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The Essentials: The 5 Best Johnny Depp Performances

by Oliver Lyttelton
June 9, 2012 3:01 PM
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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.

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  • CobbSparrow | September 6, 2012 2:43 PMReply

    1. Pirates Of The Caribbean, 2. Sweeney Todd, 3, Fear&Loathing In Las Vegas, 4. Edward Scissorhands, 5. Donnie Brasco

    But in all seriousness the only film I haven't liked him in was The Libertine and that was because of the film itself not his performance

  • Brooke | August 22, 2012 5:54 PMReply

    I really can't believe nobody mentioned Blow. He was amazing in that movie. He actually ad libbed a lot of the movie. He was also praised by George Jung himself.

  • G.T.O. | June 10, 2012 5:34 AMReply

    Sweeney Todd is terrible. Depp is fine, but the picture is a bore

  • C | June 10, 2012 1:51 AMReply

    Can we Photoshop his face ANYMORE.

  • Me | June 10, 2012 12:24 AMReply

    To me his best performances aren't in the list: "Edward Scissorhands" and "The Libertine" (great-underrated-dramatic performance!!)

  • Marcus | June 10, 2012 12:07 AMReply

    Whats with the hate of Dark Shadows? I thought it was an excellent film with a great cast and direction.
    My favorites are the 1st Pirates, Sweeney Todd, & Sleepy Hallow

  • Katie | June 9, 2012 8:34 PMReply

    1) Sweeney Todd ... mainly because the film brought together 3 of my favourite geniuses: Johnny Depp, Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim; 2) Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean) ... loved his performance in all 4 films; 3) Sam (Benny & Joon) ... beautiful little film, wonderful character; 4) Raphael (The Brave) ... seen by few, since the film was never released in North America ... amazingly understated portrayal of a tortured soul who signs on to appear in a snuff film so his family will have enough money to make a better life for themselves; 5) Sands (Once Upon a Time in Mexico) ... typical shoot-em-up action film, but Sands is a great character and Mr. Depp plays the role to perfection.

  • Tabita | June 9, 2012 7:06 PMReply

    Hard to pick a top 5! hmm.. Edward Scissorhands, The Ninth Gate, Pirates of the caribbean #1,2,3,4, finding neverland, and dark shadows

  • Sean | June 9, 2012 5:45 PMReply

    I cant believe "Edward Scissorhands" is not on that list. I mean it is the role that cemented his fame & leading man stature.....

    The right** list should be... (in no particular order)

    Edward Scissorhands
    Ed Wood
    Pirates of the Carribean #1
    Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
    Finding Neverland OR What's Eating Gilbert Grape

  • Hobo_Power | June 9, 2012 7:00 PM

    You stole my words. :) I agree completely, Sean.

  • Wildheart | June 9, 2012 5:42 PMReply

    1. Donnie Brasco, 2. Dead Man, 3. What's Eating Gilbert Grape, 4. From Hell, 5. Public Enemies

  • Katie | June 9, 2012 8:40 PM

    Loved Gilbert Grape, but more for Leonardo DiCaprio's performance than for Mr. Depp's.

  • Oogle monster | June 9, 2012 5:36 PMReply

    The fact that you did not include Sweeney Todd, Edward Scissorhands, and What's Eating Gilbert Grape makes this list void.

  • karmaqueen | June 9, 2012 7:38 PM

    Agreed. Sweeney Todd is one of his best.

  • Cinematic_high | June 9, 2012 5:23 PMReply

    Fear And Loathing scared the fuck out of was just that good! That will be my all time favorite role of his.

  • AS | June 9, 2012 5:09 PMReply

    1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    2. Public Enemies (criminally underrated)
    3. Sweeny Todd
    4. The Libertine
    5. Edward Scissorhands

  • Jen S. | June 9, 2012 3:58 PMReply

    Almost too hard to pick a top 5, but I'd say all the ones you mentioned, but substitute Edward Scissorhands for Jack Sparrow, and perhaps Gilbert Grape for Donnie Brasco. Sounds better to me that way, but Dead Man, Ed Wood, and Fear and Loathing are definitely Top 3 material.

  • Mitchell | June 9, 2012 3:30 PMReply

    Very solid list. I would have fit Edward Scissorhands in there somewhere, but I can understand your desire to only include one Depp/Burton performance. Either way, I'm glad that you included Dead Man and Donnie Brasco, which I feel is easily his best work.

  • RD | June 9, 2012 3:29 PMReply

    "one of the biggest stars in the world, something sure to only be further cemented by next year's "The Lone Ranger.""

    wow, what's the rush? This movie is still filming and you know how it's going to turn out?

    hey, I hear the movie he is doing after that -- the one he hasn't even signed on yet! - will "cement" his status even more!!

  • Harley Quinn | June 9, 2012 3:18 PMReply

    His best for me will always be Sweeney Todd. He sounds amazing and he captures the character so well. It's a joy to watch him slitting throats lol.

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