The recent hubbub about Miley Cyrus and the recent VMAs has gotten me thinking about Johnny Depp. Or maybe it was a dream I had last night about the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction. Either way, my thoughts on Miley and Johnny both have to do with the same thing: our projections.
Johnny Depp experienced an exponential growth in his fame in the 2000s, arguably with the success of Jack Sparrow. Prior to the 2000s, his roles have been unusual–Edward Sissorhands–or they have spoken to a special Aphroditic place in our culture–Don Juan. With Jack Sparrow, however, Depp played (and rather well) a character right out of our cultural shadow. The Pirate pillages and plunders, and riffles and loots, and we’re not supposed to look to them as heroes. Indeed, we wouldn’t have seen Jack Sparrow as anything but another Blackbeard had it not been for his support of the Will/Elizabeth diad. In the popularity of Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp went from being “that weird actor” to “The Sexiest Man Alive.” And it was thought for several years that is presence in a film or on marketing materials would guarantee success–blockbuster (and I mean financial) success. He continued to make successful films with Tim Burton (a relationship that I tend to trust for “good cinema”) but he also made some less successful films. Let’s consider those a moment (in no particular order):
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides: I love the franchise, but without Will and Elizabeth, Jack Sparrow seems lost. I’ve heard rumor of a Pirates 5, but I think it would only work if they tied up some loose ends (such as Will Turner’s son).
The Rum Diary: I liked this one, but I’m among an elite few. I think this one failed because people were expecting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and got something else entirely. I appreciate Depp’s attempts to keep the works of Hunter S. Thompson alive, but it’s really not the time for him right now. Mythically, we need someone else.
The Lone Ranger & Dark Shadows: I lump these together because they are an attempt to revive an old television franchise for a new generation. Both were expected to do well–but how can they do well when their target audiences don’t even know the shows? Dark Shadows becomes yet-another-vampire-movie and the Lone Ranger, which I haven’t seen, doesn’t fit in our mythos that presently doesn’t have space for an old fashioned Western (exceptions: sci-fi westerns–Star Trek, Firefly–and historical fiction). Because of our apocalyptic myth transition, we are hungering for saviors. It shouldn’t be surprising that Marvel films are doing so well.
I saw a headline this morning that said that Depp is thinking about stepping out of the limelight. What’s happening to Depp is akin to what happened to Charlie Chaplin. For Chaplin, the public wanted the Little Tramp so badly that they weren’t interested in The Great Dictator, when he used his medium to send us a warning about what was happening in Germany. Our public wants Jack Sparrow so badly that we aren’t interested when Depp actually gives us cinema with a purpose.
I would love to say that we’ll stop projecting our Aphroditic expectations onto Johnny Depp, but I only think that’ll happen once we get someone else to project onto. Rather, I would love to see Depp take on roles that go beyond the “Johnny Depp” brand and challenge us to see him in new ways. We’ve seen Leonardo Di Caprio do this many times. While on screen, he’s clearly Leonardo Di Caprio, but he is also a character actor like Depp, and successfully challenges us to see him as Howard Hawks, J. Edgar Hoover, and Gatsby. Depp has convinced us to see him as Hunter S. Thompson and as John Dillenger, and yet we just want Jack Sparrow.
Back to Miley. Why is it that we continually see young female celebrities needing to exert their adulthood through sexuality? Why can’t we just let them grow up and stop being “that girl next door” (or Hannah Montana)? The Disney girls seem to fare less well with the transition into adulthood than others. We want them to continue being our image of what a role model for girls should look like, but we forget that we need role models for young women as well (otherwise they’ll look at Bella Swan from Twilight). Women just don’t have decent role models because women are still fighting the sexual role defined by a male-dominated Hollywood. I don’t consider myself a feminist by any stretch, but I can appreciate that need for role models, and the need for those role models to push back at our projections and exert her independence. (which, by the way, is what the Disney Princesses and heroines of the 90s did.)