The first shot of Johnny Depp as notorious Irish-American crime lord James “Whitey” Bulger in “Black Mass” shows the Boston kingpin shrouded in darkness, looking for all the world like a blue-collar vampire pondering his next prey: Slicked-back thinning hair, rotted teeth, a pasty complexion, a snug leather jacket and contact lenses that turn the onetime teen idol’s dreamy brown eyes into a chilly shade of sociopathic blue.
This obviously is a guy who means business. And that business is not just mean but monstrously evil.
For anyone else, a role that requires an intensive de-glamming job, brutal acts of bloody murder and even the sexual molestation of the beautiful face of an FBI agent’s wife could easily lead to showboating. Think bat-swinging Robert De Niro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables.” Or Jack Nicholson as Frank Costello, the leering Irish mobster based on Bulger, in “The Departed.”
But while Depp fully commits to his demonic killer, he never allows himself to plunge overboard. Instead, his Bulger slays his foes with the unhesitating skill of a professional exterminator, just doing his job on the dirty streets of Southie. Such controlled aggression in everyday settings is much more skin-crawling than a series of over-the-top explosions, allowing the actor to truly be one with his character.
After a strong showings at both the Venice and Telluride film festivals and with anticipation high before it opens in theaters on Sept. 18, “Black Mass” is likely to give this man of a thousand quirks – from Ed Wood and Willie Wonka to Capt. Jack Sparrow and the Mad Hatter – his fourth try at a best-actor Oscar. There are several narratives being tossed out by awards pundits of why this could happen, beyond the fact that Depp is extremely effective in the part, much more so than when he tried his hand at Depression-era gangster John Dillinger in 2009’s “Public Enemies.”
One popular scenario is that “Black Mass” represents some sort of comeback for Depp, a reclaiming of his bearings. It’s true that 2012’s “Dark Shadows,” 2013’s “The Lone Ranger” and 2014’s “Transcendence” disappointed. And whatever good will he engendered with his zoot-suited rendition of the Big Bad Wolf in 2014’s “Into the Woods” evaporated after the mortifying comedy “Mordecai” earlier this year.
But how can you come back if you never really went away? At 52, Depp has been a force to be reckoned with for nearly three decades, one who has always taken risks in his work. While there are misfires, there are some that hit the mark so hard, as was the case of the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” adventure in 2003, that they send its star to the next level and even ignite a franchise.
The other theory is that Depp is finally taking his craft seriously again. But he has always put a lot of energy into creating his one-of-the-kind colorful characters, whether with bits of business involving his outward appearance or basing his performances on people he has known. If they seem silly or slight, that is often the fault of the movie itself for not fully capitalize on his talents.
However, it is a fact that Depp hasn’t had that many chances to draw primarily upon his considerable dramatic reserves as he does when portraying Bulger. There is no room for knowing winks or silliness in “Black Mass.” About the closest the actor gets to an laugh-worthy moment is actually quite unnerving. In a nod to Joe Pesci ‘s “I’m here to fuckin’ amuse you?” rant in “Goodfellas,” Bulger taunts an FBI agent for being too forthcoming with sharing his family’s secret recipe for grilled steak, suggesting maybe he might be too loose-lipped with other information. As the man turns ashen, Depp cackles and says, “I’m just fucking with you.” And, indeed, he is.
There is one plus in the Oscar column when it comes to remembering Depp’s performance during the ensuing months before nominations are announced: Bulger is bestowed with a doozy of a catchphrase, one that he shares during a heart-to-heart talk with his 6-year-old son after the kid punches a bully at school. His patriarchal advice? To avoid being caught: “If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”
Ultimately, “Black Mass” provides Depp with super-sized meal of a role that he can sink his teeth into without the risk that his physical accoutrements will upstage him. It’s a rarity when the actor isn’t required to affect an accent and/or alter his looks to bring a character to life. That is Depp’s modus operandi and part of the reason he has a loyal fan base. But here are five other films when he was allowed to plunge into deeper waters than those provided by those pirate outings.
1. “Edward Scissorhands” (1990). “Platoon,” Oliver Stone’s 1986 Oscar-winning Vietnam War film, was supposed to be Depp’s release from the chains of teeny-bopper worship tyranny engendered by his TV series “21 Jump Street.” But his part as a military translator was severely cut in the final edit. Instead, it was his first of eight (and counting) big-screen collaborations with director Tim Burton that made critics sit up and truly take notice for the first time.
This fable, about an artificial man who looks like a haunted kabuki scarecrow with finger-like shears where his hands should be ( the result of his Geppetto-like inventor – played by Depp hero Vincent Price — dying before finishing his creation) is rife with Burton’s trademark campy humor and dark whimsy. But Depp mostly plays it straight and silent, relying such silver-screen pioneers as Buster Keaton and
Charlie Chaplin as wordless mentors as a sweet-nature misfit with sorrowful eyes who ends up being celebrated for his topiary artistry by residents of a Florida subdivision. The actor summons large reserves of pathos and innocent humor as an outsider who dares not get close to anyone lest they be sliced and diced while keeping treacly sentiment in check.
2. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” (1993). Depp is an overwhelmed father figure of an American Gothic-style family in rural Iowa headed by an obese agoraphobic mother who can barely move in this low-key character study directed by Lasse Hallstrom. Gilbert keeps a watch on his two younger sisters while devoting himself to being the selfless protector of his demanding, brain-damaged younger brother, Armie (Leonardo DiCaprio). While DiCaprio is the heart-tugging revelation as the behaviorally challenged Arnie, a supporting role that earned him the first of four Oscar nominations for acting, Depp is equally impressive in a less flashy lead performance as he quietly struggles to keep his loved ones from falling apart.
An interesting development may occur if DiCaprio goes up against Depp in the actor race this year for his work in “The Revenant,” a wilderness thriller that arrives at year’s end. It would be the second time that the men went head to head in the category. They previously competed against one another 10 years ago, when Depp was up for “Finding Neverland” and DiCaprio was recognized for “The Aviator. “
3. “Donnie Brasco” (1997). Depp’s first foray into organized crime thrillers is the polar opposite of “Black Mass.” He plays real-life FBI agent, Joseph D. Pistone, who went undercover with an assumed name and joined a Mafia family, ingratiating himself with Al Pacino’s world-weary aging gangster in order to build a case against the mobsters. His mission here is to make the audience feel his character’s conflicting emotions as he finds himself being seduced into a life of crime and camaraderie while his own personal life suffers. Depp is terrific at expressing such complex emotions in subtle ways and he and Pacino — in a grittier gangland arena than “The Godfather” series — are a good match.
While “Donnie Brasco,” directed by Mike Newell, flew a bit under the radar when it was initially released, it is a must-see for anyone interested in charting Depp’s growth as an actor and also is an interesting counterpoint to Bulger.
The clip (above) shows Depp in one of the more memorable moments in the film, explaining what the term “fuggedaboutit!” means to a pair of FBI technicians who happened to be played by Paul Giamatti and Tim Blake Nelson.
4. “Finding Neverland” (2004). Although rather underappreciated by some high-profile critics, this semi-autobiographical mix of reality and fantasy — which relates how a sickly young widow, Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), and her four sons became the inspiration for Scottish author J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” — was the source of Depp’s second Oscar nomination.
The naturally boyish writer uses the adventures he shares with the clan for scenes in his fanciful play filled with fairies, pirates and a crocodile with a ticking clock in its belly. Depp is in understated mode, and demonstrates a natural rapport with young Freddie Highmore’s Peter, who would be Charlie opposite his Willie Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”
Some reviewers were less than pleased with the uneasy mix of re-enacted portions of the play and the melodrama that builds around Barrie’s relationship with the Davies family (which raises eyebrows and causes his wife to leave him) as he strives to ensure his latest work will fly in a theater. As Ken Tucker snidely observed in his New York magazine review, “If it didn’t have Johnny Depp as its star, ‘Finding Neverland’ would barely pass muster as an average PBS ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ entry.”
However, a fair number critics warmed to this valentine to the power of imagination, as did Oscar voters who nominated it for best picture along with six other nods including Depp’s.
5. “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007). The source of Depp’s third Oscar nomination is a Stephen Sondheim musical that is right up his and frequent collaborator Burton’s ghoulish alley. It might also be his most serious role ever. It’s a twisted if grim tale set in Victorian London about a falsely convicted man who learns that his wife perished while he was incarcerated and his now-grown daughter is in the care of one of his wrongdoers. He exacts revenge on those responsible for his tragic circumstances by giving some rather close shaves with a straight razor. .
Not only does Depp make a dashing If embittered Victorian-era barber turned serial killer, he fearlessly growls his way through the challenging score as if he were a Broadway veteran, acting with conviction through the songs like a pro (The New York Times described Depp’s voice as “harsh and thin, but amazingly forceful”). He and Helena Bonham Carter were also perfectly matched as her wicked Mrs. Lovett makes her own killing by selling grisly meat pies made from the bodies of his victims.