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critic’s Notebook

What happens when an actor turns 50? Ask Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp turned 50 on June 9. That might be an even bigger deal than his starring as Tonto in “The Lone Ranger,” which reunites Depp with Gore Verbinski, the director of the first three “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.

True, “Ranger,” which opens Wednesday, cost $250 million. That’s tempting a lot of financial fate. But Depp reaching the half-century mark might be tempting fate even more. It confronts us with what’s been most distinctive about him as actor and movie star.

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The idea of Depp at such an age seems slightly shocking — maybe more than slightly. Aging is almost as much of an occupational hazard in Hollywood as it is in professional sports (Michael Jordan turned 50 in February). It’s not as if being 50 is unique to Depp (Brad Pitt turns 50 in December). And compared to what female movie stars have to put up with (Helen Hunt turned 50 two weeks ago), men have a whole lot less to complain about.

Yet Depp entering his sixth decade carries a burden all its own. Some male movie stars trade on seemingly perpetual youth. For them, longevity is like a loaded gun — and wrinkles are curare-tipped bullets. The prime example of such a star is Tom Cruise, who despite turning 50 last year has managed to keep that gun from going off. Who needs a fountain of youth when you have “Oblivion”?

Personal trainers and plastic surgeons can do a lot for such actors. They can’t do much, if anything, for Depp. He’s yet to need them, for one thing, with that slender build and those smooth, almost androgynous features. When he and Kate Moss were breaking up hotel rooms together, back in the ’90s, it would have been hard to say who had the finer bone structure. And as regards youthfulness, there’s that name. People like feeling familiar with their screen idols: not John (Nicholson), Thomas (Cruise), Matthew (Damon), Clinton (Eastwood). But they don’t want to feel grade-school familiar. So it’s not Jackie or Tommy or Matty or Clinty (definitely not Clinty). It is Johnny, though.

In so many of his best-known roles, Depp has seemed ageless, neither old nor young but intriguingly indeterminate. They also have what Depp says is ‘a lost-soul quality.’

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John (not Johnny) Updike has the hero of his novel “The Coup” remark, “I realized that in America a man is a failed boy.” Depp made his movie debut in 1984, sixth-billed in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” So for almost three decades now he has been an exalted boy, or at least an ageless one. One marvels at the poetic rightness of his being cast as J. M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, in “Finding Neverland.” In a film that never got finished, Depp was to have played Sancho Panza for Terry Gilliam. But the literary figure he would seem born for is the chief resident of the island of Lost Boys.

Boyishness as a quality has as much to do with innocence and apartness as it does with chronology. In a world run by grown-ups, that which is boyish is always going to seem both naïve and alien. Youthfulness, of the Cruise sort, is aspiring adulthood. Boyishness is oblivious to adulthood. It was playing a cop pretending to be a high school student, in TV’s “21 Jump Street,” that made Depp a star. But even though he was portraying someone who was in turn portraying someone younger than himself, his persona has never depended on cheating time by pretending to be younger. So much of what has made Depp special — and make no mistake, he’s one of our finest movie actors as well as biggest stars — is that he’s stood outside of time, or even beyond it.

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In so many of his best-known roles, Depp has seemed somehow ageless, neither old nor young but intriguingly indeterminate. Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Don Juan DeMarco, Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, Barnabas Collins, and, yes, Captain Jack Sparrow: All seem, in their wildly various ways, ageless. All of them also have what Depp has spoken of as “a lost-soul quality.” That can be true of his more realistic characters, too, like Donnie Brasco or even John Dillinger.

This lost-soul effect can be enchanting (Edward and Ed). It can also be creepy (kids, accept candy from a stranger before you do so from Willy Wonka). Either way, it’s Depp. Even when he’s playing someone of a specific age, as in the title role of “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” he somehow lends the character an out-of-time quality. Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Depp’s handicapped kid brother, got all the attention — and a best supporting actor Oscar nomination. But the quiet gravity Depp brought to Gilbert made the movie work. Yes, Depp can make flamboyance seem effortless. Out of that effortlessness he’s created a $4 billion-dollar industry. Maybe the name should be spelled Jack $parrow. Never forget, though, how uncannily good Depp can be at stillness and quiet.

One of the things that sets Depp apart from his peers is a genius for impersonation. He famously based Sparrow on Keith Richards and Pepe Le Pew. Depp’s Raoul Duke, in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” is so eerily like Hunter S. Thompson it’s amazing that their friendship survived the performance. And if Michael Jackson hadn’t existed, would Depp’s Willy Wonka? Impersonation is evasive as most acting is not. It’s a way of drawing scrutiny and deflecting it at the same time.

Even when Depp isn’t basing a performance on impersonation, the character he’s playing can be. How many other stars have so often played characters passing themselves off as someone else, as Depp has in “21 Jump Street,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “The Tourist”? Ed Wood’s transvestism is a form of disguise, and Tonto’s war paint certainly is. As played by Depp, he’s as masked as the Lone Ranger.

Depp has collaborated with Tim Burton eight times. As a team, they are what John Wayne and John Ford or Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese once were (or what DiCaprio and Scorsese would like to be). It’s Burton, even more than the actor’s looks, perhaps, who has contributed the most to keeping Depp beyond the apparent reach of time. With his relish for unreality, Burton has served as chief enabler for the cultivation of Depp’s wrinkle-free, slightly inhuman side. Whether that enabling has been a good thing or bad is open to debate. What isn’t open to debate is how much of it there’s been.

Even when set in Ireland or Polynesia, a Ford movie with Wayne feels at least a little like a western. Even when no crimes are being committed, a Scorsese movie with De Niro feels at least a little like a Mafia picture. Even when live action (as all but one are), a Burton movie with Depp feels at least a little like animation. Maybe Depp’s greatest achievement as an actor is to transform cartoonishness into a facsimile of flesh and blood.

Now that he’s in his 50s, Depp’s challenge is the reverse: to keep flesh and blood from seeming cartoonish — or at least not too much. The last few “Pirates” movies — and a fifth one has been announced for 2015 — indicate the outcome is in doubt. What about Tonto? Saddle ’em up, kemosabe. We’ll find out in a few days.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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