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Depp Thoughts.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  Is Johnny Depp the greatest actor of his generation? At first, it seems like a preposterous proposition. This is a performer whose greatest attribute is an ability to maintain more or less the same facial expression whether he's dying from a bullet wound or making out with his girlfriend. Up against more expressive actors (say, Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape?), he tends to fade into the background. It might be tempting to compare him to Keanu Reeves, who's about the same age and has done his share of the kind of indie arty stuff Depp specializes in.

But where Keanu is all transparent surface—you can see straight to the shallow bottom—Depp gets more complicated the more you watch him. He has arguably made more good movies than just about any of his contemporaries, and even the ones that aren't that good tend to be interesting.

Take, for example, the new-to-video Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998, R), in which Depp does a completely convincing morph into Hunter S. Thompson. Or rather, into Hunter S. Thompson's exaggerated cartoon of himself. The film, like the book it's based on, is kind of a mess. Director Terry Gilliam predictably favors the lurid-excess side of Thompson over the sharp-edged satirist side, making his druggy hallucinations and paranoia entirely too literal. But Depp, when the script gives him a chance, injects the pseudonymous Raoul Duke with just the right mix of moralistic immoralism—hedonism as political statement—and almost naive horror at his surroundings. His physical presentation—skinny legs akimbo, eyebrows perennially cocked—is also dead-on. It's a nuanced and charismatic performance that makes you wonder what else he can do.

He underwent a similar transformation in Tim Burton's Ed Wood (1994, R), the hugely entertaining biopic of the notoriously awful filmmaker. Depp conceives Wood not as an incompetent hack (which may be closer to the truth) but as a clueless romantic, an artist with no concept of art. It's a funny performance but also a humanized one, particularly in Wood's friendship with the aging, morphine-addled Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, who won an Oscar). Again, Depp's characterization takes hold slowly, radiating outward from some inscrutable calm center.

That's even more true of Dead Man (1996, R), Jim Jarmusch's underrated deadpan Western. Depp, coming on like a post-modern Buster Keaton, plays a blank-faced accountant on the run in the wilds of the 19th century frontier. Despite a performance so passive it's almost inert, Depp somehow grounds the strange, ethereal film (which has some of the most striking B & W cinematography of recent years). There's a nearly invisible mass to Depp, a reversal of Dorothy Parker's famous put-down—there is almost always a there there.

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