When I saw the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Curse of the Black Pearl, and I was so charmed I dragged my friends to go see it at the second-run theater. They were equally amused and enthralled. It was swashbuckling, silly, romantic, and…well, theatrical. Klaus Badelt’s resonant score was the backdrop as my best friend and I cooked Thanksgiving turkey that year as well (what? I listen to film scores when I want to be productive). Since then, the series has gone downhill considerably; the fourth, releasing on Friday, scratches romantic leads Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley from the story altogether, bringing in Penelope Cruz and mermaids instead. But suffice to say, Curse of the Black Pearl was exactly what I needed: a fun, funny action-comedy that balanced all the elements of silly blockbusters perfectly.
One of those elements, of course, is the inimitable Johnny Depp. That gent has worked his whole career to break from the mold of “heartthrob,” despite chiseled cheekbones and intense eyes. He can mimic accents better than almost any other actor (though Christian Bale is edging up on him), he wears each character like a disguise, and he keeps his private life private. Depp has been nominated for three Academy Awards for Leading Actor, and every single time he ends up on camera at the ceremony, he looks uncomfortable and like he’d rather retreat to his island. (And by island, I mean physical one. That he owns.)
For this week’s Listicle, join Dan Fields, Brett Davinger, and me (Julia Rhodes!) for a trip through our favorite of Depp’s roles, the good, bad, ugly, strange, and bats*&t crazy. Because these characters wouldn’t be worth remembering if it weren’t for that guy who once tattooed Winona Ryder’s name on his bicep, only to cover it with “Wino Forever” after they broke up. (Okay, so all of his personal life isn’t private.)
Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker in Cry-Baby (dir. John Waters, 1990)
Cry-Baby is perhaps Depp’s only role to truly poke fun at the heartthrob persona he’s tried to work against for his whole career. John Waters’s irreverent musical about the juvenile delinquent “Drapes” vs. goody two-shoes “Squares” boasts a fantastic C-list cast including Ricki Lake, Iggy Pop, Traci Lords, Mink Stole, and Patricia Hearst (yes, the Patty Hearst). Cry-Baby features Depp as pretty but bad boy Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, who falls deeply in love with good girl Allison Vernon Williams (Amy Locane).
Cry-Baby’s trademark is the single, gelatinous tear that creeps from his eye when he’s feeling emotional. Allison falls head over heels for this tear (and the deep brown eyes from which it falls), but her square friends and grandmother struggle to keep the two apart. Meanwhile Cry-Baby ends up in juvie, everyone gets Polio vaccinations, Iggy Pop bathes in a tiny washtub, someone ends up in an iron lung, and many a wiggle dress is donned. Many ballads, a capella crooners, and rockabilly tunes are sung. What else do you expect from John Waters?
Were it not for Depp’s ability to poke fun at his own good looks, his eagerness to make a ridiculous spectacle of himself, Cry-Baby wouldn’t be as awesome as it is. But hot cars, great music, and a lampoon of Grease is just what the doctor ordered, and Depp was exactly the secretly sensitive JD for the job.
Gilbert Grape in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (dir. Lasse Hallström, 1993)
A side note: The knock-your-socks-off performance in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was not Depp’s. An extremely young Leonardo DiCaprio blew it out of the water playing Gilbert’s mentally handicapped brother. Frankly, to watch Gilbert Grape contrasted with, say, Shutter Island, is to have one’s mind blown. Despite Titanic, DiCaprio’s worth his salt based on this role alone. Period. But anyway…
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? is a little-known drama about a family living in the miniscule town of Endora, Texas. Twentysomething Gilbert (Depp) works at the grocery store, carries on an affair with an older married woman, and cares for Arnie (DiCaprio), whose greatest goal in life is to climb the town water tower. Gilbert’s older sister Amy (Laura Harrington) plays mother because the Grape matriarch (Darlene Cates) weighs upwards of 500 pounds and can’t move around. By the time free-spirited Becky (Juliette Lewis) rolls into town, Gilbert’s frustration has reached a breaking point. The two begin a clandestine relationship and Gilbert realizes his situation isn’t as bad as all that.
Gilbert’s total impotence and utter dejection are clear in Depp’s facial expressions, his movements, his voice. It’s painful to watch him interact with his mother (according to IMDb, Depp hated ridiculing Cates and apologized frequently to her); even moreso to witness his adoration for and frustration with Arnie. It’s one of Depp’s more…shall we say, understated performances. And it’s proof that he’s not always an over-the-top weirdo like Jack Sparrow.
Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (dir. Tim Burton, 1999)
Depp and perennial wacko/probable genius Tim Burton are peas in a pod (or, as Brett will detail below, lately enablers of each other’s own bad habits). Post-Edward Scissorhands, the two have worked together on so many films I’m not going to bother listing them. With Burton, Depp has gotten some of his most memorable roles: the Mad Hatter, Willy Wonka, Sweeney Todd, Ed Wood, and of course the timid schoolteacher from Washington Irving’s story Sleepy Hollow.
In Burton’s wonky, beautiful version of Sleepy Hollow, Ichabod Crane is not a schoolteacher, but a detective at the cusp of the scientific revolution. Crane’s unorthodox methods (entirely too logical, dammit) get him ousted from New York City to investigate a series of grisly beheadings in Sleepy Hollow. Crane discovers a teeming mass of secrets beneath the ominous little town’s surface (and a rotting mass of skeletons under one of film’s scariest trees).
Depp plays Crane as a timid eccentric, shrieky and queasy, prone to fainting spells and frightened of mice. (According to lore, Withnail of Withnail & I inspired his portrayal of Crane.) Needless to say, the very fact of the Headless Horseman is mind-blowing to him and his endless logic. The lovely Katrina van Tassel (Christina Ricci) re-introduces Ichabod to realms beyond science, while a very angry Christopher Walken slices people up in the wintry woods. It’s a different, fascinating, and gorgeously rendered retelling of a classic story as only Depp and Burton could do it.
Benjamin Barker a.k.a. Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (dir. Tim Burton, 2007)
Here I am, back to Burton and Depp. (I think each of us will be writing about at least one of Depp’s roles with Burton, as it’s impossible to examine his career and discount them.) Sweeney Todd is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie for a lot of Broadway buffs. Depp’s voice, also exercised in Cry-Baby, is not half bad. The lovely and amazing Helena Bonham Carter, on the other hand, is not a singer. Despite some flaws, though, the movie is a brilliant trip into Victorian England and the murderous barber of the Sondheim musical.
After the evil Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) shatters the Barker family and sends Barker into exile for a crime he didn’t commit, the barber returns to London as Sweeney Todd, a much different sort of barber with far more sinister intentions. He takes up residence above the disgusting meat pie shop owned by Mrs. Lovett (Bonham Carter) and begins wreaking vengeance on all who ruined his life.
Depp’s Todd is a sympathetic kind of villain, a man suffering due to past wounds, whose quest for revenge causes him to commit the grisliest of deeds with utter glee. His silver-streaked hair, dingy clothing, and best friend razor make him appear completely mad…and as it turns out he is. Although Todd has been played by many an actor in the musical’s multiple Broadway runs, Depp plays him unlike any other, and in this film adaptation he and Burton add a touch of the macabre beauty that Burton does best.
John Dillinger in Public Enemies (dir. Michael Mann, 2009)
Depp’s rule of thumb when choosing parts to play seems to be “the quirkier the better.” However, he has a modest number of straight dramatic roles to his name, though they tend to comprise his lesser successes. Nick Of Time, for example, failed to get anyone’s blood going. Depp recently took on a serious role that broke this trend sharply, and was quite refreshing for those of us who needed a break from the Raoul Duke/Jack Sparrow antics. In Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, he stepped into the shoes and overcoat of John Dillinger, a man whose name is synonymous with any conception of the American bank robber.
Public Enemies makes Dillinger into quite the charming Robin Hood figure, who conducts his Midwestern crime spree with rather gentle good humor as partners in crime like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson. He avoids unnecessary violence and disdains those (like Nelson) who seem to get off on it. He just wants enough money to romance his lady (Marion Cotillard), and smirk perpetually in the face of the establishment. He is a regular folk hero.
In a courtroom or in a firefight, Depp’s Dillinger keeps his cool and keeps the audience rooting for him as those mean old G-Men (including Christian Bale and Billy Crudup) run him down like the dog they declare him to be. In legal terms they are very much in the right, but of course we must have our villains. Why wouldn’t we want to see Dillinger duck them at every turn… until, of course, the law must resort to fighting dirty.
Dillinger’s infamous death outside Chicago’s Biograph Theater (it’s history so not a spoiler, unless you’re watching Inglourious Basterds) is a classic potboiler hearkening to all the best gangster stories. Poor old gunslinger, cut down by the man at the prime of his life, and certainly at the peak of his career. Depp’s Dillinger is so likable that you’re going to feel bad for him, no matter what.
My own familiarity with Dillinger’s life and times begins and ends with Public Enemies, so I will not presume to say whether or not this rendering of him is hogwash or not. The important thing is that Mann’s film is a gripping and enjoyable, if over-stylized, work of drama. It is one of those fake period pieces that does not really look anything like Depression-era America probably did, but boy is it pleasing to the eye. And seamless! Public Enemies makes being a bank robber in the 1930s look fun, adventurous, and stylish, which must mean that director Mann accomplished his mission in making it.
William Blake in Dead Man (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 1995)
Jim Jarmusch, known for making very quiet and offbeat movies – Down By Law, Stranger Than Paradise, Coffee And Cigarettes – took an offbeat step even for himself with the later-dubbed “Acid Western” Dead Man, which ponders such question as life, death, race, history and modern progress. A big ensemble cast of thoroughly entertaining actors play out this extremely unusual drama, which is easier seen than explained.
William Blake (Depp) is an accountant bound for the American West. Despite his romantic longing to be free of Midwestern drudgery, he finds his destination thoroughly hostile. In fact, there has been no place has been made for him by his new employer (the great Robert Mitchum in his last role), who literally drives him out of the office at gunpoint upon his arrival. Uprooted, out of work, and completely unfamiliar with his surroundings, the inoffensive young man proceeds to get himself shot rather promptly. He narrowly escapes town with his life, but carries a price on his head for surviving the gunfight. He meets an outcast Indian named Nobody, who has a complicated relationship with the white man and believes Blake to be dead (in fact thinking him the same William Blake as the English poet). Though a pariah among his own folks, Nobody sees it as his duty to escort Blake’s wandering spirit through the proper ceremony of death so that his spirit may rest. On their journey to an appropriately holy place, they encounter a bizarre cross section of failed and downtrodden humanity, which seems to have been conquered by the West, rather than the other way around.
Dead Man works at a meditative, occasionally agonizing pace, but the style and atmosphere cannot be beat. Neil Young’s searing guitar work follow Blake on his journey along a thin frontier between living and dying. The film welcomes a number of different interpretations. How allegorical do you feel like getting? All in all it plays very much like a Cormac McCarthy story (especially Blood Meridian) with a wry, nearly imperceptible wit that is somehow completely distinct from McCarthy’s own brand of wry, nearly imperceptible wit.
Depp’s character is fairly passive, but even the serenity of a dying man ought to be played with conviction. His wonder at the world around him gradually gives way to a stoic resignation, presumably learned from his companion and absorbed from the natural world around him, and the transformation between Blake in his former life and Blake crossing into his next life is impressive.
The cast is a strong pack of oddballs, including Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, Alfred Molina, Lance Henriksen, John Hurt, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and more. The various vignettes which make up Blake and Nobody’s travels would make an interesting collection of short stories. Jarmusch is most comfortable pacing things this way, and his success with this cult period piece may mean more are in store for the future.
Edward Scissorhands in Edward Scissorhands (dir. Tim Burton, 1990)
It is a well understood matter of record that Johnny Depp’s feature debut was in A Nightmare On Elm Street. However, it may be argued that without Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp as we know him would not exist today. By starring in what is still one of Tim Burton’s most original and strange projects to date, young Depp cemented his image as an ambassador of the bizarre. He also became one of Burton’s favorite leading men for years to come.
The movie is a dark, profoundly sad sort of fairy tale set in an eerily pristine rendering of suburban America. Edward is a Gothic Pinocchio character, created by a kind-hearted but kooky inventor (the late great Vincent Price in his final role), who died before finishing a proper pair of hands for Edward. Instead, he wields long sharp scissor blades where his fingers ought to be. Apart from this, he is anything but monstrous. Coaxed out of his lonely mansion by a friendly Avon lady (Dianne Wiest), he takes up residence with a local family. He demonstrates tremendous skill in hedge trimming and hair cutting, and soon becomes a local sensation, despite his retiring demeanor. He promptly falls in love with Kim (Winona Ryder), the daughter of his adoptive family.
All might have gone well for this shy and mild-mannered creature. However, Kim’s boyfriend (Anthony Michael Hall) jealously plots to turn Edward’s weirdness against him and convince the town to persecute him as a monster. In a tale like this, you can bet it’s only a matter of time before exactly that happens. People simply cannot appreciate a miraculous curiosity very long before wanting to hunt it down with torches and pitchforks.
Edward Scissorhands weaves such elements of the classic James Whale Frankenstein films with a snow-covered storybook fantasy, coupled with a heart-rending score by Danny Elfman, another longtime Tim Burton cohort. The pivotal scene in which Edward’s gorgeous ice sculpture becomes a mythological device for bringing snow (and by allegorical extension beauty and wonder) to the town, is a true masterpiece of fantasy storytelling.
I can only watch Edward Scissorhands now and then. It is just too damn sad for regular consumption. The score makes me burst into tears, even when I am not watching the film. For an evening of Tim Burton, I am far likely to grab for Batman, Beetlejuice, or Sleepy Hollow. However, Edward Scissorhands, though not my absolute favorite, is certainly one of the most important projects in the career of the director, the composer, and especially the leading actor responsible. Any discussion of Depp’s work would be noticeably incomplete without it.
Ed Wood in Ed Wood (dir. Tim Burton, 1994)
Over the past several years, it’s become uncomfortably clear that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have an unhealthy relationship. Although they’ve worked together since 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, recently, this pairing has become problematic on many levels. It takes Johnny Depp away from potentially better projects with better directors, and it allows Tim Burton to fall into a more-than-obvious bored complacency. As Burton feels obligated to remake every property he can get his hands on while replacing the heart that made those movies so memorable with an uninspired quirkiness, the novelty of a completely “out there” Depp performance wears thin. What films like 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and 2010’s Alice in Wonderland proved is that craziness can actually become boring, no matter how extensive the blue screen or make-up work.
Anyway, in 1994, the two worked together on their second, and best, collaboration, in what is perhaps Tim Burton’s best (and possibly only decent) film, Ed Wood. In the black-and-white feature, Depp plays Ed Wood, the real life cross-dressing B-movie director responsible for “worst movie ever made” Plan 9 From Outer Space and other sci-fi and sexploitative schlock such as The Sinister Urge and The Violent Years (both featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000). Avoiding many of the trappings of most of Tim Burton’s works, Ed Wood actually serves as a toned down departure for the director and a respectable biopic featuring an Academy Award-winning performance from Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. As Wood, Depp plays the Glen or Glenda filmmaker as hyper without succumbing to manic and presents someone who truly loves film and the art of filmmaker, no matter how many small the budget, how many mistakes are made, or how high the odds against him.
The most important thing about Ed Wood, however, is that it doesn’t take endless potshots at the Victorian era. I haven’t the faintest idea what that generation did to Tim Burton or his family, but it’s refreshing to see a movie from him that doesn’t painstakingly remind us that upper crusty British people from the 1800s were upper crusty and British.
Rango/Lars in Rango (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2011)
Obviously not one of Depp’s best “performances” in a conventional sense, but this year’s Rango is still a very good film and Depp gives a strong lead vocal performance as the lead. Depp is not a stranger to the Western with films like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and the upcoming The Lone Ranger, and in Rango he takes the role of the existential Western hero. The lone wanderer abandoning and abandoned by the world. As a showman chameleon pretending to be a Western hero, Depp imbues the character with an actual personality and pulls off the character’s different emotional states better than most other big name stars trying their larynx at voiceover work.
Rango the film is different than most of today’s CGI animated experiences. It doesn’t have the pathological need to make you sob like most of Pixar’s offerings do. (Cars 2 will probably be an exception. Unfortunately, it’s a sequel to Cars.) It doesn’t feel compelled to overload its script with cheap and easy pop culture references that are outdated by the time the movie comes out, nor does it rely on juvenile jokes.
Another way to explain it is that Rango is not an animated Western; it’s a Western that happens to be animated. A minor semantics argument, but one that can be explained thusly. Kung Fu Panda doesn’t really borrow from Bruce Lee films. It might have archetypes like the wise sensei, but there’s nothing in that movie that really harkens back to the chop socky flicks of yesteryear. With Rango, you get a sense that the filmmakers (director Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films), writer John Logan (Gladiator, Any Given Sunday, The Aviator), and “visual consultant” legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, No Country for Old Men)) really appreciate the spaghetti Western. Its references are best qualified as homages, showing a genuine love for the spaghetti Western. It understands more tropes than the shootout or the saloon. The use of pacing, scenery, landscapes, and sound to build atmosphere shows a kinship with the works of Sergio Leone, rather than merely cribbing what came before.
Visually, Rango is outstanding and does not look like others in the recent rash of CGI features. The character designs seem more intricate than even the best of Pixar’s work, and the details in both characters and settings provide a sense of realism instead of really well done cartoons. Some shots look like a highly intricate action figure set up.
Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the few books that can be said to, if not necessarily define a generation, then severely influence it. When director Terry Gilliam turned the account of Raoul Duke (essentially Thompson) and his lawyer/companion Dr. Gonzo’s quest for the American dream into a movie, he created an amazing adaptation of the new journalism classic and the ultimate road trip (as always, no pun intended) movie. (And yes, one might argue Easy Rider still holds the title, but both films have very similar motifs and themes.) What makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas such a significant addition to the genre is its understanding that road trips rarely have a point beyond the road trip. The traveler(s) might have a goal or a destination (in this case, stories to write for Rolling Stone), but they are so insignificant compared to the minor events that make up the bulk of the trip. It’s why being escorted from a Debbie Reynolds show after five minutes due to extreme laughter becomes as important as the race Thompson was sent to cover. Furthermore, the visuals provided by the Brazil filmmaker managed to perfectly tow the line between realism, hyperrealism, and surrealism in both look and feel.
Due to the 1998 feature, Johnny Depp has become intricately linked to the gonzo journalist, and the film’s opening Barstow monologue has become one of Depp’s most memorable film moments. The recent documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson had Depp narrating and reading passages from some of the journalist’s other works, and the upcoming The Rum Diary stars Depp as the lead in the adaptation of Thompson’s only novel. Watching the film, it’s easy to understand why Depp has become the writer in public consciousness. “Duke” is more than a drug fiend, but the bizarre genius Thompson actually was. The drug-induced nervous energy doesn’t lessen the reporter’s inquisitive nature but doesn’t seem fraudulent either. Equally impressive are the quiet moments that the film provides to Duke, which Depp performs as well as the intense and fun ones. These introspective scenes, such as when Duke talks about the America’s “high water mark,” enables you to understand and appreciate how he exists on a level outside of most everyone else without sacrificing his adventures with Dr. Gonzo.