From Johnny Depp to Hunter S Thompson: no such thing as a glamorous drunk

17 Nov

As an exchange student in the US, I once paid to hear Hunter S Thompson give a talk. The venue was a bar called The Iron Horse and the writer had clearly been drinking deep in advance. Thompson came on stage carrying an egg whisk which he beat against the table at regular intervals. He swayed so violently at the microphone that that the speakers only broadcast about one word in three. The event was a joke and the speech was a car-crash. I was reminded of the spectacle while watching Johnny Depp last weekend.

On Saturday night, the Pirates of the Caribbean star staggered on stage at the Hollywood film awards, pausing only to say: “That’s the weirdest microphone I’ve seen in my life.” He then proceeded to slur and sway his way through a tribute to the veteran talent agent Shep Gordon, himself the subject of a fawning documentary (Supermensch) by the comedian Mike Myers. It was the most compelling performance Depp has given since he provided the voice of the lizard gunslinger in Rango – but perhaps not quite in the way he intended.

One of the more charming facets of Johnny Depp’s persona is his childlike, puppyish devotion to his idols. Depp loves Jack Kerouac and Keith Richards; William Burroughs and Rimbaud – and yes, of course, he loves Hunter Thompson as well. He sets his course by the wild stars of old and harks back to a time when great artists were free-spirits, hard-drinkers, tottering from the party to the chat-show and producing demented masterworks along the way. Throughout his own career, Depp has specialised in playing rogues and buccaneers, gangsters and oddballs, and possibly he views himself along similar lines. “With every part you play, there is a certain amount of yourself in there,” he once explained. On Saturday night he played the part of the untameable actor. He came to upset the applecart and bring a little danger back to Hollywood.

How did he do? The early reviews were encouraging. Down in the audience, Shep Gordon chuckled indulgently; Mike Myers hailed the performance as “very rock-and-roll”. And yet Depp, it seemed, had misjudged his wider audience. Staring agog at the screen, most viewers did not see a beautiful young hellraiser, unmindful of convention. They saw a befuddled 51-year-old man with dyed hair and sunglasses, drunkenly squinting at an autocue in the distance. The only danger, so far as I could tell, was that he might wet himself.

On starting this blog, I was going to argue that Johnny Depp has become a victim of his own mystique and a casualty of changing times. He is a wanton, boozy romantic adrift in an age of sobriety; he would have enjoyed himself more in the 60s and 70s. Now I’m wondering whether the old days were really as fun as all that, and whether the likes of Richard Burton, Oliver Reed and Richard Harris were quite as thrilling when loaded as legend assures us they were. Might they, in fact, have been just a little loud and boring? Being drunk can be fun; watching one is less so. And surely it was ever thus.

Today, for the first time in years, I recall that night at the Iron Horse and the mounting irritation and disappointment of the audience there. If Depp ever wanted to be Thompson, he can now tick that goal off his list. His weekend performance was arguably more authentic than the ones he gave in Fear and Loathing and The Rum Diary. His performance was a triumph; he caught the man to perfection. He was dull and confused. All that was missing was the whisk.


One Response to “From Johnny Depp to Hunter S Thompson: no such thing as a glamorous drunk”

  1. Minnie1 November 25, 2014 at 12:24 pm #

    The only glamorous drunk I’ve ever seen is Cary Grant in “North By Northwest”.

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