Alexander Stevens: Johnny Depp's fatal flaw

Alexander Stevens

Remember how admirable it seemed when Johnny Depp ditched a conventional matinee-idol movie career for something edgier and more adventurous?

Now, more than 25 years deep into his career and on the verge of opening another “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, it’s a good time to look at his body of work. Upon closer inspection, not only may his career appear less impressive than you imagined, but it may also reveal what could be considered Johnny Depp’s fatal flaw — his alarming inability to truly connect with his costars.

But let’s begin at the beginning. Advisers must have told Depp he was crazy to abandon “21 Jump Street.” He was an unknown actor lucky enough to fall into a hit TV show, and even before he had the chance to truly cash in on prime-time success, he left, in search of stranger tides.

The James Dean-type role offers must have poured in. Or, more likely, with his sculpted jaw line and bedroom eyes, they viewed him as the next Tom Cruise, or, worse, a Matthew McConaughey.

But Depp would have none of it. Instead he went in the polar opposite direction, admirably latching on to oddball directors like John Waters and Tim Burton and performing a string of quirky roles that continue to be the hallmark of his career — “Cry Baby,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.”

Critics swooned. So did the women, undeterred by the fact that Depp buried his beauty beneath fright wigs, scars and pasty makeup. He was applauded for his risk-taking. He was celebrated as an artist, working on the Hollywood fringe, avoiding blockbusters, and apparently viewing mainstream success with contempt.

And then something happened as he was making this collection of movies in which he played the same remote, inaccessible, barely human outsider. He played it again. And again. And again.

Edward Scissorhands and Ichabod Crane (“Sleepy Hollow”) were followed by Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter. And he’s now played Jack Sparrow, a character who’s probably closer to a Disneyland ride than a human being, four times, and admits that he’s already thinking about a fifth.

For an actor once lauded for taking risks, he now seems content to pack on the eye kohl, choosing roles that revel in their lack of emotional attachment.

Where’s the risk in that? If an actor’s sacred oath is to present the human condition in cathartic ways, then Depp’s career has been a disappointment. If we judge an actor’s skills by whether or not he can show us the power and thrill of two humans connecting, then Depp’s once-promising career has been squandered.

Oh, he’s had moments. When Depp made “Chocolat,” he seemed to be finding the perfect balance between art films and stories that made an emotional connection. But that film is now a decade old, and since then, it’s been back to Sweeney Todds and kooky imaginariums. You start to wonder if Depp’s distaste for a conventional love story indicates he’s missing something in his emotional paint box, every actor’s most important tool.

This is the part in the column where I confess that I’m actually a big fan of Johnny Depp. I, like everyone else, adored the first “Pirates” movie and was convinced he was the next great American actor after seeing “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” He’s a movie star in the best sense of the word: He’s just innately interesting to watch in close-up.

But roles like the Mad Hatter and Willy Wonka — built more around a costume and makeup than anything Depp is bringing to them — have become the very thing that Depp seemed bent on avoiding: predictable, tedious and safe.

Academy Awards should hardly be considered an indication of an actor’s talent. But maybe in the case of Depp, they’ve gotten it right — 25 years into his career, he’s been nominated three times and never won. Indeed, he’s never even been a serious contender.

Ironically, at this very moment, Depp is jumping back onto “Jump Street,” playing a role in the film version of the show. Perhaps, as his career comes full circle, Depp will take stock of his legacy, and he’ll realize that now, wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and able to choose his own projects, it’s time to stop hiding behind costumes that do all the acting and get down to the difficult and vulnerable work of being an actor. It’s time for Depp to fulfill the promise of his early career, show us he can connect with someone other than himself on screen, and, more importantly, shed a little light on what it means to be a human. Not a demon barber. Not a mad hatter. Not a Disney pirate.