Depp Rising: CRY-BABY

by Victor Pryor

The previous installment of Depp Rising can be found here.

The year is 1990. In the five years since Private Resort, Johnny Depp had achieved an unexpected status as a teen heartthrob for his work as Officer Tom Hanson on 21 Jump Street. For someone with his burgeoning ambitions, stardom was an uncomfortable fit.

Depp was serving out the final months of his contract on Jump Street, and hadn’t made an actual theatrical film since Platoon in 1986. The experience of working with a director like Oliver Stone (and the grind of being a TV pretty boy on Jump Street) had made him more selective about the sorts of partners he was willing to work with on the big screen. And while in December of that year the movie that would redefine his life and career would be released, eight months earlier we got a tantalizing taste of what Depp was really capable, and a bittersweet notion of what could have been…

What I’m saying is it would have been way cooler if Johnny Depp had become John Waters’ muse instead of Tim Burton’s…

CRY BABY (1990)

Now as a born and raised Marylander, I have to admit that John Waters has always been a bit of a bugbear of mine. Don’t get me wrong, I love him as a personality (how can you not?), but when it comes to actually sitting down and watching his movies, I find myself… dragging my feet.

I saw Serial Mom with my conservative Christian extended family, which was… an experience. And a friend made me watch A Dirty Shame, which I really liked. So I can’t say I don’t enjoy his work.

But… I’ve always had something of a distaste for the ludicrously tragic. Though I don’t mind the tragically ludicrous so much.

And anyway, you have someone eat dog poop in ONE little movie, and suddenly you develop a reputation that’s a little hard to shake.

So, you know… conflicted feelings.

But when you get down and analyze what gets under my skin about camp, it’s the idea of pointing and laughing at something. I’m highly resistant to that strain of humor where we look down from our high horses at mock earnestness, even when that earnestness results in something cheesy or tacky.

I hate it when we think we’re than fuckin’ cool…

What I didn’t get about John Waters (and what I should have, since I’ve seen so many interviews and read essays and stuff) is that he’s 100% genuine about it.

He straight up loves it, without irony, without remove. He shoves the cheesiest, tackiest shit on our faces and asks us with absolute sincerity, “Isn’t it wonderful?”

All of which is a long winded, fancy pants way of saying I loved this movie to bits.

In a candy colored version of 1950s Baltimore, you’re either a “Square” or a “Drape.” A “Drape” is a “Greaser,” but I guess in Baltimore they called “Greasers” “Drapes,” because I’ve been there enough times to know that in Charm City, they basically do whatever the fuck they want.

Anyway, Wade “Cry-Baby” Williams (our man Depp) is the king of the Drapes. But what happens when a Drape falls in love with a Square (Alison Vernon-Williams, a name so perfect you want to use all of it every time you say it)?

Lots and lots of songs and dancing.

It’s a musical, you see.

But, like, a good one.

When you watch movies like this that you realize just how much Depp bristled against his sex symbol, Tiger Beat status. When he wasn’t donning grotesque disguises to obscure his boyish good looks, he was doing straight up piss-takes on classic hunky archetypes.

I mean, I very much doubt going in that Depp thought Edward Scissorhands was going to be thought of as sexy. But when you look like he does, and have a habit of playing wounded romantics, how the fuck did you expect teenage girls are going to react?

His Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker is basically the ur-text for this sort of thing, a hilarious spoof of the sensitive punk cliche that blew up poodle skirts in the 50s. Homage paid to James Dean (or, perhaps more appropriately, Marlon Brando), but with added former underage porn stars and kidnap victims.

The cast is one of the main attractions in a John Waters movie, and this is no exception. Besides Depp (and Amy Locane as Alison Vernon-Williams), we have such Waters stalwarts as Joe Dallesandro, Mink Stole, and Ricki Lake, mixed in with newcomers Traci Lords, Patti Hearst, Iggy Pop(!), and (newcomer being a relative term) Troy Donahue. There’s even a brief little bit with comedy superstar Willem Dafoe!

(Well, I think he’s funny…)

But it’s not just the big names that score here. Everybody gets a turn. I have a special fondness for Baldwin, Alison Vernon-Williams’ jilted Square boyfriend, who is hilariously spazzy. I mean, just look at this:

That is a man who is deeply committed to being uncool.

I also got a huge kick out of the delightfully trampy Lenora (Kim Webb), whose increasingly desperate attempts to seduce Cry-Baby never get old, and who has maybe the best pouty face I’ve ever seen on an actual human being.

But the MVP has to be Kim McGuire as Hatchet-Face, a Drape with a mug so grotesque that it circles all the back to… well, not beautiful. Not even close. But I couldn’t stop staring, which has to count for something.

Look, the movie has Susan Tyrell and Iggy Pop as a happily married couple of rednecks. And any movie with Susan Tyrell (from personal favorite of mine The Forbdden Zone) and Iggy Pop as husband and wife is going to be damn near impossible for me not to fall a little bit in love with.

The key word here is fun. Everybody in this movie seems to be having an insane amount of fun goofing around, and it’s infectious. This is what all of us once and future aspiring directors expected filmmaking to be when you’re a kid: just you and your weirdo, goofball buddies cracking each other up and putting on a show. Then you find out that it’s all location gouging and getting fucked in the editing room because you couldn’t get coverage before you lost the daylight. Such a bummer.

But watching Cry-Baby made it all seem like a party again.

In his first actual starring role, Depp commands the screen. Unlike later roles where he’ll add his own weirdness to offset a vanilla script, he plays right into the off-kilter rhythms Waters sets up here. For Cry-Baby, this isn’t ridiculous — it’s high drama, and he’s perfectly at home taking all this absurdity dead seriously. The way he tears into his monologue about why he hates lightning is downright masterful. He never winks, and the film is that much stronger for it.

Not to mention he cuts a mean rockabilly figure…

Which is exactly why I wish Depp had kept making films with Waters instead of running around with Tim Burton. While Burton and Depp brought out the worst in each other, chasing each other’s tails in an ever shrinking circle of sanitized art school reject bullshit, Waters showed a knack for harnessing his restless energy and guiding it towards something less forced but no less offbeat. I don’t know that Waters ever worked with such a star, and if they had kept going, it’s fun (or maybe just a little depressing) to imagine what would have happened if they had joined forces.

Just think: we could have lives in a world where Johnny Depp is still making weird, awesome little films; and where John Waters is still making films, period!

Then again, it’s possible Johnny never would have become a huge star if he had hitched his trailer to the Waters wagon, but having seen how that wound up, I think I might be willing to make that trade.

I’m just sayin’: I don’t know that the world would have missed Captain Jack Sparrow had he never existed…

Of course, after all those kudos I just handed out, it’s important to remember that Cry-Baby wasn’t a hit. It only made $8,000,000 on an $11,000,000 budget. Depp’s first turn as a lead was, for all intents and purposes, a failure.

It seemed like Johnny’s bid for big screen leading man stardom was over before it had even begun. How long would it be before he even got a second chance?

Actually, it was in December, when he and Tim Burton first got together to make Edward Scissorhands. But I’m not covering that one, so we’re moving on.

And so it went: almost immediately after Cry-Baby, Depp hit it big and went on a winning streak that he only could have only dreamed of.

But there was still one dream left to fulfill…


Previous post AGE OF ULTRON Character Report Card
Next post FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD: Carey Mulligan Deserved A Better Film Surrounding Her