DAY TEN November 12, 2005
Johnny Depp Feted as AFI FEST 2005 Tributee
by Brent Simon
He's been a poet, a pauper, a prophet, a pirate, a pawn and a king (sort of), and on Friday evening, November 11, Johnny Depp was celebrated in a special Tribute--made possible through a collective partnership with Skirball Cultural Center, and sponsored by Montblanc with support from LA Weekly--as part of AFI FEST 2005. If it was frequently clear that he's not always comfortable with the attention and acclaim--Depp joked that might need a bucket on standby when sitting through clips of his own work--the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN star was a game and gracious subject for a rapturous, sold-out audience and moderator Richard Schickel, who just the previous day was on hand to introduce a special screening of Elia Kazan's overlooked 1960 gem WILD RIVER.
The choice of Depp was not a difficult one. "Our challenge each year in choosing a tributee is to find someone who is a highly accomplished artist about whom we crave to know more," says Christian Gaines, Director of AFI FEST. "Johnny Depp is such an artist. He has made interesting, risky choices his (entire) career and has evolved into one of the most absorbing actors of our time."
Indeed, Depp's versatility and uncommon sensitivity lend themselves to a variety of roles, and his recent upturn in box office bankability has only incidentally enhanced a reputation built on his whole-hearted immersion in a string of memorable film roles--from DONNIE BRASCO and John Waters' CRY-BABY to Tim Burton's EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY and ED WOOD.
Leading up to the Tribute, AFI FEST 2005 screened a retrospective of four of Depp's films: DEAD MAN (1995), directed by Jim Jarmusch; the aforementioned EDWARD SCISSORHANDS; FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998), directed by Terry Gilliam; and WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? (1993), directed by Lasse Hallstroem--whose latest film, CASANOVA, will close the Festival's program this year on November 13 at 7:00 p.m. at the Cinerama Dome.
Wearing a light, chocolate brown suit, Depp joined Schickel downstage in ArcLight Theatre 10 after a montage of clips spanning his entire career. Schickel then pursued a mostly chronological tack, starting with Depp's starring turn on the small screen on 21 JUMP STREET and winding his way forward. Depp spoke with a certain fondness of his early days, saying that he didn't feel like a real actor for a long time, despite enjoying what he was doing ever since first being turned on to acting by watching Charlie Chaplin shorts on television after school as a child in Florida.
After his first big break, the constraints of corporate-vetted television quickly wore on him, though. "It was a great experience," he said of 21 JUMP STREET, "but it was very confusing for me because I felt like I was doing stuff to fill up space in between commercials." The more promos he saw himself featured in, the more "the beast had gotten away, and I couldn't grasp the reigns" he said softly, far from a bitter rant. "I was being sold as a product."
Deciding early and quite consciously to branch out and stretch the limits of his tabloid-created matinee idol image, Depp took a starring role in Water's satirical musical mash-up, CRY-BABY. "That said, 'I understand that game, but don't want to play,'" said Depp, "It was the first block in my film career."
His casting in that eventually also led to one of the most fruitful, continuing professional collaborations of his career. "When I read EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, I lost my mind," recounted Depp. "It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever read." He didn't think he'd have a shot at the role, but Depp and Burton met at the coffee shop at the Bel-Age Hotel, and after, as Depp put it, "18 cups of coffee... babbling for hours but somehow connecting," the two were inexorably fused on some subatomic artistic level.
The rest of the Tribute continued in such a fashion, interspersing clips of his work with Depp sharing anecdotes and opinions on his work and co-stars. The World Premiere of The Weinstein Company's THE LIBERTINE--starring Depp, Samantha Morton and John Malkovich in Laurence Dunmore's directorial debut--followed the feting, and his most recent director was understandably high on the experience of working with the singular, stylish performer.
"Johnny is a brilliant and truly unique actor whose remarkable career has been defined by its diversity and veracity," said Dunmore. "The originality of both the characters he has portrayed, and the films he has made, further emphasize his integrity and passion."
THE LIBERTINE stars Depp as one of history's most notorious rogues, the Earl of Rochester. Rochester was a man of many contradictions: an anti-monarchist Royalist who was the confidant of British King Charles II (played by Malkovich in the film); an atheist who converted to Christianity; and a poet and pornographer in Restoration-era Britain. The film--which opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 23, and wide on January 13--follows how Rochester's famous cynicism is thrown for a loop when he falls in love with a struggling young actress (Morton).
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