Johnny Depp, the ultimate Gen X pinup, goes out with a sad whimper
Johnny, we knew ye.
For Gen Xers who came of age in the 1990s, there was no one like Johnny Depp. As it is, our icons are few — Winona, Kate Moss, the late Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix — but Johnny was special.
He was a teen heartthrob, to be sure, but of a different stripe. One of my monthly rituals as a suburban teenage girl was waiting for my latest copy of Sassy magazine to arrive, and I’ll never forget finding one issue in particular waiting on the kitchen table: Johnny Depp, the magazine’s white whale, finally on the cover, photographed in black and white — an almost unheard-of design choice, then and now — looking right back at me, so beautiful, so bored, so indifferent.
It was the perfect distillation of his appeal. Johnny Depp, the reluctant pin-up, way too cool for this s—t but playing along anyway, acknowledging besotted teenage fans like me.
“We hang out at JOHNNY DEPP’s,” read the coverline. “Doesn’t he look excited?”
That cover is the stuff of 1990s legend, and Depp went on to be an emissary of Gen X cool. He leveraged his initial fame playing Tom Hanson, a square, grown-up undercover high school narc on “21 Jump Street,” and transformed it into an ironic meta-commentary on teen idol-dom in his first feature film, 1990’s “Cry-Baby.”
Depp was considered crazy to do it. He had been on track to be a major Hollywood star. But instead of going the conventional big-studio route, he signed up to work with John Waters, then that rarest of things — an openly gay director best known for cult films starring a drag queen named Divine.
It was risky to be sure, and it not only made Depp a movie star — it established him as a true artist.
In the 1990s, Depp reportedly turned down the leads in studio blockbusters “Speed” and “Interview with a Vampire,” instead teaming up with Tim Burton to play the eccentric titular B-movie director in “Ed Wood” and the child-man with blades instead of fingers in “Edward Scissorhands.” He starred in Jim Jarmusch’s fringe black-and-white Western “Dead Man” (budget $1 million), in Emir Kusturica’s “Arizona Dream,” and the sideways romance “Benny & Joon.”
When Depp finally made a conventional genre film with 1997’s “Donnie Brasco,” he stole it from legendary co-star Al Pacino.
Nothing could tarnish his image: Not the death by drug overdose of River Phoenix outside Depp’s L.A. nightclub The Viper Room in 1993. Not his 1994 arrest for trashing his $1,200-a-night hotel room at Manhattan’s The Mark, then-girlfriend Moss with him.
“He looked good under arrest,” John Waters said of Depp’s perp walk. “I loved the handcuffs — they always work. Criminal movie star is a really good look for Johnny.”
Now, not so much.
As Waters told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2019, “Bitter and old age really is a depressing moment. And when you’re 23, you can be angry, you can be a drug addict, a drunk, and you can be sexy. But [when you’re older], it doesn’t look so good.”
This is the Johnny we’re seeing now. The movie star who would render talk show hosts David Letterman and Charlie Rose into babbling idiots, murmuring “you’re so cool” over and over to his face; the Johnny Depp who, once he decided to go mainstream, horrified Disney execs by playing Captain Jack Sparrow as a drunk Keith Richards and turning the “Pirates” movies into a global juggernaut anyway; the Johnny Depp who would quietly dress up as Captain Jack and visit children’s hospitals, never for publicity but because his own daughter nearly died when she was little — that still-crushworthy Depp is gone.
It’s painful to see this Depp, pushing 60 with bad teeth, taking booze and lines of coke for lunch, passed out on the floor and finding poop in his bed. He wasn’t supposed to go out like this. Johnny Depp was meant to age like the Gen X original he was, not some clichéd version of late-stage Elvis.
This week, we Gen Xers lost one of our last icons. Note to Brad Pitt: Please hang in there.
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