Joined at the Hip: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp
There have been many enduring actor-director partnerships over the years –Fellini and Mastroianni; Von Sternberg and Dietrich; Herzog and Kinski; Scorsese and De Niro; Scorsese and Di Caprio – but the Depp-Burton team ranks among the most long-lasting and productive.
It’s a partnership that stretches back 22 years to 1990’s Edward Scissorhands and reaches eight films with the release of Dark Shadows this week. It takes in the ingenuous enthusiasm of Ed Wood; fey, klutzy Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow and the (re-)animated bridegroom in The Corpse Bride; the morbid misanthropy of Sweeney Todd, the dandy, carrot-topped Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland and the whacky wonders of Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s quite the cavalcade, their shared filmography, a hall of mirrors that owes as much to the funhouse as the movie theatre, and Depp’s comic vamping in Dark Shadows looks like it will be another plume in his already well-feathered hat.
If De Niro got too old to carry the kind of stories Scorsese wanted to tell (and probably didn’t justify the kind of budgets that Scorsese required to tell them), Depp at 48 remains as bankable today as he has ever been. He may not be a pin-up anymore (though I guess that’s debatable) but by blurring the lines between leading man and character actor Depp has ensured his longevity. Right from the start he has done his best to be something more than just a pretty face. Edward Scissorhands was surely a key step in that direction, just as it represents a landmark in the development of Tim Burton’s artistic vision, his first mature personal film, vouchsafed by the blockbuster success of Batman and before that the more modest delights of Beetlejuice.
Before he found himself working with Burton, Depp had done small parts in the first A Nightmare on Elm Street and Platoon, he’d camped it up for John Waters in Cry-Baby and done three years on the teen TV hit 21 Jump Street – a gig he compared to factory work. But Scissorhands was his first starring role in a big budget movie and the first time he transformed himself from head to toe.
Apparently Robert Downey Jr, Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey were all considered for the part… Those audition tapes would be something to see, and each would certainly have taken the role to an interesting place, but it’s hard to imagine any of them getting to that spot of poignant romanticism that Depp delivers.
This is a great performance, at once comic, exhilaratingly original, menacing and tragic. To reproduce the look of an inky figure with blades for fingers that Burton had first sketched when he was a teenager, Depp slimmed down 25lbs, caked his face in white makeup (and scars), wore a stitched black leather costume and teased his hair into a Goth fright wig (Burton was a big fan of The Cure at the time and even asked Robert Smith to write the music for the film). Edward speaks less than 200 words in the movie, but Depp’s body language conveys volumes of pathos and poetry – Depp discovered silent film acting as he prepared for the role and watched hours of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
This was clearly a crucial creative experience, and its immediate affect is obvious in his highly articulated performances in comparatively mainstream fodder like Benny & Joon and Don Juan de Marco – as well as in so much of his later work. It seems fair to say Burton gave Depp a taste for physical make-over, for adornment and embellishment, and an expressionist approach to gesture and movement that’s wildly different from the psychological, naturalistic instincts of most young movie actors. It’s not that he’s a chameleon like Daniel Day-Lewis so much as he’s a peacock, someone who revels in the artifice and exhibition of performance… Not unlike a caricaturist, I guess, which brings us right back to Mr Burton, a cartoonist first and foremost who just happened to work in live action.
For Burton, whose heroes and villains both tend towards split personality disorder, Edward was evidently a self-portrait, a portrait of the artist as a tortured misfit, a misunderstood and maltreated soul whose creativity could also be destructive (even self-destructive). But it was Depp who brought the character to life, and in many ways he shared Burton’s identification with him. After all, the director is only five years his senior. Both men came from a troubled domestic background. At age 12, Tim Burton was persona non grata with his parents and moved out to live with his grandparents. At the same age, Johnny Depp was carving his initials into his arm with his pen-knife – an act of self mutilation and self definition right out of Edward’s playbook.
From these shared miseries, Burton and Depp have forged an extraordinarily strange and rich collaboration, a kinship based on their sense of being outsiders even as they have become A-list players, Hollywood insiders in exile (both have European partners and made their home on this side of the Atlantic). And somehow, they continue to bring the best out of each other. While not every one of their collaborations comes off, it’s probably fair to say that Burton has done his best work with Depp, and by and large that goes the other way too.
Ironically, in the end, it’s not the prevailing ghoulishness and gothic gloom that unites them, but rather their fidelity to youthful innocence and idealism; the hope and purity embodied in the invention of Edward Scissorhands, and the myriad, multifaceted creations that have followed in his footsteps.
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