Despite the relative disappointment of “Dark Shadows” — the film’s closing on $200 million worldwide, which is nothing to be sniffed at — Johnny Depp is still one of the biggest stars in the world, something sure to only be further cemented by next year’s “The Lone Ranger.” But the actor must have had one of the most curious career paths of any top-tier star: from horror movie fodder in “Nightmare on Elm Street” to war movie bit-parter in “Platoon” to TV hearthrob in “21 Jump Street” to freakish leading man in “Edward Scissorhands” to leading man in indie-minded films like “Benny & Joon” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” to would-be mainstream leading man in “Chocolat” and “From Hell.”
And then came “Pirates of the Caribbean.” A blockbuster movie based on a theme park ride, with Depp as the most recognizable name in the cast, many raised eyebrows, but the film turned out to be tremendously entertaining, and finally made him a brand name A-lister, with audiences turning out in droves to see the actor in further sequels, as well as a diverse mix of films like the Oscar-nominated “Finding Neverland,” horror sleeper hit “Secret Window,” and films with most frequent collaborator Tim Burton, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory,” “The Corpse Bride” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
We have to admit at being a little tired of Depp’s shtick these days: the actor seems to march from overblown caricature to overblown caricature in big budget tentpoles, with smaller films like “The Rum Diary” becoming rarer and rarer. But a fun cameo in this year’s “21 Jump Street” reboot certainly reminded us that the possibility is still there for something more interesting, and looking back on his career has made us realize that whatever happens, he’ll always be one of cinema’s most idiosyncratic and brilliant actors; we hope that a planned collaboration with Edgar Wright on “The Night Stalker” delivers another classic Depp turn. The actor turns 49 today: to mark the occasion, we’ve picked out our five favorite performance by him. Let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
“Ed Wood” (1994)
We decided to limit ourselves to just one Burton/Depp collaboration: “Edward Scissorhands” came close, and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and even “Sweeney Todd” had their advocates. But it was their second film together (of eight, so far) that takes the prize for us. Probably Burton’s finest film (and curiously, his most grounded in the real world — obviously a relative thing, but still), his portrait of Edward D. Wood Jr, the man frequently pointed to as the worst director in history, is personal, funny and deeply touching. And at the center of a collection of wonderful performances (Martin Landau‘s Oscar-winning Bela Lugosi and Bill Murray‘s camp old queen Bunny are particular highlights) is Depp, as the title character. As the helmer, the actor brings a certain cheap ’50s matinee idol charm, like a flea market Cary Grant, and a cheery hopelessness that makes him entirely winning and entirely human in a way that Depp’s performances rarely do — he cannily shows that Wood could talk the talk, even if he couldn’t then walk the walk. Had you not believed that Wood was able to convince people to fund and appear in his films, the whole picture could have come crashing down, but Depp is so persuasive throughout that you feel that you too would have stolen a rubber octopus for him. He also carefully walks the line when it comes to the character’s cross-dressing habits: playing it for laughs without unnecesssarily making fun of Wood, a very delicate balancing act that pays off with plenty of pathos.
“Dead Man” (1995)
Coming off a string of 90s movies that all saw him, to one degree or another, indulge in his talent for the whimsical and/or the off-kilter, Depp consolidated his reputation as one of the more interesting actors around by taking the lead role in wilfully off-kilter auteur Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man.” In it, he plays William Blake (names and namesakes form just one of the film’s themes) a meek accountant from Cleveland who heads out west, gets a chest full of “white man’s metal,” is pursued by desperadoes and falls in with a Native American called Nobody. Representing a high point in both men’s careers, the film, most regularly described as a ‘spiritual Western,’ starts out as an impressionistic evocation of a post-railway, but still wild, West. But it quickly evolves into something odder and more hallucinatory, and since Depp is really the throughline, it’s up to him to keep us compelled throughout the episodic narrative with its frequent, theatrical fades, and to drop enough breadcrumbs so that we never lose the trail. This he achieves mostly by significantly underplaying the majority of his role, so that even the tiniest moment, a hesitant smile or a gasp of surprise echoes through the landscape of his character’s psychology, just as gunshots shatter the peacefulness of those forest trails. It is also a generous decision, as it allows the (frankly, OMFG amazing) supporting cast to go all-out in contrast, often letting them imbue roles that are no more than cameos with stylized quirks and moments of broad, ludicrous comedy. And let’s not forget it’s a fabulously pretty film, and Depp’s face has to take as much of the credit for that as the scenery or the detailing or the meticulous black-and-white photography (in fact, the overhead shot of Depp as Blake cradling the dead fawn is one of this writer’s absolutely favorite images from a film ever). The film was divisive on release, with some viewers seeing it as an overreaching exercise in pretension and others regarding it as one of the very best films of the period. A recent rewatch has us salivating for our inevitable Jarmusch retrospective so that we can properly offer up all our reasons for being in the latter camp. But for now, suffice to say that while he’s playing a character who progresses from dim to dying to dead, this is still one of the most satisfying character arcs of the actor’s career, and interpreting it as a man finding his way even as he’s losing his life, Depp sells it completely.
“Donnie Brasco” (1997)
For all the freaks and weirdos that Depp has played over the years, from “Edward Scissorhands” to Barnabas Collins, it can be deeply refreshing to see him play an ordinary human being. And he’s perhaps never done that better than in 1997’s “Donnie Brasco,” in which Depp returned to the undercover law-enforcement roots of his TV breakout “21 Jump Street.” Penned by “Quiz Show” writer Paul Attanasio, and directed by Mike Newell, in an unlikely follow-up to “Four Weddings And A Funeral,” Depp plays the title character, who’s brought into the NYC mob by Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino), a troubled, low-level hitman, after befriending him. Except Donnie Brasco is actually Joseph D. Pistone, an FBI agent charged with infiltrating the family, and as soon as he’s found out, both he and Lefty will get bullets in the head. The film occasionally dips into undercover cop cliches, but for the most part it’s admirably truthful and low-key, and the central performances are a marvel. It’s arguably Pacino’s last great turn, and complimented beautifully by Depp; he’s got real tough guy swagger as Brasco, cheekboned like a young Christopher Walken, and simultaneously excited by his new profession of violence, and horrified at what he’s becoming. And there’s legitimate anguish when he’s ‘out of character’ as it were, as Pistone frets about the fate of Lefty. What’s most impressive of all is the extent to which Depp underplays the part (it’s the forerunner of his best recent performance, as John Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” although this one’s the keeper). It’s a reminder of the depth of his skills, and one that we perhaps wish Depp himself would take another look at these days.
“Fear & Loathing In Las Vegas” (1998)
Of course, sometimes the freaks are more fun. Decades in the works (with Jack Nicholson, Dan Aykroyd, John Malkovich and John Cusack all having been linked with the lead at some point), the film version of Hunter S. Thompson‘s seminal “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” finally made it to screens under the eye of Terry Gilliam. And once Thompson himself met with Depp, they became fast friends, and he insisted that the actor was the only possible choice to play Raoul Duke, his very-thinly-veiled surrogate in the tale (the two remained inseperable; Depp paid for Thompson’s funeral, and reprised the role last year in “The Rum Diary“). And really, it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the part. Depp is almost unrecognizable under a (lack of) hairpiece, hat and glasses, often filmed in extreme close-up with wide lenses by Gilliam, and he lends a furious comic verve to the part that’s almost reminiscent of a lost, high-as-a-kite Marx Brother. His manic energy is countered neatly by the deadpan narration, and if you’ve ever seen footage of Thompson, you know Depp isn’t exaggerating in the slightest. And again, his chemistry with Benicio Del Toro, as attorney Dr. Gonzo, is outstanding — a reminder of how generous he can be, when he wants. The film around the duo is, it should be said, something of a mess, but it’s worth sitting through just for the performances.
“Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)
It is only with a significant effort of will that we can cast our minds back to 2003-era Johnny Depp without them snagging on some of the more egregious clunkers the actor would subsequently be involved in. And it’s especially hard in the case of “Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl,” which spawned three of the aforementioned clunkers in its sequels. But we must not visit the sins of the sons upon the father, and instead we need to remember just how bloody good Depp was in this role, in this film. A swaggering, ludicrous, slurring rockstar rogue, his Captain Jack Sparrow proved the seasoning that spiced up proceedings into a heady, fun-packed brew: it was an interpretation so gonzo and exaggerated that it’s hard to believe it made it into a Disney franchise, let alone pretty much made a Disney franchise into a global success. Because there’s the rub — Depp’s performance in ‘Black Pearl’ proved both the film’s chief blessing and its, er, biggest curse, in that it was so universally adored (even garnering Depp the first of his three Best Actor Oscar nominations), that sequel scripts were pushed forward immediately on which clearly the only note the execs ever gave was “More Sparrow!” But of course part of the reason Depp is so great in the first ‘Pirates’ is that there isn’t that much of him — again, he serves as the seasoning, not the main dish. But the logic went that since he was the most fun part of the original, he should be the focus going ahead so that by the time of “Dead Man’s Chest” we were being asked to suffer through dream sequences in which multiple Sparrows appear (presumably the only way they could think of to cram in even more Depp). Dammit, we’re talking about the sequels again, sorry. Let’s get back to 2003. Back then Depp was an actor universally admired but without a major franchise or even that many true box-office home runs to his name, and he was looking to make a more family-oriented film. Disney just happened to have a not-especially-promising sounding movie in the works, based on one of their theme park rides. To go from that to a recording-breaking blast featuring a performance so OTT and original that it’s kind of hard to remember that the Keith Richards/pirate association was not, simply, always there, merits praise. What makes it an essential of Depp’s, though, is the giggly fun and “can you believe I’m getting away with this?” feel to the portrayal and also the fact that we cannot account for his subsequent career without it; occasionally for better but mostly, sadly, for worse.
— Oliver Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang