THE JOHNNY DEPPARTMENT’S DEPPIEST JOHNNY DEPP PERFORMANCES
A Look at Our Top Ten Deppiest Performances by Actor Johnny Depp
By the Members of the Johnny Deppartment
Johnny Depp has worked with some of the greatest directors (think Jim Jarmusch, Roman Polanski, Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton…) as well as some of the not-so-greatest directors (think Gore Verbinski, The Hughes Brothers, David Koepp, Tim Burton…). Usually, even in movies that fail miserably, Depp still gives it his best though–and his best is damn good by almost any standard. So in a movie like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which if we’re being extremely kind we’ll call mediocre, his Michael-Jackson-esque Willy Wonka performance (which he claims was actually inspired by imagining George Bush incredibly stoned) is still delightfully creepy, and worth witnessing, even if the movie fails on multiple levels. Depp is drawn to odd characters like Willy Wonka. He calls them “outsiders.” Take a glance at a list of his roles and you can see what he means: Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Ichabod Crane, John Dillinger, William Blake, Raoul Duke…and on and on. He likes characters living on the fringes of society.
How Depp constructs these characters, even the ones in the not-so-great films, is meticulous. Each character of Depp’s begins with images that come to him. These image-ingredients then get thrown into the blender of his brain, and the character comes out as a hodgepodge of these influences. The most famous example of this, of course, is the mix of rock star Keith Richards and cartoon character Pepé Le Pew that became Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
That isn’t the only example though–there are many other examples that are perhaps less obvious. When constructing the title character of the biopic Ed Wood, Depp claimed to use three main ingredients: “The blind optimism of Ronald Reagan…the enthusiasm of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz…and then Casey Kasem.” That description was a great laugh line in his episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, but when you actually think about it, you can really see how bits of those three people show up in his Ed Wood characterization.
What Depp has been able to achieve in his career of playing “outsiders” is to become a leading man who rarely plays the stereotypical leading man roles; he plays the kind of roles usually relegated to character actors. In other words, he doesn’t just sit there and be pretty, like many of his fellow matinee idols. In fact, if anything, Depp usually tries to be anything but pretty. In what movie does he look as handsome as he is in real life? (Then think of most other movie stars who in real life don’t look half as stunning as they do on screen.)
In the last decade, even us Depp fans in the Johnny Deppartment, will admit that he has lost his way a bit. We mostly blame the fact that he famously never watches any of the movies he is in. If he did, do you think he’d have kept working with Burton after the parade of crap that guy has released in the last decade? We sure hope not. But while his most recent work tends to be less than satisfying, we continue to marvel at the man’s oeuvre as a whole, which contains that throughline of “outsider” characters whose recipes Johnny Depp creates with painstaking precision and then plays with wild abandon. With that in mind, we decided to list our top ten Deppiest of Johnny Depp performances.
10. Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker in John Waters’ Cry-Baby
“The eccentricity in the films of John Waters, so refreshingly unpretentious and honest, makes the filmmaker the perfect shepherd to first bring the essence of Deppdom to movies audiences. Cry-Baby, a star-crossed lovers parable of class conformity and sexual mores in 1950s Baltimore, firmly establishes the bread-and-butter Johnny Depp screen persona of roguish, sexy pariah. As Wade ‘Cry-Baby’ Walker, with an iconic eponymous teardrop tattoo below his eye, Depp illustrates his proto-Burton talents for empathy-encouraging mysteriousness mixed with a gyrating cadence against the repression of teenage sensuality so typical of the great John Waters. Furthermore, by establishing himself as a leading man in the cult queer cinema of Waters, Depp foreshadowed the consistently androgynous nature of his sex appeal. Musical sequences like ‘Please Mr. Jailer,’ where Cry-Baby pines for his lover through plastic prison glass (with no shortage of licking) undoubtedly gave Depp the confidence to leave the gender-confined comfort zones of most other above-the-title male sex symbols. Given that both Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands were both released in 1990, pondering how Depp’s career would have turned out if he collaborated more with Waters—and not Burton—is an interesting thought experiment indeed.” – Alex Bacha, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
9. Gilbert Grape in Lasse Hallström’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
“After all the movies they’ve starred in the past twenty years, it’s weird to think of Johnny Depp as Leonardo DiCaprio’s protective older brother. But in his role as Gilbert in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Depp not only pulls this off, but in doing so he makes us all wish we had him on hand to give us our nightly bath. All jokes aside, only Depp could give us Gilbert. Maybe it’s his naturally unrufflable demeanor that makes us believe him willing to bear the burden of caring for his cognitively disabled brother and morbidly obese mother. But let’s be honest, more than anything, it’s Depp’s chiseled cheekbones framed by his well-conditioned, shoulder-length brown hair that distracts us from the film’s absurd premise that a dude so good-looking would not have already ditched his one-horse hometown to purse an acting career in LA. There’s nary a scene in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape that doesn’t feature Depp, and it’s hard to imagine that a movie where the camera barely leaves Depp’s mug would be anything but compelling.” – Shane Boyle, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
8. Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow
“Growing up in the Hudson Valley, one of my favorite things about autumn was riding the Headless Horseman Haunted Hayrides and getting scared shitless in a corn maze as strangers with chainsaws jumped out of the bushes at me. Every time I watch Depp’s portrayal of Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, I am reminded of what it was like to be a scared little girl–in the very best way! Depp described his role masterfully in Premiere Magazine’s December 1999 issue: “[Ichabod] has a façade of bravado, but in fact would be on the verge of tears, like, if an insect comes near him. You’d feel his butt cheeks clench. I just liked that the hero of the story, whom one would expect to be romantic–I liked the idea that he’s more than half a woman.” I love that Crane wasn’t an action star; that he was nerdy; that you can feel his butt cheeks clench. Much like many of his early (and clearly best) performances, Ichabod was slightly–ok, more than slightly–awkward, the brainy outsider who proves himself despite his myriad neuroses. And he still gets the girl!” – Ariana Lader, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
7. George Jung in Ted Demme’s Blow
“In Blow, Johnny Depp plays George Jung, the man who fortified the U.S. cocaine industry in the 1970s by working with the infamous Colombian drug lord, Pablo Escobar. Despite the many lives Jung definitely ruined, Depp makes him likeable. We laugh with him, and we even root for Jung to succeed at landing his ‘one last job.’ The initial reviews of Blow were a resounding ‘meh.’ And those reviews were maybe deserved: the film is a neutered attempt at another Boogie Nights, and while Depp does carry the cocaine flick well, it’s not like people are wearing George Jung t-shirts at frat parties, or developing a Blow video game. Still, I sit through Blow every single time I see that it’s playing on USA because, in the thirteen years since Blow’s release, this performance is actually a unique one for Depp. His roles have become increasingly submersive, making his low-key roles fewer-and-further-between–and, therefore, fun to revisit. Don’t get me wrong, I dig Depp’s crazy movies, but I like Depp in Blow for all of the things he doesn’t do: Johnny Depp does not wear a weird tophat in Blow; he is not trying to evoke images of Keith Richards or Michael Jackson; he spends zero minutes ‘getting acclimated’ to basic human interaction; there is no use of magic in Blow; and, perhaps best of all, Johnny Depp doesn’t make friends with animals, children, or Keira Knightley. Despite the ‘meh’ stuff, I think we like Blow because it’s a sexy, watchable reminder that Johnny Depp is handsome, and capable of nuanced performance. Pretty addictive.” – Caitlin Cutt, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
6. Captain Jack Sparrow in Gore Verbinski’s The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise
“It would be impossible to develop a list of Johnny Depp films without mentioning his performance as Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Despite the fact that more than one of the now four (soon to be five) films in the series has grossed over a billion dollars worldwide, the movies aren’t exactly great, which is not entirely unexpected, considering that the gods of Hollywood have somehow extracted five films from the threadbare ‘narrative’ of an amusement park ride. Notwithstanding this fact, Depp’s jaunty, flamboyant, and perpetually intoxicated Captain Jack Sparrow is about as Deppy as they come. Few can beat Depp’s sex appeal–and a man who can still manage to be oddly attractive despite a heavy ‘smoky eye’ and the fact that you just know he hasn’t showered since Davy Jones was in middle school is more than impressive. Depp is known for his penchant for bizarre and outside-the-box roles and Captain Jack Sparrow is exactly that–no matter how empty and confusing the movies have increasingly become, you just can’t help but wish you were stranded on Tortuga with just those bangled hands and a bottle of rum. Yo ho ho.” – Rachael Lader, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
5. Donnie Brasco aka Joseph D. Pistone in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco
“The downfall of many an undercover cop flick is the Plausibility Problem. In order for the juicy tensions of the undercover genre to take hold of our imaginations we must first fully trust that the mob/cartel/syndicate believes in the double crosser. The agent must be a conflicted chameleon, a man who sells his soul while selling himself. This is no easy filmmaking task–the egregiously unbelievable undercover picture has become a darkly comedic sub-genre in and of itself (Kindergarten Cop‘s wonderfully awful Detective John Kimble being a personal favorite). But when it’s done right, it explores the rich ambiguities of identity and loyalty better than just about anything in film. Johnny Depp’s wary, conflicted Joseph Pistone in Donnie Brasco is the genuine article, a character we instantly believe could pull the wool over Lefty Ruggiero’s eyes. In Pistone, Depp created the ideal undercover character: ambitious and confident but guarded; deeply burdened; fraught with the ambivalence of duty and treachery. It’s a performance that allows us to feel Lefty’s pain–’How many times have I had you in my house? If you’re a rat, than I’m the biggest mutt in the history of the mafia.’ Depp’s success in Donnie Brasco is that he makes a mutt out of all of us.” – Dustin Illingworth, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
4. William Blake in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man
“In Dead Man, Johnny Depp portrays William Blake, the accountant–and also, in a way, William Blake, the poet. Dead Man could be described as a post-western of sorts, metaphysical at its core, but superficially a story of strife between Native Americans and the white men that burdened them. However, as this blurb is meant to be more about how Johnny Depp’s portrayal makes this one of his best performances, we will lay off the philosophical examination of the film as a whole. Truth be told, I have found myself wondering why this film is not as well known as Depp’s other roles, but the answer to that is obvious. This film, and specifically his performance, are nearly against all typical form that audiences have grown to accept from Depp. I often feel that I am constantly writing about how a performance is either caricature for a purpose,or so anti-caricature that the performance goes unrecognized by the general public. Depp’s William Blake is the latter in this case. While I’m certain a good argument has been formed for his performances higher up on this list, I feel those are decisions clouded by nostalgia–I mean really, what’s a more interesting performance: a man in gothic leather with scissors for hands, or a metaphysical journey couched in the Old West? Nevermind, don’t answer that. In any case what makes this one of the ‘Deppiest’ performances is the fact that we as an audience can see Johnny Depp disappear into the role. We no longer see the Tiger Beat star. We no longer see the Tim Burton-ized caricature. We just see an actor disappearing and presenting himself as a character that is both enthralling and engaging. His performance forces the audience to consider not only their history, but also their inevitable future.” – Shea Formaneck, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
3. Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
“Johnny Depp’s character Raoul Duke in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas might be one of the most memorable characters in cinematic history. When a character spawns a million annoying Halloween costumes and at gatherings you overhear drunk partygoers trying to imitate his speech pattern, you know it’s memorable–if nothing else. But this performance is something else, it’s Depp doing what he does best: living and breathing his outsider character, no matter how far he goes down the rabbithole, no matter how absurd or unreal or weird he or his situation gets. And you know it’s going to get weird when Depp as Duke claims: ‘We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers…and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.’ This is also a good description of Depp’s method: he has a tendency to push it as far as he can. And yet no matter how over-the-top the performance or the film is, no matter how surreal or ridiculous the character or his situation, he always plays his outsiders straight. Raoul Duke–thinly veiled representation of journalist, druggie, and lovable nutjob Hunter S. Thompson–is no different. Depp plays the drugged-out writer so convincingly that you actually feel as though you’re tripping with him. He’s the ringmaster in the psycho circus that is Fear & Loathing…and why wouldn’t you want to step right up and see that show? Why wouldn’t you want to take a trip with a bald and bat-seeing Johnny Depp and a plumper-than-usual Benicio Del Toro?” – Kelsey Malone, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
2. Ed Wood in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood
“To some moviegoers, Johnny Depp has become a polarizing figure as of late. The cool-guy persona of his early television work, along with the bravura surreality of his earliest film work (especially his films with director Tim Burton), have arguably given way to a middle-aged actor coasting on the wake of his own past brilliance. (A devil’s advocate opinion if there ever was one from yours truly, as I still LOVE Depp, even while yearning somewhat for his return to form.) As a true example of his past brilliance, let us turn to Depp’s 1994 masterpiece with frequent collaborator Burton: the exceptional Ed Wood. The film marks a refreshing change of pace for both director and star: the film–Burton’s first and, to date, only biopic–was a loving, though atypically restrained portrait of a director whose films and personality were right in line with Burton’s penchant for the bizarre. For Depp, the film reportedly rekindled his love for his craft after a long period of performance fatigue. The final film is a series of parts working in concert to a create an amazing whole. Every element works: the rich, expertly captured black and white cinematography; bizarre music and sound design; supporting players, among them Martin Landau (who controversially won the Academy Award for his work as Bela Lugosi), Bill Murray, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, and others; and, of course, Depp’s performance as Ed Wood–all quixotic enthusiasm, leery smiles, oversized teeth, and angora sweaters. The transcendent cinematic result is a strange, excellent film that celebrates an idiosyncratic talent who was once labeled one of worst filmmakers of all time–a truly endearing work of art that, like both Depp and Burton’s best work, tends to tug on the heartstrings by embracing the oddballs and misfits.” - Randall Winston, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
1. Edward Scissorhands in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands
“Edward Scissorhands, though one of Depp’s earliest roles, remains indisputably one his most iconic and probably one of his best. As with later roles, Depp constructed it through various images. Depp said of the character: ‘The two things that came to me, the two initial images, were a baby, you know, a brand new little baby was one, and a dog that I had when I was growing up, and the unconditional love of that dog and the way that that dog, even when he’d done something wrong and you’d reprimanded him, he would cower away, you know, go to the corner or whatever, but the second you called him back he would be there, bright and full of love.’ The innocence of a baby and the unconditional love of a dog are both obviously present in Johnny Depp’s goth-creature created by the film’s unnamed inventor (Vincent Price in his final film role). Supposedly Scissorhands only speaks 169 words in the film, so Depp gives much to the character through his silences, through his movements, through his expressions–much like an actor from the silent era might. That throwback to pre-’talkie’ actors would continue with his next major role in Benny & Joon (another phenomenal performance which almost made our list). But Edward Scissorhands was Johnny Depp refusing the heart throb mantel, and saying, ‘I’m not going to play the boring, handsome leading mean you want me to play, I’m going to get weird.’ And get weird he did: Edward Scissorhands began his fascination with ‘outsiders’ which continues to this day. Even if his recent films haven’t been up to the level of many of his ’90s performances, that interest in ‘outsiders’ and the way he creates those outsider characters through various ingredients is what keeps Depp intriguing. He’d be better off ditching late stage Burton (who hasn’t made a movie of Edward Scissorhands caliber in over a decade), but he’s still one of the finest actors working today.” – Tyler Malone, Lifetime Depp Enthusiast
The members of the Johnny Deppartment are a group of film fans who love all that is Johnny Depp. The group consists of Tyler Malone, Dustin Illingworth, Alex Bacha, Randall Winston, Shea Formaneck, Ariana Lader, Kelsey Malone, Rachael Bacha, Shane Boyle, Caitlin Cutt, Artie Moreno, Conor Higgins, Taylor Zahn, Jeff Malone, and Liz Malone.
Written and Compiled by the Members of the Johnny Deppartment
Photography Courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Design by Francesca Rimi
Film Still from Edward Scissorhands, Photography Courtesy of 20th Century Fox