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?