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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition