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

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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.

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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.

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