Up next in my year long tribute to Depp’s acting career is a review of his first movie role post-Jump Street. This time out Depp teamed up with a fellow outsider, director John Waters to make Cry-Baby a campy, musical send up 1950s juvenile delinquent films like Rebel Without a Cause (55), Jailhouse Rock (57), The Wild One (53), The Restless Years (58), and Live Fast, Die Young (58). In it Depp starts as Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, a teenage ‘greaser’ complete with slicked back pompadour, leather jacket and white t-shirt.
Set in Waters home town of Baltimore, the ‘drapes’ are at odds with the middle-class ‘squares’ and their socially acceptable lifestyle. Despite his bad boy looks and outsider attitude Cry-Baby and his gang of misfits are essentially good kids at heart. At the centre of this class war is a star-crossed love story between Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane) and Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp).
Among Waters impressive ensemble cast are Iggy Pop, Susan Tyrell, Polly Bergen, Traci Lords, Ricki Lake, Darren E. Burrows, and Kim McGuire.
Allison is being raised by her socialite grandmother Mrs. Vernon-Williams (Polly Bergen) who runs the charm school and who has everything to lose socially by having her granddaughter involved with Cry-Baby and his low class of characters. Allison’s boyfriend Baldwin is happy to stir up anger against the drapes, antagonizing Cry-Baby at every opportunity and leading a party of squares on a raid of the drapes home turf – Turkey Point. The raid ends up with the drapes being rounded up despite being the victims and dragged before the court. Hijinks ensue as people plot to break Cry-Baby out of jail. In the end the lovers are reunited.
Ironically Cry-Baby was Waters’ acceptance by the very Hollywood machine Depp was attempting to distance himself from. After scoring a moderate success with Hair Spray (1988) (the first incarnation not the 2007 version), Waters succeeded in getting green lighted for a Hollywood production and a modest budget that was several times larger than anything Waters had worked with up until that point. Depp was looking to break away from his teen-idol image that he had earned working on 21 Jump Street.
Cry-Baby is the first role in which we can see Depp’s process as an actor beginning to shine through. He immerses himself in the role and convincingly alternates between threatening bad boy and sensitive and misunderstood outsider. One of Depp’s trademarks as an actor is taking inspiration from other well established figures and making them his own. Whether they are real people or other fictional characters, his knack for choosing the right combination of characteristics from these figures is what makes Depp’s characters interesting. In the case of Cry-Baby Walker, Depp admits in It Came From Baltimore documentary that he took inspiration from his father – a real life Greaser, rockabilly pioneers Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, and finally a young Elvis.
Although Waters chose to go with professional singers to dub both Locane and Depp’s musical numbers the lip-syncing is barely noticeable and does not distract from the film in the least. In the It Came From Baltimore documentary available on the Directors cut DVD, Depp confesses that he can’t dance and actually hates it. He admits that it was only with the help of the cast and choreographer he was able to get through the dance scenes.
Cry-Baby was one Depp’s films that I hadn’t experienced before. Although it took me a bit to get into it, the movie turned out to be a fun, ride, with some great campy performances and cheesy musical numbers that I think would best experienced with a group of people and some copious amounts of alcohol.
The film helped open a number of doors to Depp including our next film up for review Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.