Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Top Ten Tuesdays: Johnny Depp Performances

Later today, I'm seeing the recent film Black Mass, which has already earned Oscar buzz for its leading actor Johnny Depp. Many are calling it a return to form for Depp, who despite a series of rather lackluster films (starring in Mortdecai and The Lone Ranger back to back doesn't help things) is still one of the most highly regarded actors of our time. And so, in honor of this return to form, I thought I'd spend this Top Ten Tuesday counting down my picks for the top ten Johnny Depp performances. Depp is an inherently interesting performer, one who first became known for his quirkiness, and then became somewhat reviled for it due to a series of downright weird performances and what some would call an unhealthy penchant for working with Tim Burton.

But, despite recent Depp backlash, he is still a beloved figure, and consistently the coolest guy in the room. When looking at his filmography, one is struck by the number of challenging roles he has taken on for himself, many of which are roles it's hard to imagine anyone playing. I feel like his recent performances have been underrated due to his oversaturation. Take his work in Dark Shadows, a flawed but nonetheless underrated film that people wrote off before it even came out. But if you watch it objectively, Depp does great work. That performance, by the way, is not on this list as there are just too many great performances to choose from. Depp is prolific enough that I had a lot of selection, but these are my personal choices for the best Johnny Depp performances. And, no, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is not on this list. Despite being one of the three performances for which he got an Oscar nomination, I have some problems with his performance and the film, which I think does some things well, but also missed the mark on some crucial elements. And also, Black Mass isn't on here because I haven't seen it yet (although it very well might have made this list had I chosen to compile it tomorrow). Okay--let's get to the list!

10) Donnie Brasco, as Joseph Pistone

This is an excellent film, and features an intense performance from Depp. In Donnie Brasco, he plays an FBI agent who goes undercover to infiltrate the mafia. Roles where a character is undercover are tough. Because you have to believe that the "real" character and the undercover character are the same person, but you also have to believe that people would actually be convinced by their undercover persona. Depp pulls it off beautifully--his role is heartfelt, emotional, magnetic, and at times even scary. So, why is this only number ten on my list? Well, because it doesn't fell like a Johnny Depp performance. He's very good in it, but it's a role that I could see other actors stepping into and doing an equally good job, while many of the other roles on this list strike me as more distinctly Depp. Also, as good as Depp is in the film, his co-star Al Pacino steals the show as aging gangster Lefty Ruggiero.

9) The Libertine, as John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester

In this film, adapted from the play of the same name, Depp plays the infamously rakish lewd poet the Earl of Rochester. It's an uneven film--it has a very cool aesthetic and some moments of brilliance, but ultimately gets a bit plodding as the film goes on. But, the strength of Depp's performance is undeniable, and any bit of magic the film finds is mostly due to his charisma. Check out this prologue--the very first thing that happens in the film--where Depp literally just delivers his lines to the camera. And it's GREAT! This clip, I think, demonstrates the signature magnetism that permeates Depp's best performances, including this performance as the Earl of Rochester.

8) Cry-Baby, as Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker

Like all films directed by John Waters, Cry-Baby is not going to be everyone's cup of tea (although, this one is perhaps a bit more accessible to the mainstream than, say, Pink Flamingos). I happen to think the film is a lot of fun, and Depp's performance was a bit of a turning point in his career. At this point, he was best known for the television series 21 Jump Street. Established as a heartthrob, and wanting to transition into film, Depp could have easily coasted and simply played typical romantic leads and never been out of work. But, Cry-Baby is a clear parody of the typical romantic comedies of the time, and was the first film to establish that Depp was an actor with a penchant for taking on more off-kilter roles (which he followed up with Edward Scissorhands, which I'll get to in a bit). His performance is cool, while still being a bit goofy, and is quintessential Depp.

7) What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, as Gilbert Grape

 This is Depp's most understated performance on this list. For a guy who tends to play the weirdest character in whatever movie he's in, here he shows he can ground a film and let others take the spotlight. As a result, when people talk about this film, they tend to talk about Leonardo DiCaprio's excellent performance as Gilbert's mentally challenged brother Arnie. DiCaprio really is wonderful--I still think this is his best performance to date--but Depp's quiet performance as the introspective titular character is why this film ultimately works. His portrayal is lovely. You sympathize with the frustrated, flawed, and ultimately goodhearted Gilbert Grape, and it's due to the subtlety that Depp (an actor not exactly known for his subtlety) lends him.

6) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as Raoul Duke

One of the most divisive films of all time, it's a film everyone has a distinct reaction to, whether you love or hate it. I'm, frankly, undecided on the film as a whole, but  Depp's performance is undeniably strong, and suitable for such an experimental and out-of-the-box film. Playing an extremely thinly-veiled representation of author Hunter S. Thompson, Depp's ability to make any character engaging is on full display here. Without the most distinct of plots, the movie would feel aimless without a strong performance from Depp (and also Benicio Del Toro), but Depp's portrayal of Duke is so interesting, we're willing to see where the movie is going. He makes the film feel complete.

5) Finding Neverland, as J.M. Barrie

There's not much to say here, as its easily one of Depp's most straightforward roles. In Finding Neverland, Depp plays the writer of Peter Pan as he becomes acquainted with the family and the children who would eventually inspire that work. Barrie is more, for lack of a better word, "normal" than most of Depp's roles, but he is nonetheless able to instill in Barrie a sense of magic and wonder. It's not a coincidence that this role earned Depp one of his three Oscar nominations. Depp's performances are often off the wall and outside the box, but with Finding Neverland, he proved that he has the chops to deliver a solid, more traditional performance with the best of them.

4) Edward Scissorhands, as Edward Scissorhands

Earlier, I said that Cry-Baby was Depp's first foray into roles who are off slightly off the beaten track. Well, right after Cry-Baby, Edward Scissorhands was released. This film launched Johnny Depp's career, and also marked the start of his long collaboration with Tim Burton. Today, the fact that Johnny Depp is in every Tim Burton film is a bit of a punchline, and people are tired of it, but I actually continue to welcome Depp's appearance in Tim Burton films. Because if they have even the possibility of recapturing some of the magic the pair of them found in Edward Scissorhands, then they should keep making films forever. As performed by Depp, Edward Scissorhands is such a wonderful and odd creation. For those somehow unfamiliar with the character (if you haven't seen the film, do so immediately) it focuses on Edward, a young man who literally has giant metal blades for hands. But Edward is not a monster, he is a kind soul, and the film explores his attempts to find a place in a world and gain acceptance. It's a beautiful film, and its success is rooted in Depp's performance. We sympathize with Edward, but that's not what makes Depp's performance so great (the writing is strong enough that anyone's portrayal of Edward could have evoked sympathy). What makes Depp's performance so great is simply how natural it feels. Don't get me wrong, his portrayal of the shy and often silent Edward is certainly strange and unnatural, but in Depp's capable hands (er, scissor hands) we completely buy the ridiculous premise that such a character could even exist. He ends up feeling real to us, something a less distinct actor would not have been able to pull off.

3) Ed Wood, as Ed Wood

Another collaboration with Tim Burton, Depp is once again playing an oddball, but this time it's a portrayal of a real person named Edward: Ed Wood. Wood was a cult filmmaker known for movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space, and many have referred to him as the worst filmmaker who ever lived. If you haven't seen the film, it would be tempting to think that the film is a comedy about how awful a filmmaker Wood was. And....yeah, it kind of is. But what I love about this film (one of my all-time favorites) and about Depp's performance is how loving a tribute it is. The film's thesis is not that Wood was bad at making movies, it's that he had a vision that no one else could possibly understand, and that it might not be our place to judge art just because we perceive it to be bad. Depp's portrayal of Wood is simply joyous--it's a loving portrayal of a man who is passionate about movies, and who you ultimately grow quite fond of as the film goes on. With Ed Wood, Depp takes a role that he could had treated as an idiot, and his performance shows a tremendous amount of respect for the role. It's a surprising interpretation, and Depp's strongest "natural" performance to date.

2) The Pirates of the Caribbean series, as Captain Jack Sparrow

Johnny Depp was already a star, but when The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl premiered, it was a game changer for his career. Some would argue it was a change for the worst, but whatever your opinions on the movie series (opinions like "How is it possible for them to be making ANOTHER movie? Just let the franchise die please) it's undeniable that the pirate captain Jack Sparrow instantly became one of Depp's most iconic roles. With so many sequels, which offer diminishing returns, it's easy to forget just how exciting Depp's performance in the first film was. The film was a massive success almost exclusively because of him. The wild glint in his eye, the physical comedy, the precise delivery of every line, his ability to come across as both a fool and the smartest guy in the room--even as the films themselves fail to live up to the novelty of the first, Depp's character work is always bold and masterful. And many forget that he even got an Oscar nomination for his work--which is especially impressive considering that the Academy tends to shy away from both comedic performances and blockbuster films. While it's tough for me to place it above, say, the subtle work Depp shows in Ed Wood, there's no denying that, when most people think of Johnny Depp, Captain Jack Sparrow is probably the first role that comes to mind. And when you watch the movies--even the lesser ones--it's not hard to understand why.

But there's one performance of Depp's that I like even more.

1) The Lone Ranger, as Tonto

No, I'm just kidding. Everything about this is terrible. Here's my real number 1:

1) Benny & Joon, as Sam

This movie is such an underrated gem. While it was actually a surprise hit when it was initially released in 1993 (and popularized the song "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" by The Proclaimers, which is now stuck in your head) it feels like now it's not discussed too much, and has been lost in the shuffle among some of Depp's more grandstanding performances. And that is a real shame, because this movie is absolutely delightful. Depp plays Sam, a young cinemaphile who moves in with Benny (Aidan Quinn) and his sister Joon (Mary Stuart Masterson) who suffers from a disorder which many believe to be schizophrenia. Sam and Joon soon fall in love. This is not usual romantic comedy fare. The film's tone is quirky, while still remaining incredibly earnest. And at the center of that is Johnny Depp as Sam. Sam is sweet, smart, and odd--all traits that Depp can showcase with ease. But what stands out to me is simply how impressive a physical performance this is. Sam is a lover of all films, but especially old silent films, and throughout the movie, goes through spontaneous physical comedy routines, like this one in a local diner. Depp pulls these off perfectly--which is difficult to do. These moments of clowning are absolutely magical. It's impossible to watch Depp's performance without smiling.

Ultimately, a recurring trend in most of the performances I've listed here is the idea of humanity--Depp has a knack for bringing out the inner goodness in whoever he portrays, and make us root for them. Be they a hack filmmaker, a drunken pirate, a rakish poet, or even a boy who could cut your arm off if you try to shake hands, Depp is able to effortlessly create characters that you want to watch. You want to get to know these characters. You want them to end up okay. More than any other performance on this list, that quality is epitomized by Depp's work in Benny & Joon. And that is why it's my pick for his very best performance.

Depp was also in Mortdecai, a movie that you forgot existed even though it came out in January of this year. You didn't see it. Nobody saw it.

So, those are my thoughts. How about yours? What's your favorite Depp performance? And was there any film that I missed? Are you angered that I didn't even mention Sleepy Hollow once?! Well, now you can't be because I'm mentioning it now. Ha! Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and I always welcome suggestions for future Top Ten Tuesdays!

Join us in two weeks for The Top Ten Christopher Walken grunts in Sleepy Hollow! Unless I get a suggestion first.

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