Buster Keaton, Johnny Depp: genius across the decades…

Last night my wife and I rented the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. She’d never seen anything by Keaton, but has heard me (and fellow Scrogue Jim Booth) talk about his particular genius.

One of the most remarkable talents America has ever produced, Keaton was an insanely gifted physical comedian who was able to communicate tremendous nuance even within the confines of the silent genre. A lot of actors through the years have gotten pretty accomplished at “deadpan,” but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody who could match Keaton’s mastery of the stoneface. It’s amazing how much he can convey with seemingly zero expression.

He was also a pretty remarkable athlete. When you watch his films, you have to remind yourself that he’s doing all those stunts, and in movies like Steamboat Bill and The General he’s doing things that are pretty harrowing. For instance, you may have seen the famous clip here, which is from Steamboat Bill:

One of the reasons this scene is so famous is that it’s a real facade. As IMDB notes,

The stunt where the wall falls on Buster Keaton was performed with an actual full-weight wall. Half the crew walked off the set rather than participate in a stunt that would have killed Keaton if he had been slightly off position.

So as usual, I was alternately laughing myself silly at his antics and marveling at his physical ability (and ridiculous bravery), and my wife was sitting beside me almost as stonefaced as Keaton. She later said, “it must be a guy thing,” as though we were talking about The Three Stooges. First I’m a poet married to a woman who doesn’t like poetry, now we don’t agree on Keaton. Apparently I’m involved in a mixed marriage.

In any case, I had a thought as I watched. If you’ve seen Benny and Joon, you probably realize that Johnny Depp owes a debt to Keaton. His character is a huge Keaton fan, and multiple scenes in the film pay homage to the master. Further, the depth of the performance makes clear the degree to which Depp has studied Keaton and genuinely gets the man’s genius. So I found myself thinking – how wonderful would it be to see a remake of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (or The General, for that matter) starring Depp? It might even be interesting to see it re-done as a silent. Think about Depp’s talent – can you imagine him in a silent tribute to a legend like Keaton? If you can’t imagine it, recall how little he speaks in Edward Scissorhands.

It might not be a blockbuster, but who knows – it could be the role that finally – finally – earns Depp the Oscar he’s deserved for so long.

How deserving is Depp? Let’s review. Here’s a list of some of his finer efforts. In most of these he was easily as good or superior to performances that actually have earned Oscars for best actor:

  • Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
  • Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
  • Finding Neverland (2004)
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
  • Dead Man (1995)
  • Don Juan DeMarco (1995)
  • Ed Wood (1994)
  • What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
  • Benny & Joon (1993)
  • Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Depp is perhaps the greatest talent of his generation, and he’s certainly the greatest living actor to have never won an Oscar.

So if any of Depp’s people are reading this (hey, anything is possible, right?), maybe put a bug in his ear. My wife may not care for Keaton, but she loves Depp. Perhaps Depp doing Keaton would win her over, huh?

17 comments

  • Years ago when I lived in San Diego, they had a Buster Keaton evening with the SD orchestra performing live music, it was brilliant. He was a genius and I thought the comedy had held up well through the years.

    It isn’t a guy thing because the friend who introduced me to the event, was a female friend of mine. But I have to admit to not being fond of the 3 Stooges.

  • That’s kinda what I said to my wife, but she remains unconvinced.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love the Stooges (early incarnation, anyway – it was never the same after Curly left). But this isn’t the same thing.

  • I do love me some Keaton. Metafiler has a great writeup with even better links here,
    including links to full-blown movies including Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The General.

  • The General is one of the top movies of all time, I think. The scene where he is trying to fire the cannon and the train goes around a bend so that the cannon is pointing at him gives me goosebumps, still. When I got it out of the library on DVD there was some other good stuff about Keaton on it. Including the 1970’s resurgence that he went through.
    Depp would be good as Keaton, certainly they have a physical resemblance.
    Thanks for an intelligent diverting article.

  • Buster Keaton was one of a kind. It’s amazing how subtle he could be within the context of such broad strokes.

    I grew up on Three Stooges. Watching them as an adult, I realized that: 1. There’s a Marxist-anarchist element to their work (this time, I mean Karl); and 2. It may be heresy, but much as I loved Curly, Shemp was actually a much more accomplished comedian.

    Don’t know much about Depp. Will have to seek out his movies. Only saw “Fear and Loathing.” The way his character was drawn was way too over the top. Kinda spoiled the movie for me. Remember when Depp was on “Jump Street”?

  • I never even saw Jump Street. I knew he existed, but thought he was just another half-talented TV pretty boy until I saw Gilbert Grape, which just blew me away.

  • Keaton is the master. If you haven’t seen them, musts are the shorts “One Week” and “Cops” -you have to pay attention to the screen shot with “The End” printed on it to get the full effect of the latter. The surrealists considered Keatin one of their great geniuses. And he was…. With Keaton, it’s not about politics – it’s about the existential dilemma.

    See also “Sherlock Jr.” and “Our Hospitatlity” and “The Navigator” – well, as you can see, I could go on and on. He is Chaplin’s equal in very way. But Chaplin’s Little Tramp is a more sentimental figure and so has always appealed to mass audiences – even as he loads his films with socialist messages. Keaton is just The Stoneface – a guy trying to survive in a hostile world.

  • An aside about the “stone face.” Keaton came along in a time when most movie actors had either learned their craft on the stage, or had never been on stage and had no craft. It took a bit of time to master this newfangled thing known as “acting for the camera,” and Keaton was one of the guys who got it right.

    When your eyeball can be 10 feet tall on the silver screen, you don’t have to do a whole lot with your body or facial expressions to communicate to the back row. Keaton understood that a deadpan expression allows the audience to interpret what’s going on, giving practically any interpretation they want. The non-expression expression is ubiquitous these days, and allows even bad actors to be decent, or very good actors to phone in their roles and be decent (see “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” with Streep, for instance.)

  • It’s especially impressive that Keaton figured it out because I believe he came out of vaudeville, right? I don’t know much about his first couple years in films, but he was sort of apprenticing with Fatty Arbuckle, if I recall. Does any of the credit go to him for helping Keaton develop this talent, I wonder?

  • I don’t know, Doc. For all I know, Keaton was a straight man in vaudeville and just got lucky that it carried over well to the screen. Or he may have been a physical comedian who found that deadpan worked well on the vaudeville stage. My specific knowledge of Keaton’s background is very limited. I think you know more than I.

  • I’m not sure how accurate it is, but here is an entertaining bio of Buster:
    http://www.busterkeaton.com/bio1.htm
    Even his nickname was supposedly given to him under dramatic and unusual circumstances. Sharing the bill with the Keatons were the great escape artist Harry Houdini and his wife, Buster’s godparents. Houdini saw little Buster, then only about six months old, slip and tumble down a flight of stairs, arriving virtually unharmed, perhaps even amused, at the bottom. “What a buster your kid took!” Houdini is said to have cried out. With those simple words, Keaton became the first person to use Buster as a name. Buster Brown, Buster Crabbe and Buster Poindexter all came later, presumably owing their names indirectly to Harry Houdini.

  • Several years ago, when visiting some friends and their family, I brought along a videotape of “The General” to share. A couple of the adults were willing to sit down and watch a silent film, but after about fifteen minutes most of the crowd–especially the teenagers–rebelled, screaming that they wanted to watch something different, a movie they’d already seen several times and really liked.
    Into the VCR went a film I’d never seen (and haven’t seen since)–“Benny and Joon”. I remember a scene, toward the end of the opening credits, where a poster of Buster Keaton is very visible, and made a mention of it. As the film went on, I noted again and again the references to Keaton–until I was told to shut up. I guess some folks–maybe most–don’t care much about history or homage.
    Thanks for the reminder! Think I’ll watch Benny and Joon again, and revisit “Steamboat Bill” and “The General” as well.

  • I suppose I’m not surprised that the kids didn’t give it a fair shot.

    I wish I were surprised.

  • couldn’t agree with you more on the genius of keaton. but odd that you picked a photo of depp apeing a scene (the famous forks-in-rolls dance) from a Chaplin film.

  • Yeah, I kinda grabbed a Depp photo I thought people would recognize. Lazy on that, I was.

  • How could she not love Buster? Talent and amazing beauty all rolled into one. Those eyes! That thick wavy hair! Those cheekbones! Those shoulders! That absolutely perfect grabbable ass! *drool*

  • 2 & 1/2 years later…but I just had to let you know that this female here recognizes the genius of Buster Keaton and not just because I think he was handsome. Every time I watch one of his silent films, I marvel at his physical ability. And I completely agree with your statement, that he could convey so much with so little expression.

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