Happy birthday Johnny Depp!

The star turns 50 today - but will be keep his cool or turn into an ageing action hero like Tom Cruise? asks Andrew Collins

Anyone who fell for Johnny Depp in one of his early roles – say, the fresh-faced teen idol in Cry-Baby or the tragic Goth outsider in Edward Scissorhands – might be alarmed to discover that the former leftfield hunk turns 50 this week, on Sunday 9 June. An illustrious career – from multimillion-dollar pirate franchise and Tim Burton fantasy to chocolate-box love story and gun-toting thriller – confirms that he’s been neither idle nor pigeonholed in the interim.

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In turning 50, Depp joins a Hollywood club that recently accepted Tom Cruise and Jim Carrey. In December, they will be joined by Brad Pitt. Fans of the “Brat Pack” in the early 80s will also note that Matthew Broderick, Emilio Estevez and Andrew McCarthy were all 50 last year.

But will the big five-oh mark a step up into more dramatic fare or a slow down into facile self-parody? His next three films rather hint towards the latter: The Lone Ranger (opening on Friday 9 August) is a western caper from the people who brought you Pirates of the Caribbean; Transcendence is a huge sci-fi thriller still in production, for which he’s being paid a reported $20 million plus 15% of the gross; and, oh, Pirates 5 is slated for 2015, by which time Depp will be 52 and grunting every time he gets out of his chair.

Fifty is a landmark age for anybody, but crossing the Rubicon into middle-age is all the more pointed for actors. Dazzling careers can go either way, especially in a media-saturated era when youth is a currency prized above gold. We all know how difficult it is for actresses after 40 in this institutionally sexist industry, but while men tend to thrive in their 40s, they don’t necessarily have an easy time of it after the half-century… unless they’re character actors who relish playing doctors and politicians.

Conventional action heroics are less viable for the over-50s, unless, like Harrison Ford, you turn your advancing years into a plus, essaying an “action president” in Air Force One, aged 55, or a more weary Indiana Jones in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, aged 64 (for which Ford admirably refused to dye his hair and did many of his own stunts). It was Indy, of course, who famously remarked, “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage,” and middle-aged male movie stars are sometimes forced to run in order to stand still.

Bruce Willis was in his early 30s when the Die Hard franchise began and his early 50s when it was revived for Die Hard 4.0 in 2007, in which his still-fit cop John McClane is as occupied with protecting his adult daughter as national security. Sylvester Stallone, who turned 50 in 1996, still seems determined to defy the ageing process and keep up the he-man action roles. But at least when he revisited his most famous character for Rocky Balboa in 2006, his pugilist was retired and afflicted with arthritis. Perhaps age is only an issue if you don’t highlight it.

“I’m too old for this s***” was a self-mocking catchphrase in the Lethal Weapon series, during which Danny Glover and Mel Gibson aged from 41 and 31 respectively, to 52 and 42. By addressing the aches and pains of age, the writers head off criticism at the pass.

Going back a generation, blue-eyed boy of legend Paul Newman turned 50 in 1975, having attained critical and commercial success in his 40s with Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and The Sting. Though he did pimp himself out a bit in his 50s – notably in last-gasp disaster movie When Time Ran Out – he also sought challenging projects and was Oscar-nominated two years running for Absence of Malice and The Verdict. His age was key to his credibility, as a Miami businessman in the former and an alcoholic lawyer in the latter. What Newman stopped doing was running around – a salutary lesson to those who follow.

One of my all-time favourites, Gene Hackman, seemed to plump for easy money in his 50s (Uncommon Valor, The Package and numerous episodes of the Superman franchise), but enjoyed a renaissance in his 60s (Unforgiven, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State). So, it can pay to sit it out until your hair whitens.

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Rob Lowe seems to understand that. He turns the corner next year, safe in the knowledge that he’s aged gracefully on TV (The West Wing), where ageism is less of an issue, and he’s currently even parodying the cult of youth as a plastic surgeon with a rictus grin in HBO film Behind the Candelabra. We wish Johnny Depp a peaceful 50th. And we hope that, for cinema’s sake, he starts to act his age. It may yet become him.