“I didn’t sell out, I bought in,” is one of our favorite movie quotes, and we’ll leave it to you to decide if it applies to a certain oddball-turned-A-lister. The career of Johnny Depp is an interesting one, to say the least, and with the outright flop of “The Lone Ranger” last weekend (which did less opening business than “John Carter” did), Disney (and presumably Depp too, to a degree) are likely still feeling the burn of that failure. “Remember when Johnny Depp could do no wrong and was one of the most adventurous actors on the planet creating a body of work that most actors could only dream of?” we wrote recently of Depp’s career. It seems like another lifetime ago, but Johnny Depp was once a relatively uncompromising actor who decided to eschew Hollywood in favor of his own weird and wonderful path.
Blessed with boyish but chiseled good looks, the young actor seemingly had a built-in bullshit detector for any project that didn’t ring true to him; perhaps any project that could actually turn him into a bonafide star outside his tabloid life. The actor famously turned down Tom Cruise's role as Lestat in "Interview with the Vampire,” "Brad Pitt's romantic lead in "Legends of the Fall," and declined to take on Keanu Reeves’ star-making turn as the action hero in "Speed.” Instead, Depp would take on more idiosyncratic fare like “Ed Wood” with Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch’s haunting, meditative Western “Dead Man” and working alongside his idol Marlon Brando in “Don Juan DeMarco.”
So Depp was slowly amassing a distinctive and peculiar body of work, choosing auteur-driven character fare over studio films, but as such he wasn’t always bankable. Depp was Francis Ford Coppola’s first choice to star in “Bram Stoker's Dracula” (and apparently “The Rainmaker”) but the studio denied him and Reeves took the role instead. All that changed after Depp became Captain Jack Sparrow, a franchise character he has played four times now (with a fifth on its way), transforming him into an A-list star (after years of already being famous) at the age of 40. With that role, and a series of increasingly shallow dalliances with Tim Burton, does his choosing “The Lone Ranger” signify that his interesting career is officially over? Is the age of gonzo performances dead for good?
For someone with such a matinee-idol face, Depp favors disguise—burrowing and burying himself under layers of makeup and ridiculous hair to get inside a character. “It’s easier to look at someone else’s face than your own. Hiding: I think it’s important. It’s important for your—for whatever’s left of your sanity, I guess,” he recently told Rolling Stone. And we all know the Jack Sparrows, the Edward Scissorhands, the Raoul Dukes, the Ed Woods, and the Buster Keaton-esque Sam from “Benny & Joon" that have been the result.
And so we thought we’d look at the more forgotten, less appreciated, and seldom discussed side of Depp’s career and re-evaluate it, mainly because it gave us an excuse not to look at Captain Jack Sparrow one more time. Whatever “The Lone Ranger” means for his career, Depp’s back catalogue has its fair share of highs and lows, hidden gems and justly neglected oddities. So we decided to set sail on those less trafficked waters: here are seven films you may not know (or at least maybe not remember as well), along with three characters we think are underrated.
“Arizona Dream” (1993)
For years it was reported that Johnny Depp would play Pancho Villa in a biopic about the famous revolutionary by Serbian director Emir Kusturica. The project never came to pass for Depp, but its roots stem from one of Depp’s least-seen films (and as Depp’s lowest grossing starring role ever). Kusturica, one of eight people on Earth who have two Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or awards (for 1985’s “When Father Was Away on Business” and 1995’s “Underground”), only made one American film and it was the goofy, oddball surrealist comedy “Arizona Dream,” kind of ripe material for Johnny Depp. The chance to work with a Palme d'Or winner was probably enticing, but maybe even more alluring was working alongside comedy icon Jerry Lewis and Oscar-winner Faye Dunaway. Featuring an all-around eclectic cast including Vincent Gallo, Lili Taylor and Paulina Porizkova, Depp is perhaps ironically, the most grounded character and in many ways, this makes him the least interesting of the bunch; Depp has never been great at the straight man role. He stars as Axel Blackmar, a naturalist gofer who tags fish in New York’s East River, and travels to Arizona to attend his eccentric car salesman uncle’s (Lewis) wedding. Inscrutable, but oddly appealing, the movie actually begins with Axel's dream of an Inuit fisherman who almost risks his life to bring a fresh halibut home to his hungry family. Once in Arizona, Axel learns that the wedding (to the much younger Porizkova) is a ruse to get him to join the family business, and eventually he and his acting buddy Paul Leger (Gallo) become intertwined with an eccentric mother/daughter pair: the flying-obsessed Elaine (Dunaway) and the suicidal, tortoise-consumed Grace (Taylor). Kusturica’s idiosyncratic films have always been akin to a whirling dervish kind of experience and “Arizona Dream” is no different: bizarre, compelling, downright odd. What has the “dream” to do with anything, or the fish motif that recurs throughout? Your guess is a good as ours—the movie doesn’t really make a lick of sense and it doesn’t hold up so well nearly 20 years after its release (in 1994 we thought it was genius). But it is still enchantingly easy to watch, if only to see where the weirdness will take you next. Shot in 1991, it wasn’t properly released in the U.S. until 1994 partly due to the fact that Kusturica had to recover from a nervous breakdown while making the movie (he was so depressed at the time, the production shut down for three months; Depp says he and director had mutual "hate" for each other upon their first meeting, but it became soon became a mutual admiration society). Easily one of the more outlandish movies Warner Bros. ever released, the movie sat on a shelf for years until it was finally released on DVD in 2010. [B]
“Nick of Time” (1995)
We like to think of ourselves as cinephiles, and therefore you readers too, so we’ll assume you’ve already seen Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” starring Depp as the fated accountant William Blake, which now a cult masterpiece, was Depp’s second-lowest-grossing starring vehicle of all time. But we can't assume you bothered with “Nick of Time,” which was released the very same year. Directed by the largely unsung John Badham (“Saturday Night Fever,” “Blue Thunder,” “WarGames,” “Short Circuit,” “Stakeout”), it’s unclear what Depp was trying to achieve with the gimmicky thriller. Was it simply a studio paycheck gig for an actor who at the time, wasn't really known for going that route? His agent trying to smooth out the increasingly deviating bumps in his career and diversify his portfolio? Who knows, but the role of Gene Watson, a mild-mannered widowed accountant who finds himself the wrong man in the wrong place is very sub-Hitchcockian and very un-Johnny Depp. He’s the unimpressive everyman forced into extraordinary circumstances, and this is a real outlier role as Depp was almost always adamant about not playing the hero, yet despite Gene Watson's complete reluctance and forced hand, that's undoubtedly what he is here. Noteworthy at the time for being set in “real time” (over the span of a few hours), Depp’s Watson is forced into a situation where he must kill a politician in order to save his kidnapped daughter, and if the premise sounds like banal studio fare, that’s because it is. Co-starring Christopher Walken in one of his least interesting supporting roles, Charles S. Dutton, Roma Maffia and character actors Marsha Mason, Peter Strauss, and G.D Spradlin, “Nick of Time” is an uninvolving, rote thriller. Further, it's an unexceptional moment in Depp’s career with plot determining the acting and with none of his interesting textures or contours brought to enliven the proceedings (and for Badham it’s fairly incoherent directorially compared to his more classic earlier works). “Nick of Time” performed poorly for Paramount and generally received negative reviews from critics as well. So Depp may by nature have been averse to leading man roles, but it's also clear that the Hollywood cookie cutter computation-bot ran the numbers and saw that the actor come up extremely short in this regard too. [D]
“The Astronaut's Wife” (1999)
Rand Ravich’s career in relation to the success of “The Astronaut’s Wife”? Put it this way, this Johnny Depp-led science fiction/conspiracy thriller was Ravich’s first and only feature-length film. Presumably it landed him in maximum-security director’s jail explaining why he hasn’t left since. The ‘90s were Johnny Depp’s "try new things" phase, and flirting with studio roles in between Tim Burton films (“Sleepy Hollow” would arrive the same year), the actor took another fairly “straight” role, though “The Astronaut’s Wife” is noteworthy for being the first time he'd play a villain and his first foray into sci-fi (though the film’s sci-fi trappings are muted and the picture hews closer to psychologically claustrophobic conspiracy thriller). Aside from that, it's hard to see what the appeal was. Depp stars as Spencer Armacost, one half of a pair of astronauts who lose communication with NASA for a crucial two minutes while repairing a satellite in Earth’s orbit. An explosion occurs, NASA loses them and when they somehow return to their ship and eventually to Earth, they are found prone and comatose. Charlize Theron plays Jillian Armacost, Spencer’s wife, who is horrified by the news but happy to learn her husband is alive. But NASA Capt. Alex Streck (Nick Cassavetes) and his wife Natalie (Donna Murphy) aren’t so lucky and after they return to Earth, Streck suffers an unexpected stroke and dies while his wife commits suicide soon thereafter. Something also seems to be up with Spencer, who has now quit NASA and taken an executive position at a powerful corporation in New York—it seems he's just not quite the same person he was before... Playing would-be Hitchockian cat and mouse games, “The Astronaut’s Wife” is largely your standard operating procedure conspiracy thriller until it turns sillier with its sci-fi-ish non-surprise (which is pretty clear to anyone who watched the original trailer, hence the lack of true suspense throughout). Largely forgettable, it was as if audiences just wouldn’t cotton to Johnny Depp unless he was playing one his trademark outlandish characters. Made by New Line for $75 million (his biggest film to date aside from “Sleepy Hollow”), “The Astronaut’s Wife” was a huge flop, grossing just $10 million domestically. And not that these things matter that much, but the thriller also has the distinction of having the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Johnny Depp film at 16%. [D]