girl - a starlet or something.

"Plastered, postered, postured, patented, painted, plastic!" our star primal screams in his introduction to Faber's Burton on Burton, a snappy analysis of a certain director Johnny credits with rescuing him from bimbo beefcake status. "Stapled to a box of cereal with wheels, doing 200mph on a one-way collision course bound for Thermos and lunch-box antiquity. Novelty boy, franchise boy. Fucked and plucked with no escape."

Sounds good to me honey! Use it up and wear it out: what else are you going to do with such a perishable commodity as beauty?

Here's what Depp did. First, he got together with a gay director, John Waters, a figure who understood the pleasures and pitfalls of male prettiness, and turned his predicament into a pop culture joke. The film was Cry Baby (1990) and it not only borrowed from Depp's own juvenile delinquent past, it shrewdly emphasised it: "I did every kind of drug there was by 14. I swiped a few six-packs, broke into a few classrooms, just to see what was on the other side of the locked door."

The message of Cry Baby was Pretty Boy and Bad Boy - the former explained the latter, made Depp's fictional (and real) misdemeanours a defence of threatened masculinity. A pretty boy has to prove himself and occasionally he overcompensates. Maybe he fights with security guards who ask him to keep quiet (1989). Or with police officers who ask him to extinguish his cigarette (1991). Or possibly he hangs from the side of the Los Angeles Beverly Centre by his fingertips with his buddy Nicholas Cage (1992). Or he picks fights in bars (1990, 1991, 1995). Or perhaps runs a bar called the Viper Room. Or trashes $9,760 worth of furniture and paintings at New York's Mark Hotel. Or announces he really wants to rock 'n' roll. And gets engaged to an entire harem of girls: Winona Ryder, Kate Moss, Sherilyn Fenn, Jennifer Grey. But you understand the contradictions, don't you?

Yes, we see. In Tim Burton's forthcoming Ed Wood, Johnny gives the performance of his career as an angora-wearing transvestite director of Z-grade garbage and he's absolutely fabulous, sweetie... Until he has to say the line "I'm 30" and it's all a movie buff can do not to leap to his or her spiked heels and shriek "Johnny, you lie! You're 12, tops!", callously undoing all his good work. Because that sheer satin countenance will get in the way, even if it is here deliberately, expertly marred by a pencil moustache, the overbite of the ages and sometimes a dollop of gaudy slap. The viewer still doesn't want to think of it ageing, becoming like Alain Delon's or Robert Taylor's or Richard Chamberlain's: gorgeous faces that gained lines but never character.

No, it's better to experiment, subvert, deny the offending features, so the first wrinkle seems evolutionary rather than a dead end. Come closer. This should be whispered. Johnny has just hit 32 and he's developing what Natalie Wood used to call "a frog's belly" - a soft little pad of flesh under his chin (memo to Tim Burton: don't shoot Johnny from below). Besides, who wants to be Matt Dillon, a few years older but no wiser, still searching, searching, searching for an adult screen persona?

Thus Edward Scissorhands (1990) presents Depp as half Frankenstein, half fairy-tale prince, buried under white pancake, latex scars and a fright wig. Why, Depp is so ugly that Peg the Avon Lady (Diane Weiss) offers her services. Yet, as the picture points out, extreme ugliness, like extreme beauty, attracts disproportionate attention, which leaves Johnny back where he started: misunderstood by shallow cinemagoers who judge solely on appearances.

What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1994) is equally split, though for different reasons. Johnny dresses the white trash way (badly) as a small town boy taking care of his family, but it's resentful care. He slaps his mentally handicapped brother (Leonard DiCaprio) about and - mean, sour stuff this - he invites local kids to sneak peeks at his 600lb mother (Darlene Cates). Johnny wants to be deep, not Depp, yet he is, as usual, not only obliged to negotiate his own image, but the rigours of Hollywood formula. He escapes the straightjacket of his own skin and finds an entire constricting wardrobe: box-office, audience research, et al. Depp finally has to bow to his angelic visage (accept the burden of his brother), though the movie helpfully kills off Mama Crass, so no more free freak shows for the brats.

Yet freak shows are now Johnny's stock-in-trade, if only by default. Refusing roles that link Hollywood heroism with good looks he has rejected parts that have made stars of his contemporaries and rivals: Keanu Reeves, travelling from My Own Private Idaho to action hero in Point Break, Dracula and Speed, Brad Pitt leaping from bit player to major league swoon in Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall, Christian Slater and Robert Downey Jr making the most of Mobsters and Chaplin - all have benefited from Depp's decision not to play at kiss kiss bang bang.

Expanding his range means his terrain has actually grown narrower. Weirdo time: Benny and Joon (1994), a comedy in which Depp's puppyish sweetness proves to be evidence of retardation, not an overflowing heart - as if the Buster Keaton hats weren't clues enough - and now Don Juan DeMarco; Johnny in a mask, at last, and a plot that raises the suggestion that the epic romanticism of the Depp face is a sort of sickness, a delusion, that possessing such a property would make you think you were Don Juan, the world's greatest lover. The suggestion is raised, of course, to be sunk; psychiatrist Marlon Brando doesn't cure his patient but is infected by him.

The face is sick. The face is not sick. The face means tenderness. The face means toughness. Depp's conundrum is the conundrum of the Nineties male, caught between old models and New Man, buffeted by aftershave ads, exhortations to attend the gym and to shape up emotionally for the New Woman. It's not that he Wants It All. It's that he doesn't know what he wants. Which makes Johnny Depp, whether he likes it or not, the face of now. Glazed and confused and fascinating because of it.

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