I’ll have to admit up front that I’ve always wondered what the fascination with Johnny Depp is (being a male not attracted to him physically would probably account for some of it). I guess this is the purpose of my writing here: to figure it out for myself. I like him as an actor and he has some (very) good performances (many that have no doubt added to some of those films being great), but I don’t completely understand why people like him so much. That’s not to say he doesn’t have the talent or the potential for great work, but aside from his early films with Tim Burton or the film I’m choosing to write about here, I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m just being a bit cloudy retrospectively, since part of this ambivalence comes from the (hopefully incorrect) assumption that he is past-his-peak creatively. Here’s hoping he shows the kind of focus and attention-to-the-other-actor in future films that is found in Donnie Brasco.
I was immediately impressed with this film when it came out in 1997. This mostly has to do with my belief that it contains Al Pacino‘s best performance (at least since the ’70s). I’ve always looked at the film from this angle; from what Pacino brings to the film and his give-and-take with the camera (like the way he uses his eyes to tell you everything you need to know about a scene). However, I revisited this film because of the LAMB focus on Johnny Depp. So, this time, I watched the film with my attention on his performance. If it isn’t a ‘great’ performance, it definitely is at least in comparison to much of his other work…
First, I ask myself: How can I tell that this is a good performance? It ‘worked’ for me in the overall context of the film, but how do I articulate that it is good (as opposed to not so good, or even bad)? One standard some people use is to ask if, after the film is over, could you see any other actor in the role? This really isn’t very objective a standard (if there is one at all). While I could say that I think Depp’s best performance is still Edward Scissorhands, partially because I can’t see anyone else ever having played the role, that alone does not necessarily make it a great performance. The original choice for the title role of this film, when Stephen Frears was originally attached as director, was Tom Cruise (according to the DVD supplements). The movie may have still been equally impressive and Pacino would probably still have still been amazing, but who’s to say how it would have turned out? Maybe thinking about it this way helps to see the possibility of Depp’s singular importance to the dynamic?
Some people also say that it is the other actors’ performance around the actor being evaluated that define a good performance. In Depp’s career I would say that his role in Blow or, more obviously, Ed Wood (or even the Pirates movies), is like this; everyone else in the scene is elevated because of his presence. This works more easily when the actor in question carries a bit of gravitas (e.g. see Pacino), which Depp has apparently acquired somehow in the last decade or so. His role in Public Enemies benefits from this greatly (despite my not liking the film overall). Though his is the meatier of roles, compare his screen presence in the film with that of Christian Bale (an equally, perhaps even more gifted actor). Bale seems much less interesting in the scenes he has without Depp’s Dillinger character. This may, of course, have more to do with the direction of the film than the performances, but one would have to agree that great actors help the direction of any film in the way their performance is crafted. I’m sure Tim Burton would agree that one of the reasons he continually works with Depp is that he knows Depp knows what he thinks is best for the film (though in the case of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, I think this created a problem for the film, or at least in my hating hating hating it).
My so-called epiphany with Donnie Brasco in relation to Depp is that this is one of the few roles of his that is supposed to be completely based in reality. The majority of Depp’s films are fantasy films or at least have fantastical elements related to some aspect of the character performance. Even his role(s) in Before Night Falls seem constructed from some sort of otherworldliness. Even a film like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (or, The Brave, the only he has directed to this point) is clearly not based in any sort of reality I have ever seen; nearly all of his roles are weirdly/dreamily off-center in their placement of the action and location of his character.
This becomes even more curious when you understand that the role he is playing in this ‘reality-based film’ (“based on a true story“) is a performance in itself. Depp is effectively playing a man playing someone else. He is Johnny Depp playing Donnie Brasco as played by a version of FBI Agent Joseph Pistone played by Johnny Depp. As the film continues, the drama hinges on the blurring of these realities for the character; Is he Pistone or is he Donnie Brasco? Is Depp playing the person or the character he is creating from another man’s creation? Or is he just Johnny Depp playing some dude?
Ultimately, I think Depp’s performance is so engaging here because of his focus on this kind of meta-acting (even screenwriter Paul Attanasio, who is perhaps the reason this film is top-notch, has described his fascination with the real Pistone’s interactions with his family in terms of a method-actor having to ‘turn off’ his or her performance in-between takes).
The performance benefits from the character being written as a sort of actor. While you could choose to see this as some sort of built in crutch for the film actor’s performance, not just anyone can pull off such a role convincingly. Like Pistone himself, while it takes a special talent to fool people into believing you are someone you are not for an extended period of time, it requires even more to allow others to believe things about you that you yourself know to be, regardless of their actual relation to the truth, outright creations of imagination (Public Enemies also obviously plays with this, though in less rewarding ways; Is Depp playing Dillinger or the idea of Dillinger? Was Dillinger himself playing a kind of Hollywood-type gangster?). Actors must use our own inventions to their advantage. Some people call this ‘mystique’. This is something Johnny Depp has and makes use of in abundance.
The layers of performance are especially important to this film since all the main, male characters’ actions are based around the kind of machismo performance-roles usually ascribed to mafia films (more recently, The Sopranos had specifically taken this as one its major themes of being). If this film has any flaws, it is possibly in its instance of over-focusing on the so-called colloquial parlance of New York mobsters to its minute detail (i.e. “fugitaboutit”). This begs the question of how caricatured the performances are. Though again, we are watching a portrayal of real-life, not the reality of real-life.
I always find it interesting in these types of meta-roles that there can be scenes where one could say the actor overacts, but is it the actor or the character? One could say that there are moments between Pistone and his wife (Anne Heche, better than she ever was before or ever will be again) that appear too melodramatic. Is this a flaw in the movie or in the actor/character’s own self-performance? One could compare this to Depp’s entire characterization of Ed Wood. The performance is a caricature of a real person, for comedic effect, that probably has little to do with biographical aspects the real man. Yet, the performance serves the given story and the atmosphere of the films represented. Whose to say Depp isn’t being more truthful in this fantasy incarnation?
As David Mamet says, above all else, it is an actor’s job to be truthful. My caveat to this, of course, is that the version of the truth being served is controlled by the writer(s). If you are, like Johnny Depp, in the position to choose the writers/stories you work with, then you are in the position to create the version of the truth you wish to project. Johnny Depp chooses his own truth, and for that he is both a movie star and a man that many people I know (male and female alike) will watch doing just about anything. I think that’s why people like him so much; he creates his own truth and people, myself included, both envy and respect him for that…