It may seem like eons ago but there was a time when Johnny Depp was considered one of the most exciting, unconventional and versatile performers of American cinema. Before his reputation got sullied by critical failures, box-office flops and domestic violence accusations, Depp was revered for his uniquely sensitive performances in films by idiosyncratic film artists like Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, Sally Potter and Terry Gilliam. Indeed, his career trajectory closely mirrors that of American independent cinema in the 1990s and its eventual assimilation into the Hollywood format by major studio affiliates and corporations. No matter how good or bad Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales may turn out to be, its impending release provides us with an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves what a truly inspiring actor Johnny Depp can be, with a list of his 10 best film performances.
- J. M. Barrie – Finding Neverland.
Directed by Marc Forster two years after his melodrama Monster’s Ball earned Halle Berry her Best Actress Oscar, Finding Neverland cemented the mainstream turn of Depp’s career in the form of a gentle biopic relating J. M. Barrie’s friendship with the Davies family and how they inspired him to write Peter Pan. While the film may not always live up to its subject’s imagination, Johnny Depp’s central performance and interactions with his young co-stars put its heart where it counts. He may look nothing like the real Barrie but the essence of the man’s spirit – his shyness, his sensitivity and his dislike of the adult world’s societal codes – is embodied in his eyes and voice. Accordingly, his performance doesn’t lead so much as it gently invites us in to his world, building trust with us and with his fellow actors with guarded openness as children so often do.
- Axel Blackmar – Arizona Dream.
Released at a time when Emir Kusturica was an international critical darling, Arizona Dream has the distinction of being the Serbian director’s only English-language film to date. Depp stars as a young dreamer named Axel who falls in love with an eccentric older woman and decides to help her build a flying machine in her desert home. It’s a touching little surrealist comedy in which Depp’s soulful rebelliousness feels perfectly at home. Far from the ostentatious quirkiness of his later roles, his Axel allows himself to respond to his surroundings and let other characters shape him rather than the other way round. This may be partially the reason why this is one of his lesser-known roles but that only enhances the sweetness of its discovery.
- Constable Ichabod Crane – Sleepy Hollow.
Nowadays best remembered for Christopher Walken’s vowel-filled performance as the not-yet-Headless Horseman, Sleepy Hollow ranks among Tim Burton’s most exquisitely realized visions and Johnny Depp’s note-perfect reimagining of Ichabod Crane plays a central role in its success. True to Burton’s references, his performance is straight out of a German expressionist horror film: Pale, wide-eyed and looking like a mild gust of wind would blow him away, fitting perfectly in his gothic surroundings even as he does everything within his power to resist them. Aside from providing suitably comical reactions to the film’s gory grand-guignol, the archetypal effeminacy with which he plays Crane underscores the character’s cultural displacement as a man ahead of his time. It’s just one of the many delights that make Sleepy Hollow such a rich spectacle.
- John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester – The Libertine.
The last film Depp made in the busy year that was 2004, The Libertine marks the end of an era as the actor’s last truly independent film before the Pirates sequels made him the world’s biggest star. Based on the hedonistic court poet’s final years, the film opens with a clear warning from its protagonist: “You will not like me.” And indeed, Depp’s arrogant, emotionally closed-off, self-destructive Wilmot is one of his hardest creations to like – which is why his success in creating empathy for him is so significant. Without losing respect for his character’s pride, he slowly reveals the disappointed anger at its roots: anger at the hypocrisy of his class, anger at his own impulses, anger at his wife for daring to continue loving him in spite of it all. Finding Neverland may have earned him an Oscar nod but it was the titular Libertine that remains 2004’s best Johnny Depp performance.
- William Blake – Dead Man.
Considering their shared bohemian rock sensibility, you’d think Johnny Depp and Jim Jarmusch would be regular partners, but sadly Dead Man remains their only collaboration as of this writing. Fortunately, it also happens to be the pinnacle of Jarmusch’s oeuvre. As a meek accountant who gets fatally wounded by a one-night-stand’s jealous ex, Blake bears some similarities to the future Ichabod Crane; where they differ is both in evolution and purpose. Unlike Crane, there is no cultural vindication or victory awaiting Blake, only death. His gradual transformation into a tough gun-slinging outlaw is but a necessary adaptation to his environment as well as the mark of his progress towards spiritual salvation, and Depp never loses sight of that. He is at once imposing and self-effacing, never completely comfortable, always learning right until his very last breath.
- Raoul Duke – Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas.
Johnny Depp may not be the first person to have brought Hunter S. Thompson’s fictional avatar to the big screen (that would be Bill Murray) but Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas makes it impossible to imagine anyone else doing it. Behind the glasses and cigarette holder, his constantly darting eyes never quite let you know just how in control he is of his own thoughts or how serious he is. It’s that sense of underlying danger in his performance that makes it so funny, and helps Benicio Del Toro’s Gonzo scare us even more when he reveals himself to be far worse than his client ever could be.
- Edward D. Wood Jr. – Ed Wood.
History will be kinder to Johnny Depp’s fruitful partnership with Tim Burton than recent Anglophone critics have. Regardless of the film’s quality, every Depp performance is different and explores its own facet of juvenile strangeness. As the legendary “worst director of all time”, that strangeness is embraced with perhaps more enthusiasm than in any other Burton film. Depp emphasizes Wood’s oddity with a high-pitched voice, a prominent overbite and a poorly-becoming moustache, but he avoids caricature by using these traits to highlight the man’s sincere energy. It’s a candidly old-fashioned performance that inspires as many cheers as it does laughs.
- Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd – Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street.
Depressing though it may be to realize that it’s now been a decade since Tim Burton made a truly exceptional film, the macabre joyfulness of both the film and Johnny Depp’s central performance are impossible to ignore. Sporting a Robert Smith haircut and a permanent scowl, he plays Sweeney Todd like a bandleader in a rock opera, slashing, snarling and singing with infectious gusto. He may not be a Broadway-level baritone but that’s just what makes his performance so special: Instead of broadening them to a kind of grotesque baroque, Depp vocalizes the demon barber’s anger, pain and bloodlust with a raw passion closer to that of punk concert than a traditional musical. It’s an unconventional choice but one that brings the tragedy to a more human level – and arguably produces more efficient cinematic results than a classically-trained singer would have.
- Captain Jack Sparrow – Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl.
For better and for worse, Pirates Of The Caribbean was the turning point of Johnny Depp’s career. Not only did it give him his first Oscar nomination, it marked his transition from indie heartthrob to Hollywood megastar and provided a template by which virtually all his subsequent performances would be judged – often negatively. Irreverent, flirtatious and incorrigibly showman-like, Jack Sparrow is Depp’s gift and curse, a unique creation that helped elevate his film above standard adventure fare only to become a systematic backup in the following years. But nothing will ever take away the pure joy of watching Depp inject his every scene with anachronistic mania, muddling and reshaping them without overwhelming them entirely. Sequels may come and go but the Jack Sparrow we discovered in Curse Of The Black Pearl will always be one of the great film characters.
- Edward Scissorhands – Edward Scissorhands.
The experience of watching Johnny Depp act in Edward Scissorhands is nothing short of miraculous. Based on the film’s premise, Edward could easily have been an artificial puppy-dog figure designed to generate tears on command but what Depp achieves is much deeper than that; with extraordinary grace and humility, he touches our hearts by drawing on our collective cultural memory, combining German expressionism, silent Chaplin comedy and James Dean-style method acting to extract Edward’s curiosity, confusion, love and sadness through his physical limitations. He’s a man of few words but when he uses them, they’re small, simple and always hit a bullseye. When he moves, it takes every ounce of effort not to destroy everything and everyone he touches. What Depp accomplishes is much trickier and more subtle than it seems: he elicits sympathy for a fairy tale character without talking down to his audience or flattering them, but rather by trusting their emotional intelligence. Such is the quality of great performers, and one we can only hope he shall continue to demonstrate in the future.