Few actors working today are quite as paradoxical in their very existence as Johnny Depp. He is the man behind some of the most recognisable characters in modern popular culture, yet away from the cameras he is an enigma; a softly spoken riddle wrapped in a pork pie hat and purple John Lennon sunglasses. His CV is filled with towering performances, but it also includes some of the worst abominations ever committed to celluloid. Love him or loathe him (or maybe both), Johnny Depp is not a man who does anything by halves.
Born in Kentucky to a civil engineer father and a waitress mother, John Christopher Depp II originally aspired to be a musician, dropping out of high school and eventually collaborating with the LA-based group Rock City Angels. After being inspired to go into acting by none other than fellow future mental case Nicolas Cage, Depp decided to switch career paths.
It may be surprising for those of us who grew up with Captain Jack Sparrow to learn that he first found fame as something of a teen heartthrob. His debut in 1984 slasher classic A Nightmare on Elm Street was followed in 1986 by a very different kind of horror: Oliver Stone’s Vietnam war film Platoon. It was around this time that Depp also landed a leading role in the hit police show 21 Jump Street – a role that he would briefly revisit during a cameo in Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s excellent reboot. Despite being paid a cool $45,000 per episode, Depp has since said that he felt “forced” into the role. Thankfully, salvation soon arrived for Depp in the form of an up-and-coming director named Tim Burton.
Edward Scissorhands (1990) proved that Depp and Burton were a match made in heaven. Despite having almost no dialogue, Depp shined as an artificial man with lethal blades instead of hands; his quiet, slightly baffled demeanour proving a perfect fit for Burton’s slightly skewed portrait of middle-class Californian suburbia. Four years later the two reunited for Ed Wood, the story of the making of legendary cult film Plan 9 From Outer Space. Depp’s performance as the tragic director, nominated for a Golden Globe, is often considered to be one of his very finest.
The early ’90s also saw Depp in a series of critical success starring alongside well-established actors. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) he played the brother of a then-unknown Leonardo DiCaprio; Don Juan DeMarco (1994) saw him playing patient to none other than Marlon Brando; while in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997) he played an undercover FBI agent trying to cosy up to Al Pacino’s ageing hitman.
By 1997 Depp had made another lifelong friend: gonzo journalist and serial drug abuser Hunter S. Thompson, who became adamant that Depp was the only person able to portray him in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The actor went to extraordinary lengths to study the writer, even going so far as to sleep in his basement for four months (where, if the legends are true, Thompson stored several crates of dynamite). The two were a constant presence in each other’s lives until Thompson’s death in 2005; and Depp would play him again, albeit in slightly more muted tones, in 2011’s The Rum Diary.
The late ’90s and early ’00s proved a mixed bag. Sleepy Hollow (1999) is an oft-overlooked collaboration between Depp and Burton, and Chocolat (2000) is a charming love story buoyed by Depp’s chemistry with Juliette Binoche, but he also starred in plenty of duds like The Ninth Gate (1999), The Astronaut’s Wife (1999) and From Hell (2001). Then, in 2003, Depp put on a bandana and did a funny Keith Richards impression, and a cultural icon was born. There had never been a character like Captain Jack Sparrow on screen before, and audiences and critics alike went crazy for his talk of rum and sea turtles. This did not go unnoticed by the bigwigs at Disney, and following the success of The Curse of the Black Pearl, two more Pirates of the Caribbean movies were quickly put into development. Though Dead Man’s Chest (2006) and At World’s End (2007) both made a ton of money – the former becoming the fastest film to ever gross $1 billion worldwide – the law of diminishing returns was inevitable. Neither film could successfully capture the freshness of Depp’s Oscar-nominated routine. For the critics, familiarity inevitably bred contempt.
Thus began what film historians should refer to as Johnny Depp’s “Silly Hat Phase”. There were occasional light patches, like Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) or the delightful animated film Rango (2011), but mostly the line graph that is Johnny Depp’s career points straight downwards. It’s hard to know whether Depp was trying too hard to make the same lightning from The Curse of the Black Pearl strike twice, or whether he wasn’t trying at all, but the results speak for themselves. His Willy Wonka (2005) is a pale shadow of Gene Wilder’s brilliance, his Mad Hatter (2010) was a schizophrenic giggling nightmare, and the less said about his utterly offensive portrayal of the Native American Tonto in The Lone Ranger (2013) the better. The nadir of Depp’s career came at the beginning of this year with Mortdecai, which saw the actor prancing around in a moustache for 90 unbearable minutes looking like the Carry On cast member that time forgot.
Watching Johnny Depp movies in recent years makes one feel like a parent whose child has been caught smoking behind the bike sheds – not angry, just disappointed. Still, there is always hope for the future. The upcoming Black Mass, which sees Depp take on the role of real-life gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, is being hailed as a return to form for the actor. Here’s hoping that line graph will start to point up.
Wait, what else does he have coming out soon? A new Pirates of the Caribbean film and a sequel to Alice in Wonderland?
Never mind, then.
Top 5 Johnny Depp Films:
Edward Scissorhands (1990) – Depp’s first project with Tim Burton was one of his finest. It’s a wonderfully nuanced role, and Depp imbues Edward with real, raw emotion despite only speaking a handful of lines.
Ed Wood (1994) – Another golden Depp/Burton collaboration. Ed Wood was a tragically comic figure, and Depp does a superb job of making us root for him even as we laugh at his ridiculous ideas.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1997) – Make no mistake, this will always be a Terry Gilliam trip through and through, but Depp excels in his portrayal of Hunter S. Thompson. Any trace of the late-’80s teen star is gone, replaced with a twitching paranoid nightmare. His exchanges with Benicio Del Toro are a masterclass in comedic timing.
Rango (2011) – Not only is Rango one of the prettiest animated films ever made, with its striking visuals and its dedication to the tropes of the Western genre, but it also features a bravura vocal performance from Depp. A chameleon was certainly an appropriate fit for him.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) – Yes, the Pirates sequels have all been awful to some degree or another, but there’s no denying that the first one totally holds up. Depp’s energy here is infectious, and Jack Sparrow feels like an actual human being as opposed to some sort of living cartoon character.