1) Edward Scissorhands
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.
2) What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
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.