The 10 best Johnny Depp Performances
Johnny Depp is Hollywood’s chameleon. Any movie that needs a weird, gothic character in full makeup with odd speech, Depp is the go to guy. When the Fantastic Beasts franchise needed Grindelwald, a new Voldemort-esque villain, they got Depp. Many of Depp’s most colorful roles are courtesy of his decades-long collaborative relationship with Tim Burton. Sometimes, the patented Johnny Depp approach to a role doesn’t quite work because it is often too ridiculous. For example, his Tonto in Disney’s The Lone Ranger didn’t quite work. Even so, he is almost the only actor who has the talent and courage to even attempt such a character.
At the other end of the spectrum, Depp is also one of the industry’s best actors when he totally plays it straight. He has just as impressive of performances where we can see his face as when he is done up like some Lovecraftian fantasy. Some of his most respected movies are successful in ways that don’t rely to heavily on his performance. Though great, Donnie Brasco, Public Enemies, and Chocolat don’t have that Johnny Depp stamp on it. Here are 10 of the best roles of Johnny Depp’s career.
The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (2010)
In the running for the MOST over the top character with his Willy Wonka, Johnny Depp tackled the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter is a grotesque looking creature of a man. This isn’t the silly-but-fun version from the 1940s animated version. It is nightmarish, but Depp emotes plenty of tragic energy to the innocent Alice to give him some depth.
Honestly, who else could have played this part? Depp is the actor willing to go through these kinds of makeup transformations and pull out all the stops with an incredibly over-the-top performance. Seemingly, the reason that Burton constantly goes back to Depp is that he trusts him. To write a character like the Mad Hatter takes an enormous amount of trust in an actor to make it work. As it is, the Mad Hatter is one of the best parts of the outstanding Alice in Wonderland.
Sam in Benny & Joon (1993)
There is no way Johnny Depp’s role of Sam should have worked in Benny and Joon. After Benny loses a big bet one night, one of his fellow poker player’s relatives comes to stay with him and his schizophrenic sister. Sam is an oddball who lives within his own crafted reality. For whatever reason, Sam is determined to emulate and personify the iconic roles of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in his everyday life. If you aren’t familiar with these silent film masters’ works, do yourself a favor.
Keaton and Chaplin were light-hearted gentlemen. They were moral, chivalrous, as well as a bit goofy. Sam lives with these ideals and it seems perfectly suited to the mentally ill Joon. Joon can’t function in the real world and Sam chooses not to. Most other actors would bring an incredulous silliness to the role of Ben. Not Depp. He plays him with charm, innocence, and sincerity. He is wonderful and fuels a great odd-couple love story.
Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton again. However, this time in a gorgeous R-rated horror film. Sleepy Hollow is probably Burton’s most beautifully crafted film. The choice to make the film R-rated was brilliant. A gothic story about a phantom headless horseman decapitating people needs to be violent and adult. Enter Depp, who plays Ichabod Crane sort of like a Phileas Fogg. He is a man of science that isn’t buying into Sleepy Hollow’s myths and legends. He arrives in town with his bag full of steampunk scientific instruments and can’t quite get a grip on this superstitious town.
Soon, Depp’s calm, skeptic persona disappears and he turns into a hysterical child. It provides to perfect amount of levity to this super-serious affair. Without Johnny Depp’s pitch perfect Crane, Sleepy Hollow could have been just a dark, dreary slog. With him, the film is an opulent horror fairy tale.
George Jung in Blow (2001)
Consider 2001’s Blow as the very talented stepson of Goodfellas. It definitely isn’t as good as Scorsese’s opus (few films are); however, the late Ted Demme fashioned a hell of a movie about George Yung. Yung almost single-handedly ushered the cocaine culture into America in the 1970s. It is a flash-bang movie with all the 70s swagger you could want. George’s arc is funny, sweet, scary, and exciting. Johnny Depp owns this role completely and he is integral to Blow being an outstanding film.
Depp portrays “Boston George” as confident, ambitious, and loyal. Though, most importantly, not wanting to emulate his own childhood, wants to do right by his family. Depp is actually pretty reserved for a man in the middle of Pablo Escobar’s cartel business. Which is exactly what makes him so riveting. George Jung operates as if he is invincible. He struts around thinking “I’m Pablo’s guy”, which is his biggest strength and most dangerous weakness. It is so refreshing to watch Depp play a man who has the courage to travel to an enemies private island just for the pleasure of putting a gun to his head. However, it is masterful when that same man can sweetly make pancakes for his daughter and share a scotch with his dad.
Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Ed Wood (1994)
It is completely baffling that Tim Burton’s Ed Wood worked as well as it did. Edward D. Wood, Jr. has the unfortunate legacy of being the worst director of all time. He obtained this moniker in a time in Hollywood history where there were copious amounts of cinematic garbage being released. So, you know he had to be especially awful. Tim Burton set out to make his biopic. He needed a young actor to play this gleefully clueless auteur who just happens to also be a transvestite. Who else would he have gone with than Johnny Depp?
Depp plays Ed Wood as the passionate idealist that he was. It is hilarious watching him operate within the industry with such cornball naïveté. Wood never quite caught on to the fact that he had no talent. He was going to make his movies no matter what. Also, he isn’t going to apologize for wanting to wear pink angora sweaters. As funny as all that is, Ed Wood has a huge heart too. Ed befriended Bela Lugosi (Oscar-winning Martin Landau) in the twilight of his life. He cast him when the rest of the world thought he was already dead. Not only that, he helped him get into rehab. It is a beautiful friendship that keeps the zaniness of the Ed Wood filmmaking hijinks grounded.
J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004)
One of Johnny Depp’s greatest performances comes courtesy of a role without any gimmick, any makeup, or any quirkiness. In 2004, Marc Forster directed Depp in Finding Neverland. It is the story of J.M. Barrie; author of Peter Pan. It is a beautifully touching story about how Barrie befriended the Llewelyn Davis family. His relationship with the recently widowed Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons inspired him to write the iconic story.
Depp so perfectly plays the British Gentleman, and is has many surrogate roles for his new friends. He is a charming love interest for Sylvia. He is a great friend to Jack, George, and Michael. But his relationship to Peter is the most emotional. Peter (Freddie Highmore) hasn’t got over his father’s sudden passing. Barrie’s presence angers and confuses him. So, Depp delicately becomes the boy’s mentor, therapist, and surrogate father. The film hurts the heart in most ways, but makes it sing in others.
Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Johnny Depp may not be a great singer, but he definitely gives it his all as the titular barber. Sweeney Todd is one of the most unique musicals. You often don’t see throat-slitting and cannibalism set to music. Be that as it may, Tim Burton wonderfully crafts a Burton-esque London that would give even Charles Dickens nightmares. Then, he just lets Depp soar into his role.
Depp is anything but two-dimensional As Benjamin Barker and Later as Sweeney Todd. This is a man who is full of despair, is consumed with hate, and stinks of vengeance. Depp is such a good actor that he isn’t just singing Steven Sondheim songs, he is emulating the lyrics. Much like Rent, the songs of Sweeney Todd are there to express emotion and exposit the plot, and Depp feels perfectly suited for it.
Sands in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Grindelwald is not Johnny Depp’s first foray into cinematic villainy. In 2003, Robert Rodriguez finished his El Mariachi trilogy with Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Depp plays CIA agent Sands. He is one of those agents that will do absolutely anything, no matter how horrible, to achieve his goals. Sands wants El Mariachi to come out of self-imposed exile to help stop a plot to kill the president. It is a bit ostentatious, but Depp is completely badass. Maybe more than he has ever been. Sands has a shtick with fake arms that is really cool. Also, when something horrible happens to him, he seemingly gets even more dangerous. You would think there are a dozen more people more suited to this role in Rodriguez’s bullet-fest. However, Depp shows us that he can pretty much do anything.
Edward in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
This Frankenstein-inspired fairy tale is the first time Johnny Depp and Tim Burton played dress up. It really brought Depp and Burton right into Hollywood royalty. First of all, here was this young, goth director with the audacity to make a film about a man with literal scissors for hands. It was insanity. Then there was the 21 Jump Street guy with wacky hair, an s&m body suit, and a ghostly complexion. Further insanity.
Well, it’s magical. Johnny Depp played Edward with such innocence, and such purity, that he completely breaks your heart. The world was not quite ready for a creature such as him. Vincent Price’s inventor character created him and raised him through fairy tales, poetry, and etiquette. The real world is afraid of him, want to take advantage of him, and even have sexual experiences with him. Although looking like something out of a nightmarish horror film, Edward is a child. He just wants to fit in. Also, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Captain Jack Sparrow is Johnny Depp’s greatest role. However, it is also one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema. It had been years since a swashbuckling pirate movie was done well. Does anyone remember Cutthroat Island? So, when director Gore Verbinski set out to adapt the iconic Disney attraction, i seemed destined to fail. Well, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Sure, the quality if the franchise has been in decline. Though, that first one is a masterpiece of popcorn cinema.
Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio could not have dreamed of what Johnny Depp would bring to their written words. Depp is famous for saying that he was inspired by Keith Richards, and that is genius. Jack Sparrow is a perpetually drunk, oddly effeminate, lustful train-wreck. However, he may just be the smartest pirate in existence. Or at least the luckiest. There is hardly any doubt that Captain Jack Sparrow will be Johnny Depp’s everlasting legacy. The performance, and therefore the character, is as perfectly iconic as Indiana Jones.