There are exactly two reasons to be obsessed with Johnny Depp: his acting and his sex appeal, both of which have a tendency to defy rigid gender norms (that is to say, he played a transsexual in Before Night Falls, and boys and girls alike will unabashedly admit to their unhealthy Johnny crushes). As a character actor, he often plays the most challenging and least conventional characters in a given film, something the majority of Hollywood’s mainstream elite seldom does. For his seeming inability to wear the same costume twice (Pirates of the Caribbean notwithstanding), Depp can never be type-cast. He frequently showers in the praise of his elders, including the likes of Marlon Brando, being hailed as the best actor of his generation, if not the best of all time (Marlon Brando himself may have been buried with that title). Talent aside, just look at that perfect jaw structure and that piercing gaze; it’s no wonder a band exists bearing the name “Gay for Johnny Depp.”
His signature brand of sexy cool exists both within and outside the roles he plays onscreen and has a lot to do with his iconoclastic, “bad boy” status: he dropped out of high school to pursue his rock band ambitions, only incidentally stumbling on-screen with that part he landed on 21 Jumpstreet. That was only the result of his latent, yet intrinsic ability to ground himself and naturally become another person. But who is this man really, beneath the leather arm cuffs and fedoras and intricately-constructed layers? We all want to be a little closer to Johnny Depp, even if the only way to do so is to watch (i.e. drool over) his movies.
Here are ten of his best:
10. The Brave (1997)
This one has to be here because it involves so much of Johnny Depp (not to mention a masterful cameo by Marlon Brando appearing fairly true-to-self as a wise, old Native American man): he directed, starred in, and co-wrote the screenplay for this film based on a novel by Gregory McDonald. It’s his vanity project, if you will, and his over-indulgence shows in how utterly and excruciatingly long this film is. It’s about a Native American man who lives in a communal junkyard and sacrifices himself, via a high-paying snuff film, for the sake of his family’s wellbeing. After two dragging hours, you truly feel the pain of this overtly Jesus-esque character.
9. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003, 2006, 2007…)
This franchise must be included in any list about Johnny Depp per cultural obligation. Jack Sparrow will undeniably be a Halloween costume favorite for years to come, his character imitated at all the subsequent parties once the rum has effectively kicked in. It’s commonly known that the inspiration for Jack Sparrow comes directly from Keith Richards’ swaggering and swashbuckling stage antics. Richards expressed his appreciation when he appeared as Jack’s father in the third film; imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery, an aphorism that rings true for even the saltiest of rock stars. Look for Depp’s forthcoming documentary about Richards, and see how many more brownie points this guy can skillfully earn.
8. Public Enemies (2009)
This film is Johnny Depp at his bad-ass-iest. Sure, he was a likeable villain in Pirates, but that was a Disney movie. Here, nothing is held back with its somewhat gratifying R-rating: bank-robberies, tommy guns, golden-era, “meh-see” Chicago mobsters, and plenty of “real-life” cops-and-robbers shoot-outs. This partially non-fiction true-crime story takes expected Hollywood derisions, but does a good job telling the story of a modern Robin Hood a la John Dillinger by casting the perfect man for the job.
7. Benny and Joon (1993)
Here, Depp plays a mentally-challenged silent movie fanatic who woos another of a similar disposition through old-school Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin-inspired slapstick routines. This strategy could only be successful as performed by Johnny Depp, his character being both believable and touching at no other hands. See how someone like Sean Penn could’ve taken it a little too over-the-top, as he did in I Am Sam as the mentally-challenged father. This role required the nuances and a subtlety only Johnny Depp could supply.
6. Ed Wood (1994)
Johnny Depp appears hardly any more quirky elsewhere than he does as Ed Wood, the appropriately-dubbed worst film director of all time. If you actually go look up any one of his campy old sci-fi trash fests, you’ll see that Tim Burton did a brilliant job recreating that uniquely hokie feel that typifies his films, and to a T. The motifs (such as in the black and white cinematography, the opening sequence in particular, the concurrent dialog, etc.) are ubiquitous, steeping in an atmosphere that would feel just at home if released beside an original Ed Wood feature. The kitsch is blatant but intentional, and that’s what gives this film its charm. Being part adaptation, part biopic, and all fantastic interpretation, this was truly Depp and Burton at the very prime of their working relationship. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland…not so much.
5. Blow (2001)
This movie was, alongside Donnie Brasco, a movie that shouted for comparisons to Goodfellas (it even managed to score Henry Hill himself, in the form of Ray Liotta playing the father of the druglord). Johnny Depp played George Jung his own way, but it’s hard not to hear Liotta in his greasy, fast-talking voice (then again, maybe it’s supposed to be an inherited trait). Depp, regardless of his derivations, carries this character through every power-and-emotion-driven vicissitude, and provides that consistency of character, as is his nature to do so.
4. Don Juan DeMarco (1994)
This movie has to be appreciated as a lesson in virtuosic acting if for nothing else, casting Johnny Depp beside his mentor and Jabba-the-Hutt-in-the-making Marlon Brando. It’s like you’re watching the torch being passed from one towering great to another. Johnny even plays two “kind-of” characters, as both the seducing Spaniard Don Juan, and the Johnny Deppish nobody who adopts this character, accent and all, to make his life a little more fulfilling. Brando’s character even learns a lesson in passion by the end of the movie from the Depp’s confused-seeming character. Almost an allegory to the relationship Depp and Brando shared in actuality, this movie could easily be mistaken for a documentary.
3. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
A brooding Johnny Depp plays a responsible, yet frustrated older brother to a mentally challenged Leonardo DiCaprio. The pain in Depp’s eyes as Gilbert is almost tangible, coming from some observably deep personal angst brought to this character with hardly a filter. This movie captures some of the best emotional range from Depp; depth you won’t find in an installment of the Pirates franchise (the fourth is currently being filmed).
2. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Not many actors can brag about developing a close friendship with Hunter S. Thompson by simply sleeping in his basement for a prolonged period. Johnny Depp is the exception. As part of some deeply imbedded character research, Depp studied this man’s mannerisms and speech patterns like a vulture would its shriveling prey. The result was a portrayal that would prove too infectious not to imitate. Though some may argue Bill Murray’s interpretation in Where the Buffalo Roam was better, the two remain in separate leagues of their own. Of course, when the late Thompson requested that his ashes be shot out of a giant, fist-shaped cannon behind his home-ranch in Colorado, Johnny Depp was there to light the fuse.
1. Edward Scissorhands (1990)
This movie is the quintessential everything: the quintessential Burton-Depp feature, the quintessential gothic reference film, the quintessential actualization of a director’s untidy, yet unblemished imagination on screen. A modern Frankenstein tale, no other film packs so much substance without having been based on a novel so much as doodles from a alienated-child-at-heart’s sketchbook. Depp brought his high-caliber ability to craft a character to its utmost register, embodying a character that speaks a great deal of content in few words (or lines). His evocative conception is that of a child, and, in a sense, Tim Burton himself, only in a more fantastical context. It’s a shame that Burton nowadays is a lot more lax than his former, pent-up self, being the one that drew explicit Minnie Mouse variations in his spare time.