Johnny Depp: The pirate king

His Oscar nomination for 'Pirates of the Caribbean' will allow him to cruise freely upon the glittering waters of mainstream Hollywood. But he is no mere superstar. Better-looking and more subtle than DiCaprio, he is a permanent reminder of the tragedy of Brando
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The Independent Online

This year, Johnny Depp will have been working as an actor for 20 years. It's no exaggeration to say that he is internationally known: children wearing headscarves and burnt-cork moustaches all over the world are imitating his Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, while their elders are happy to see Depp's very swish and witty pirate in the running for the best actor Oscar.

He won't win the prize this year, yet among actors and those who love acting, there is something more valuable taken for granted: that if you found a young genius aged 20 or so and wished a next 20 years for him, you could hardly do better than assemble the list of credits belonging to Depp. He has his own territory, his own depp end of the pool - the roles that are the least likely and the most daring. I don't mean to bring a curse down on his shoulders, but he is what Marlon Brando might have remained but for the rage, the disillusionment, the mad hunt for vengeance and the deadly weight.

Notice this extra thing: in 1993, Depp was the leader of a wild band of kids in Lasse Hallstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?. If you care to look at that film again, you'll discover that Depp was giving not just the film's best performance but the one most tender towards all the rest of the young cast. He was not as noticeable or as showy as Leonardo DiCaprio (who got a best supporting actor nomination). Since then, by way of Titanic, the forthcoming The Aviator (where he will be Howard Hughes) and then Alexander the Great, DiCaprio has become a superstar. Which means he is very highly paid. Not that the investment has always worked: in Gangs of New York, Leonardo was overshadowed. Who knows yet whether he has the looks or the experience to deliver the complexity of Howard Hughes? I'd rather have Depp making that attempt. But Depp - who is better looking and a subtler actor (ask any woman you know) - has steered himself away from the massive salaries that have come to DiCaprio.

I don't mean to suggest that Depp is starving, despite his wolfish look. It's simply that he has made a habit of doing marginal films, unmistakable risks and adventures, pictures that might have collapsed without him and which were never meant to be blockbusters. I'm talking about flights of fantasy, poetry or offbeat humour, pictures such as Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands; Arizona Dream, the scarcely seen fairy tale by Emir Kusturica; Ed Wood - another Burton film - where Depp is absolutely endearing as the innocent and aspiring Wood, maker of maybe the worst movies ever made; Don Juan DeMarco, where he actually worked with Marlon Brando; as the central figure in Jim Jarmusch's existential Western Dead Man; as Hunter Thompson in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Let me interrupt this crazy list to testify to the sheer perversity inspiring it. It is as if Depp had made a promise to himself and an announcement to the world that he would never take a film unless he reckoned it was a long shot, made by directors who had no commercial track record and who (in the case of Gilliam) already had the reputation of making disasters. Even when Depp took on a mainstream kind of part - as in Donnie Brasco - he happily left the big acting job to Al Pacino, while himself playing a man so undercover that every trick of personality or charm needed to be repressed.

He was the lead in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate when it was still regarded as playing with poison to work with the exiled director. He took on The Astronaut's Wife, which was a very challenging idea likely to fail because it didn't have the right director. He was Ichabod Crane for Burton again in Sleepy Hollow. He played two roles, one of them a transvestite, in Julian Schna-bel's film Before Night Falls; he had an enchanting cameo in Hallstrom's Chocolat; he gave probably his best performance yet as the dealer in Ted Demme's Blow; he was a detective in Victorian London in From Hell. And then, after everyone had typed him as Hollywood's most flagrant maverick, he said, well, of course, why shouldn't I be Captain Sparrow in what was plainly destined to be a smash hit - and the first large box-office success that had yet involved Johnny Depp?

The rebelliousness goes back as far as the unlikely biographical details. For Depp was born in June 1963 in Owensboro, Kentucky - not the sort of place that makes too many actors. (The only other notable actor I can think of from Kentucky is Warren Oates, the character actor from several Sam Peckinpah pictures.) The Depps moved to Florida, and Johnny dropped out of school at 17. He drifted down to Los Angeles, playing guitar in rock bands and getting an acting job in the movie A Nightmare on Elm Street that led to a running part in the TV series 21 Jump Street. He had an early marriage in those days, to Lori Allison, which lasted just two years. Since then he has had regulation affairs with Jennifer Grey, Kate Moss and Winona Ryder. But more recently he has lived part of the year in France where he has been heavily involved with the actress Vanessa Paradis, with whom he has two children. Indeed, in the past few years Depp has also been heard to remark on the general idiocy of the US and the more thoughtful life there is to be had in Europe.

There are signs that he has ambitions beyond acting. He has formed a few bands in his time and he was co-owner of the Viper Room in Los Angeles, the club outside which River Phoenix died. After he had worked with Brando, Depp even volunteered to set up, write and direct a picture that would give Brando all the freedom he claimed was being denied by Hollywood. The result, The Brave (1997), has hardly been seen, and that may mean that directing is still a challenge for Depp. Equally, he was working on Terry Gilliam's Don Quixote film when that project collapsed because of the ill-health of Jean Rochefort, the actor hired to play Quixote. Some argued that Gilliam should have simply given the lead role to Depp.

At 40, he shows no sign of reforming or taking on "sensible" attitudes. Though he works hard, it's not clear that many of his forthcoming projects will be mainstream: he is in Secret Window, directed by screenwriter David Koepp; he plays J M Barrie in the very intriguing J M Barrie's Neverland; he is going to play Willy Wonka in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; there is another chapter from the life of Hunter Thompson, The Rum Diary; and a sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean where, I'd hope, that we learn a lot more about Jack Sparrow. It would live up to the ambitions of Johnny Depp the actor only if Sparrow turned out to be the bastard son of some nobleman who led his scoundrel band into operetta - Pirates of Penzance, anyone?