[15 May 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Throughout the history of film, there have been several successful actor/director collaborations - Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant and Alfred Hitchcock, Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese…even Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin. From John Ford and his western icon muse, John Wayne to Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon, the results usually remind viewers of the special bond between cast and crew. Nowhere is this more true than in the work of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. While he has also used his wife Helena Bonham Carter in his last seven films, the eight this filmmakers has made with the former teen idol stand as an important linking verb to today’s Hollywood. After the ultra-high concept days of the ‘80s, Burton and Depp have managed to make material otherwise deemed weird or eclectic into a brazen box office bonanza. They haven’t always succeeded wholly, but their attempts consistently borderline art.
So how does one rank such a divergent collection? How do you place a noble adaptation of a time honored Broadway masterwork alongside a silly slice of fairy tale reinterpretation. Oddly enough, quality overwhelms many of the more mundane reasons. While he is often criticized for his storytelling skills and lack of a successful third act, Burton can bring out the best in his partners. As seen in the determination below, the eight efforts (with, one assumes, more to come) guided by the duo defy easy explanation or examination. Like the men who made them, they are complicated, easily misunderstood, and often dismissed without a desire to dig deeper. When viewed through a less arch aesthetic, we discover that, overall, Burton and Depp have triumphed. Not always in the ways viewers might want, but definitely within the designs that keep their teamwork tantalizing. Let’s begin with their most recent revision:
As a collaboration between the two divergent artists, this should have been better. As a matter of fact, it plays perfectly into both men’s mindset (the tortured outsider, the unusual communal collective he or she falls into, wild-eyed eccentricities and real world intrusion…). So why is it the last entry on the list? Simple, it carries too much baggage around with it to be a true Burton/Depp success. Instead, the spirit of Dan Curtis and the lasting legacy of his bizarro world soap opera thwarts everything the pair attempts. The results are confusing and often cheerless.
Burton goes big, and brings Depp along to indulge his desire to play peculiar. In this case, Lewis Carrol’s lesson in dream logic is retrofitted into a grrrl power proclamation within polite Victorian society. Once in the supposed magic kingdom, we get oppression, malaise, and a real amount of terror. One has to give the director credit for a vision unlike any attempted before in the Alice mythos. This doesn’t mean Burton always succeeds. On the other hand, Depp is delightful as the Hatter with a battered backstory. Even in a fancy fright wig, he delivers depth.
For decades, people complained about the original Willy Wonka adaptation. No, not because of Gene Wilder’s dead-on interpretation of the character, but how the rest of the film avoids the jaded joys in Roald Dahl’s book. So when it was announced that Burton would take on the title, and would bring Depp along as the complicated chocolate king, fans were excited—and for most, the pair provided the beloved kid lit goods. Sure, some things are spiffed up for this reimagining, and few can top original cast members like Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca) and Peter Ostrum (Charlie). Still, it sings instead of sinking.
When he first tackled stop motion animation, Burton lent his name and his ideas to the now beloved Nightmare Before Christmas. For his second time within the format, he teamed up with Mike Johnson to make this satiric spook show romance. Depp is the voice of a harried dandy who is set to marry the dull Victoria Everglot. His cold feet leads to the resurrection of the title character, and her insistence that she and poor Victor are now married. As with any material mined from Burton’s own brain, there’s a sense of someone working close to their heart. The look and feel is fun… and fascinating.
When allowed to work within all of his contradictory comfort zones, Burton can deliver something shocking and sensational. This obvious homage to the Hammer films of Britain, as well as the introduction of CSI-style techniques to ancient detective work, walks a fine line between dread and dementia. The script by Se7en‘s Andrew Kevin Walker works to unleash both the paranormal and the practical, with Depp delightful as the policeman poised to turned Washington Irving’s legend into an early American bloodbath. Everything we expect from the pair appears front and center on the screen, from the desire to explore the outsider aspect of Ichabod to the brilliant art and set design.
Like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this was another obsessed over effort (the musical by Stephen Sondheim is a masterpiece) that many believed only Burton could properly present. When he decided to bring on Depp, as well as his gal pal Helena Bonham Carter, many feared their limited vocal skills would destroy the narrative’s operatic pitch. Instead, they brought the over the top material down to Earth, suggested the real sadness in the title character’s crimes. Overlooked at awards season (where it would have been bested by No Country for Old Men), it represents the ultimate expression of the Burton/Depp combo: dark, dangerous, and always taking risks.
A biopic of the worst director of all time (or, at least, that’s the overused opinion of a couple of misguided Medveds)? Deep cast as the talentless transvestite responsible for such cult travesties as Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space? While it seems like a long shot, the duo actually delivered in spry, satiric spades. By turning the tale of Edward D. Wood into a parallel piece about the discarded and disregarded in the often brutal town of Tinsel, Burton cast new light on the topic, as well as the last, lonely days of former fright icon Bela Lugosi. While not 100% factual, it’s 100% fantastic.
As perhaps the ultimate expression of Burton’s wounded soul, this movie has no equals. It’s melancholy, meaningful, and ultimately a masterpiece. It sees Depp actually diving into a role, hungry to prove his post-21 Jump Street appeal with a complementary cast willing to work with both artists to achieve their aims. From the moment we first lay eyes on the title character, we are fascinated. By the time his fate is determined, we are weeping. Whenever fans complain about the shortcuts taken by their later collaborations, it is most likely this initial pairing the provides the litmus test. A true piece of art.