Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, Johnny Depp's latest adventure in gender-bending.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
March 8 2010 9:36 AM

Johnny Depp's Adventures in Gender-Bending

Swishy pirates, reclusive bachelors, Victorian dandies, and now a foppish hatter.

See great pictures of other mad hatters from Magnum Photos and people who are late! They're late!

Click here for a video slide show on Johnny Depp's long run of gender-bending roles.

Has an A-list actor ever had a queerer career than Johnny Depp has? The former teen heartthrob and reigning Sexiest Man Alive gets credit for choosing "unconventional" roles, but here unconventional is code for "sexually ambiguous." Though his real-life sexuality has never been much of an issue (after a series of high-profile romances with starlets like Winona Ryder and Kate Moss, he's been with French actress Vanessa Paradis since the late '90s), Depp's big-screen sexual persona has always been remarkably fluid, emphasizing rather than overcoming his fine feminine features and approaching role after role as installments in a serial drag show.

Yet it's not really an issue of playing gay. The main conceit of many of Depp's characters is that they're neither here nor there. From hetero cross-dressers and goth-chic beauticians to swishy pirates, mop-topped reclusive bachelors, and flighty Victorian dandies, Depp's characters accentuate the ambiguous. They mess with Mr. In-Between. Even when a character's sexual status isn't in contention, identity remains complicated and traditional romance is thwarted. In Chocolat he's more object of desire than active lover, more Kim Novak than Cary Grant. As an FBI agent in Donnie Brasco, Depp neglects his wife (portrayed by, um, Anne Heche) to foster a secret life as Al Pacino's admiring protégé; in Dead Man and again in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he forms deeply symbiotic bonds with male companions.

Advertisement

With more than 50 films to Depp's credit, there are, of course, exceptions, and generalizations only go so far. Last year's Public Enemies, in which he played strident anti-hero John Dillinger and a heat-seeking lover of Marion Cotillard, has perhaps been the straightest role in Depp's two-and-a-half-decade career. His follow-up? Alice in Wonderland, in which he plays the Mad Hatter, already one of the fruitiest characters in the history of Western literature, as an orange-haired, chalk-faced, gap-toothed fop.

Depp has staked his star power on the kinds of parts that other performers either cautiously avoid or opportunistically flaunt. And yet he's more popular than ever, bending popular notions of gender and movie stardom while remaining safe for the likes of Disney. How has he done it?

Click here for a video slide show on Johnny Depp's long run of gender-bending roles.

Become a fan of  Slate on Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Eric Hynes is a New York-based journalist and film critic.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

Florida State’s New President Is Underqualified and Mistrusted. He Just Might Save the University.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
The Eye
Oct. 1 2014 9:26 AM These Lego Masterpieces Capture the Fear and Humor of the “Dark” Side
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Sept. 30 2014 3:21 PM Meet Jordan Weissmann Five questions with Slate’s senior business and economics correspondent.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 8:46 AM The Vintage eBay Find I Wore to My Sentencing
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:00 PM There’s Going to Be a Live-Action Tetris Movie for Some Reason
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.