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Depp v. Pitt: The Dual Fate of the Leading Man

Walt Disney Company/Paramount Pictures

They have things in common. Johnny is only a few months older than Brad. They were country boys from the rough northern edge of the South: Johnny Depp was born in Owensboro, Kentucky; and Brad Pitt was born in Shawnee, Oklahoma. They make vague claims about having Cherokee blood, and they can get $30 million for a picture—which is not a Cherokee trait. The Indian heritage is as sentimental as it is uncertain; it indicates that they would like to think of themselves as outside the cozy, $30-million-a-picture club. They are both on tabloid covers and belong to the small group of male stars young enough to make women notice. Over the years they have both been voted the sexiest man alive. But they will both be 50 this year, and they have to wonder how long it’s going to last.

There was a time when Johnny Depp was the more esteemed of the two. He had a dreamy, gentle side, and nearly a baby face. He seemed imaginative, sensitive, and much influenced by Marlon Brando. He sought out challenging, offbeat roles: Edward ScissorhandsWhat’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, Donnie Brasco, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson was a friend and a guru), Chocolat, Blow, and Finding Neverland. His followers were happy to be surprised by whatever Depp took on. In 2003, Jack Sparrow and Pirates of the Caribbean seemed like just such a whimsical adventure.

But it was the turning point when a drug called franchise was pumped into Johnny, like collagen for an actress. Jack Sparrow was droll, cheeky, sexy, and swish—and for the most recent installment, the fourth, Depp got $55 million. That means there’ll be a fifth. Only failure will get him out of Sparrow’s panache. Is that what he’s searching for? The Lone Ranger was hideously expensive, incoherent, not what a Cherokee is going to appreciate, and a resounding flop. So now, there’s a kind of lost-soul sadness hanging over Depp, trapped in these ponderous repetitive pictures that look cool one year and stale the next. That’s when you begin to remember the other inert movies Depp has been doing: Public Enemies, The Tourist, The Rum Diary, Dark Shadows. The eccentric side shows through sometimes: a self-loathing Sweeney Todd and the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland. That’s the Tim Burton side of Depp, a loyalty that shows no fading or diminished judgment (they’ve made seven films together).

Jack Sparrow was a dead end in that first picture. But it found the kid who loves to play dress-up in Depp, and it exercised the gentle side of an actor who has generally avoided real violence. Tonto, the Mad Hatter, Dark Shadows, Jack Sparrow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—they have been studies in disguise, or not having to look like the real Johnny Depp. I don’t think this masquerade comes close to indicating that Depp is gay, but he has let that suspicion grow, and it’s part of his failure to grasp a large, dangerous role—he’s hiding through dress-up, so that his real self has been blurred. If you want to believe in him as a brave, imaginative actor, these have not been kind years.

It’s not as if Depp lacks the money or the clout to say, “Let’s make a film like Moneyball or The Tree of Life or Inglourious Basterds or Burn After Reading or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” You don’t have to like all those films; you may not remember all of them. But Brad Pitt is taking risks. Moneyball was overrated and a distortion of what really happened at the Oakland As. (They did well under Billy Beane because of a pitching staff that is hardly mentioned in the movie.) But Moneyball is one of the few good baseball pictures; it gets to grips with business and management; and Pitt plays a tough, lonely man who doesn’t let sentiment block winning. Look at the scene where Beane re-educates his staff (a colorful gallery of morose veterans), and you’re watching an actor thriving on detail. I thought The Tree of Life was picturesque baloney, but the scenes of family life were beautiful and touching, and Pitt, as a Dad from the 1950s trying to do his best, was at the heart of that. As for Burn After Reading, an overlooked Coen Brothers film, Pitt is hilarious as a simple-minded physical trainer whose instinct for intrigue gets him in a lot of trouble. The Assassination is a film that could not have been made without Pitt’s commitment, and again he’s very good.

Courtesy of the Walt Disney Company
Depp, as a stereotypically face-painted Tonto, languishes in jail.

Now Pitt has done his share of inane franchise films—they are called Ocean’s and they have numbers—but he is the wittiest of those thieves, and he stays cheerful. He has done some other cash-in pictures, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He was idiotic and buffed as Achilles in TroyMeet Joe Black was lame. So was The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it was a brave thing to try, even if the role was un-actable and gimmicky. (F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of parts like that.) Pitt also did Fight Club, Se7en and Babel, which are extraordinary.

Pitt’s latest, World War Z, is what it sounds like, and it seemed bound to be an expensive loser, as well as something that went through many changes. But Brad fought those battles and came home with an entertaining picture. As his character strode through chaos, trying to keep his family intact, it was easy to recall the Brad Pitt who often appears with a parcel of kids clinging to him. This year, he’ll be in The Counselor, a Ridley Scott thriller taken from a Cormac McCarthy novel. He’ll also have a small role in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (in which a free man is sold into slavery in the years before the Civil War); he’s a producer on that film, as he is on many pictures, including Angelina Jolie’s A Mighty Heart. Some Hollywood marriages look perfect until they’re over, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that Pitt and Jolie are working at it. Plus this year, she had serious surgery (with publicity) that surely puts demands on the time and consideration of a husband.

Compared to that, the parched, posed face of Tonto is meager and misguided. There’s no need to take sides, but whereas Johnny Depp seems sunk in his own dismay there’s an enthusiasm in Pitt that is encouraging. I’m not sure how easily either of them will become old men as hard and true as Tommy Lee Jones, say. Still, for the moment, Pitt rises to any challenge he can imagine. If he’s making a film, I want to know about it. With Depp, I’m wondering how he has evaded himself again.