The Blog

Five Years of Cringe: I Heart Johnny Depp

During these years, I was trying to be "alternative." I rarely watched blockbusters (although I sawabout six times in the cinema); I only liked "indie" rather than mainstream chart music. Depp was the perfect movie star for me - odd, offbeat, beautiful.

You've got to love a man who loves his dogs. You probably saw the headline, "Johnny Depp Could Face 10 Years In Jail After Dog Row With Australian Border Control."

Ten years in jail seems like a long time. But double that, and you get roughly the length of time that Johnny has featured in my life. As my Five Year Diary confirms, this week in 1995, age 14, I won tickets to see Ed Wood, directed by Tim Burton. And the previous week, I watched Depp in Don Juan de Marco (1994). In fact, I regularly wrote "I love Johnny Depp" in the margins of my diary. He was my first movie star heartthrob, his image replacing the popstars which I had stuck on my pre-teen bedroom walls, marking my transition into grungy, "alternative" teenager.

I loved Depp since I saw him in his break-out role in Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990), and was besotted by his performances in Benny and Joon (1993) and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993). These films had a great impact on me. First and foremost I was struck by Depp's beauty. Between the ages of 13 and 15, I was particularly susceptible to Depp's androgynous charm.

But it's the roles which Depp took during this early stage of his stardom I'd like to focus on today. These films were my first exposure to weird and wonderful worlds, and his roles presented a leading man who was "kooky" and socially awkward, themes which Depp embodied so entirely, and which appealed perfectly to my teenage sensibility. Depp's physical appearance is the most obvious of his multi-faceted appeal. His early roles also have in common their "Americanness," and it's interesting to think about how they affected me as a teenager in this respect.

Looking back on my diary-writing during the early 1990s, it strikes me how Depp's films exposed me to aspects of American culture of which I was completely ignorant, and displayed "Americana" so foreign to my own life as a school girl in London.

Films have always quoted previous films and other artforms, and indeed reflexivity and intertextuality are characteristic of the postmodernism of Hollywood in the 1990s. For me, Depp's films hit when I was just the right age to be seduced by him, yet young enough for so many of the films' references and quotations to go over my head. I was left with the "simulacra" (as theorist of postmodernity Jean Baudrillard would have it) but no contact with the "original."

I noted in my diary that Ed Wood was "a bit long and boring" - in fact, it had terrible reviews on its release - but that didn't deter me from loving it at the time: aside from seeing Depp, the tickets were free ("I won!") so it had to be a good thing, and I was also convinced that any film so convoluted, boring, and about something I didn't understand, must have been profound and important. I hadn't heard of the filmmaker Ed Wood, nor did I know what a "B-movie" was (the term reminds me of Ed Wood to this day), but this film itself was an education in Hollywood history, seeped as it was in nostalgia and affection for a bygone era of filmmaking.

Similarly, Benny and Joon featured Depp as a Sam, a Buster Keaton fanatic. I had no idea who Buster Keaton was before seeing this film. So too, when I (finally) saw Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925) perform the dance with the bread rolls, I remembered I had seen Depp do this "first" in Benny and Joon.

In Don Juan de Marco, Depp plays a man who claims to be the legendary lover and libertarian Don Juan. I was obviously aware that the film's title suggests an origin beyond Hollywood, but the film is significant in my cinematic experience because I think it was the first time I had watched Marlon Brando, who here plays Don Juan's psychiatrist. My first exposure to this screen legend and former heartthrob was therefore as an ageing, bloated figure, his corporal physicality all the more pronounced when starring opposite a svelte thirty-year old Depp in his prime.

America was revealed to me in Depp's other films of this era, such as Edward Scissorhands which showed me Gothic and eerie suburbia; and the portrayal of a small town amid an arid landscape in the heart of America in What's Eating Gilbert Grape (adapted from the 1991 novel by Peter Hedges).

During these years, I was trying to be "alternative." I rarely watched blockbusters (although I saw Four Weddings and A Funeral about six times in the cinema); I only liked "indie" rather than mainstream chart music (favouring The Lemonheads and Blind Melon to Take That or Backstreet Boys); and I wore hideous grungy and tartan clothes from Camden and Covent Garden rather than fashionable designer gear. Depp was the perfect movie star for me - odd, offbeat, beautiful. And I can't write about these films without mentioning their wonderful leading ladies, including Sarah Jessica Parker (Ed Wood), Juliette Lewis (What's Eating Gilbert Grape) and Winona Ryder (in Edward Scissorhands, and she was favourite of mine since 1990's Mermaids,), and Mary Stuart Masterson (Benny and Joon). These women offered a wonderful, wacky, and sparky kind of Hollywood femininity opposite Depp, and I should give these women credit for equally appealing to me as a young film-lover.

However alternative I thought I was being during these years, Depp's films offered a window on mainstream American culture. If my passion for cinema was fuelled by watching Depp's films as a teenager, it goes to show how Hollywood seduces us, even through its more alternative strands or sensibilities. Indeed, Depp's career over the past twenty years has shown his varied choice of roles, including off-beat films as well as blockbusters, most lucratively The Pirates of the Caribbean series, directed by Jerry Bruckheimer - the fifth of which is currently in production (hence Depp's dogs being in Australia). While Baudrillard described Disneyland as "a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra", The Pirates of the Caribbean films, in a topsy-turvy turn of postmodernism, are themselves based on a Disneyland ride (rather than the ride being based on a film).

As Depp and I have grown older, I can't say I've recently been such an avid follower of his later films compared with my teenage devotion. I admit I've watched several out of a sense of longstanding duty. But seeing as Depp has been in my life for so long, the least I can do if he does end up behind bars for ten years is pay him a visit while he's in the doghouse.