Renowned mostly for his mainstream work in Pirates of the Caribbean and by fans of Tim Burton movies, Johnny Depp can be categorized almost unfairly. I say almost because he does great work in both of those categories, and I say unfairly because there is quite a bit more to this actor’s career. Whether he be a playwright fighting to get back to his childhood (Finding Neverland) or a sly gangster evading the authorities (Public Enemies), Depp proves time and again to be one of the most diverse, high-quality performers working in film today. He takes on projects of passion, and they just happen to make a lot of money. This could be because he works with talented filmmakers with a built-in audience, but it’s not. It’s because he carries a built-in audience to terrific filmmakers, and then everyone wins.
Depp’s best performance has him singing and slicing through Tim Burton’s excellent adaptation of this Broadway musical. As Sweeney Todd, he wins over audience sympathy even as he turns into an insane throat-cutter. Depp’s singing is emotive, not classical, and it really fleshes out the power of the music. As he marches the streets of London looking to hunt down the judge that holds his daughter captive, you’ll be enthralled by the wonderful world Depp and Burton have created. It’s the pinnacle of one of the movies’ best director/actor pairings.
Most true stories are boring. This one, aided by Depp’s terrifically low-key performance, isn’t. Chronicling the life of James Barrie, the man who would write Peter Pan, the film appropriately allows fantastic visions of childhood fantasy into its conventional narrative. This pushes the actors, a terrific Kate Winslet to go along with Depp, to use their imaginations and go with the flow. They do it almost effortlessly, and this children’s film becomes something much more meaningful because of it.
Pirates of the Caribbean
The role that really put Depp on the mainstream Hollywood map was his Oscar-nominated role as Captain Jack Sparrow. In a franchise closely scrutinized by the Disney machine, he manages to give us a character of great complexity and black humor. You never know what he’ll do next and, more importantly, you can’t wait to find out. The movies themselves may be sub-par (the third terrible), but Depp is having a blast in them and as a result, audiences do too.
Depp scored another knockout with Burton early in their relationship. As the mumbling, socially awkward Edward, Depp lets us into a troubled soul without uttering many words. His shifting eyes, pursed lips, and crouched posture take us into Edward’s troubled but kind heart. As Burton satirizes suburban life, Depp keeps the movie grounded in some kind of demented, beautiful humanity.
With a slightly southern drawl and a wily smirk, Depp takes us into the mind and heart of America’s first Public Enemy Number One, John Dillinger. In a screen performance as towering as the man himself, we get a version of the infamous bank robber that makes him into both a human and a legend. Whip-smart dialogue, the thrilling, masterful direction of Michael Mann, and terrific chemistry with Marion Cotillard give Depp yet another typical “movie star” role that becomes something grander because of the actor behind it.
Other Notable Performances: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Blow, Chocolat, Ed Wood, and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?