Johnny Depp’s 10 Best Performances

Lone Ranger16 Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

Very rarely does Johnny Depp take on a role that is bland. His latest bit of work, playing Tonto in The Lone Ranger, is yet another instance of Depp taking on a character with the potential for really interesting (and yes, eccentric) interpretation. And even though the strangeness he’ll display through his range of character portrayals has almost become the norm, he has a way of making this predictable weirdness interesting nonetheless, often through sheer physicality.

This has made for a career with very few movies featuring Depp as a straightforward character. Even his less bizarre characters come to life in a way that few other actors can achieve. In a way, he gives his more ordinary characters a uniqueness and touch that makes them extraordinary, and gives his more unusual characters a grounding and humanness that makes them either tremendously sympathetic and relatable, or somehow uncanny, both freakish and familiar. It may be unsettling, but it’s never boring.

Here are 10 of the most memorable and iconic movie roles that could only have been made possible by the unique talent of Johnny Depp.

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1) Edward Scissorhands

Edward Scissorhands Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

The first of many collaborations with director Tim Burton, Depp’s portrayal of the tragic and titular hero of Edward Scissorhands marked the arrival of a truly gifted and distinct talent to the big screen. This was a character who had the makings of a silent movie star akin to the German expressionist movies of the 1920s that so greatly influenced Burton’s signature style. It took a star with the skill for physical expression, often only through miniscule little gestures with the eyes or lips, to fully capture what Edward was all about.

I don’t know what it was about Depp’s earlier work that caught the attention of Burton, but it’s hard to imagine someone more perfect for the role. The makeup and supporting performances particularly by Dianne Wiest and Winona Ryder deserve immense credit for drawing out the emotion of the film, but it simply would have been impossible for it to have worked without a face like Depp’s, countering the danger and terror exuded by Edward’s physical presence with devastatingly innocent eyes and a face that expressed far more fear than was experienced by those who encountered him. He wrapped up the feelings of isolation and abandonment and alienation into just his gestures, and is an icon for the outcast or non-verbal classes of people everywhere who are dismissed simply because they’re misunderstood.

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2) What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Whats Eating Gilbert Grape1 Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

After Edward Scissorhands, Depp received another Golden Globe Award nomination in the comedy Benny & Joon, though he could have easily received a dramatic nomination for the under-recognized Lasse Hallstrom film of the same year, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. The performance that received the most attention for this film, deservedly, was that of an 18-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio playing Gilbert’s developmentally challenged younger brother Arnie. Their relationship is the heart and soul of the movie, and their work together is electric and heartbreaking.

If this is a movie that can in any way be compared to Shameless, Gilbert Grape is the story’s Fiona Gallagher, wanting to break away from his family but unable to simply leave them behind. Depp is incredibly endearing as the young man torn between obligations to and love for his family, particularly his younger brother, and a young woman played by Juliette Lewis (who did such tremendous work in the early 1990s) who represented escape, from his family and provincial existence. Depp doesn’t have to say much for us to appreciate and feel for Gilbert’s inner conflict. Our optimism for his eventual outcome is rewarded in some part in the end. Johnny Depp’s a hard guy not to root for.

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3) Ed Wood

Ed Wood Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

Four years following their success with Edward Scissorhands, Depp and Burton reunited to make Ed Wood, a wonderfully strange little movie about a wonderfully strange little figure in movie history. It’s a hard movie to pin down. It’s a comedy, but the type that’s more strange than laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a celebration of a man who is generally agreed upon as the worst filmmaker of all time, real life director Ed Wood, whose titles include Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space. And just to add to his general eccentricity and bizarre cinematic sensibilities, he was notorious for being a cross-dresser.

This might be Johnny Depp’s best performance of his career, and it’s nearly indescribable. He makes it utterly impossible to determine whether Wood really was as oblivious and optimistic as he seemed or if he was on to his own game, similar to the debate/non-debate surrounding Tommy Wiseau. It’s most likely that he was just a man who loved movies, and as he states in the movie, would do just about anything to continue to make movies, even though he was terrrrrrrible at it. Like just legendary ineptitude. But so damn cheerful about it. The moment that sold Depp’s portrayal as entirely brilliant is the scene where he gets baptized. You’ll never see someone so genuinely enthusiastic sound so drippingly sarcastic ever again.

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4) Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

One of Johnny Depp’s defining qualities is his ability to make a role so specific and detailed that after seeing him in a part, it’s impossible to imagine the character being depicted by anyone else. It’s so impossible to imagine another actor trying to portray Hunter S. Thompson that thirteen years later he essentially reprised his Thompson-esque role in The Rum Diary. Because who else could play a Hunter S. Thompson character at this point? All they’d be doing is imitating Johnny Depp or trying way too hard to deviate from Johnny Depp and failing because the only person who can play a Hunter S. Thompson character is the man who is named Johnny Depp.

Director Terry Gilliam has a certain style that is, in a word, odd. His Monty Python animations are indicative of his aesthetic sensibilities, and his taste for the bizarre. It’s easy to decry this but probably a good thing because it takes all kinds, right? You’re certainly unlikely to see another movie quite like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. If it’s meant to be an experience about drugs, excess, and excessive drug use, it fires on all cylinders, or all pipes, or whatever. And Depp’s distinct rhythm of speech and physicality and matter of factness is unlike any character in movies before or since.

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5) Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

While his career had been progressing steadily since the 1980s, Depp finally skyrocketed to cinematic superstardom in 2003 thanks to the Disney-theme-park-ride-turned-Bruckheimer-blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean. The subsequent Pirates movies were monstrous in their box office takings but it’s worth remembering that Captain Jack Sparrow was a pretty novel character, in large part to his physicality and bizarre antics augmented by Johnny Depp’s work.

It speaks to the way Depp (or many actors) can seemingly take a tidbit of inspiration and turn it into sheer brilliance. Matthew McConaughey has said that his performance in Magic Mike was informed by director Steven Soderbergh telling him his character believed in alien life. Similarly, Depp’s decision to base his depiction of Jack Sparrow on rock legend Keith Richards seems like a simple touch that drew out all these little physical tics of the character that helped make him so memorable and endlessly fun to watch. The film was one of those surprising and resounding successes thanks to Depp stealing the show.

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6) Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

It’s always nice to see an actor take a break from the more outlandish and delicious characters and dive into something more understated yet just as savory and sweet. Johnny Depp became an Oscar nominee two years in a row for his depiction of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie. It’s a lovely little film that received some acclaim and a lot of award recognition when it was released, but has since largely disappeared from the cultural consciousness, like Peter Pan himself perhaps.

What might be most interesting about the movie today is seeing Johnny Depp playing a character that isn’t completely batshit crazy. It almost seems novel, in that way. It’s easy to forget, even though we saw it in characters like Edward Scissorhands and in a less eccentric sense Gilbert Grape, that Depp has a certain delicateness to his performances that is executed with such precision that it often goes unnoticed or unappreciated. That’s the case with Finding Neverland.

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7) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

Depp and Burton were back at it in 2005, working together on two films, the gorgeous and grotesque Corpse Bride, and the somewhat polarizing remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The movie itself was deeply polarizing, as should be expected from a reinterpretation of such a beloved classic movie, but Johnny Depp’s performance as Willy Wonka was especially unnerving, deciding to, like the majority of the movie, really amp up the creepiness factor. People went so far as to draw comparisons of Depp’s portrayal to Michael Jackson, which may or may not have been the authorial intent of the thing.

But overall, I think I like the movie, and especially the Wonka performance. The 1970s version has elements of creepiness that it sort of glosses over. I mean, seriously Gene Wilder, you played a guy who was inviting children to join him in his secluded warehouse, and you think Depp made him too creepy? It’s meant to differentiate itself from the previous version, and it does so to great effect. If people find it off-putting and hard to take, I find that somehow more comforting than people who take little issue with the friendly and only somewhat temperamental Willy Wonka we had come to know previously. Depp went full creep. Power to him.

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8) Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd1 Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

The second of five Depp/Burton collaborations over the course of six years is undoubtedly their strongest. Sweeney Todd was Tim Burton’s return to form according to many who felt he hadn’t made a truly great film since Edward Scissorhands. I suspect this is because his unique skills play much better, or at least more universally impactful, in tragedy than comedy. The film also benefits from some seriously grotesque violence, and Tim Burton is of course the master of the strange and grotesque and curiously unnerving.

The beauty of Johnny Depp’s work in Sweeney Todd can essentially be boiled down to his simultaneous portrayal of singular rage and quest for vengeance, and his deep pain and understanding of his fate. His pessimism is contrasted nicely with the Jamie Campbell Bower character, who remains young and hopeful. Sweeney’s face is kept in a constant scowl, his voice in a constant angry rasp. He is almost completely physically unrecognizable in flashback scenes as Benjamin Barker. It’s a dark film, and it’s a wonderfully dark and stylistic yet complex performance by Depp. Yeah, I like it a lot.

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9) Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland1 Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

The entire 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland may not have worked for me, but the performances in it were spectacular, from Helena Bonham Carter to Mia Wasikowska to Anne Hathaway to the Mad Hatter himself, Johnny Depp. Because of the string of odd characters Depp had portrayed prior to Alice, many of which being collaborations with Tim Burton, it was understandable for people to see Depp as Hatter and dismiss it as just another one of those crazy Johnny Depp performances, crazy for crazy’s sake, old crazy Johnny at it again, that crazy guy. But of course that only adds to the contextual madness of the Hatter character.

Really, for me, the character was as solid as any of Depp’s other crazy characters, but I admit that it’s easy, when you watch them all in a row, to get them mixed in your head. It’s like hearing an album of a band you really like and thinking, well, at first these songs all sort of sound alike. Only to later on pick up on the differences when you listen again and again. I suspect the Mad Hatter is like this. What gives me faith is that insane dance he does at the end. They built up that dance and built it up and built it up, and when it arrives—well I’ll be damned if it didn’t just make the entire movie and accompanying Depp performance work for me.

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10) Rango

Rango Johnny Depps 10 Best Performances

One of the most surprisingly enjoyable movies of 2011 was a reteaming of the talents that brought us Captain Jack Sparrow: Johnny Depp and director Gore Verbinski. Their animated effort on Rango resulted in one of the most outlandish characterizations that demonstrates Depp’s vocal prowess rather than the physical and facial performance he is known for. That part of Rango was the work of terrifically skilled animators, but as is the case with such movies, those aspects are first informed by the work done by the voice artist. It seems like a long time since Depp’s last straight-up comedic performance that was downright silly, but he pulls out all the stops as the charming chameleon who finds himself in the town of Dirt.

Johnny Depp turned 50 last month. Many are pointing out that as the shirtless Tonto in The Lone Ranger, his age is starting to show. He does not appear, however, to be starting to slow, with projects coming up reprising his iconic Jack Sparrow role, appearing in the highly anticipated musical Into the Woods, and starring in cinematographer Wally Pfister’s directorial debut next year. It’s tough to think of anyone who takes on as many diverse and consistently interesting roles as Johnny Depp, let alone anyone who is so dependably complex and sympathetic in his depiction of characters, despite those characters often possessing ostensibly unsavory qualities. Ride on, kemo sabe.

Do you have any favorite Johnny Depp roles that weren’t listed here? Share your picks in the comments section below.

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  • Ryan Burns

    Have you not seen Donnie Brasco? Or Dead Man?

  • steve

    Donnie Brasco should have won him academy award!

  • Jason

    I agree with all of the roles mentioned. But I have to respectfully disagree with Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. His worst role! God, I hated that film. Overindulgent crap!

  • Ronny

    Dead Man. Also From Hell.