Johnny Depp is Hollywood’s chameleon. Any movie that needs a weird, fully made-up goth character with a weird speech, Depp is the go-to guy. When the Fantastic Beasts franchise needed Grindelwald, a new Voldemort-esque villain, they got Depp. Many of Depp’s most colorful roles stem from his decades-long collaborative relationship with Tim Burton. Sometimes Johnny Depp’s patented approach to a role doesn’t quite work because it’s often too ridiculous. For example, his Tonto in Disney’s The Lone Ranger didn’t quite work out. Even so, he’s almost the only actor who has the talent and guts to even attempt such a character.
On the other end of the spectrum, Depp is also one of the best players in the business when he plays totally straight. It has just as impressive a performance where you can see its face as when it’s done as a Lovecraftian fantasy. Some of his most respected movies succeed in a way that doesn’t depend too much on his performance. While awesome, Donnie Brasco, Public Enemies, and Chocolat don’t have Johnny Depp’s stamp on them. Here are 10 of the best roles of Johnny Depp’s career.
The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (2010)
In the running for the most eccentric character with his Willy Wonka, Johnny Depp took on the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter is a grotesque creature of a man. It’s not the silly, but fun version of the 1940s animated version. It’s nightmarish, but Depp puts a lot of tragic energy into innocent Alice to give it some depth.
Honestly, who else could have played this role? Depp is the actor willing to go through these kinds of makeup transformations and go all out with an incredibly over-the-top performance. Apparently, the reason Burton constantly goes back to Depp is that he trusts him. To write a character like the Mad Hatter requires tremendous trust in an actor to make it work. As it stands, the Mad Hatter is one of the best parts of the exceptional Alice in Wonderland.
Sam in Benny & Joon (1993)
Johnny Depp’s role of Sam shouldn’t have worked Benny and Joon. A fter Benny loses a big bet one night, one of his relatives comes to stay with him and his schizophrenic sister. Sam is a weirdo who lives in his own fabricated reality. For some reason, Sam is determined to emulate and personify the iconic roles of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in his daily life. If you’re unfamiliar with the works of these silent film masters, do yourself a favor.
Keaton and Chaplin were light gentlemen. They were moral, chivalrous and a bit goofy. Sam lives with these ideals and he seems perfectly suited to the mentally ill Joon. Joon can’t function in the real world and Sam chooses not to. Most other actors would bring incredulous stupidity to the role of Ben. Not Depp. He plays it with charm, innocence and sincerity. It is marvelous and feeds a beautiful love story between strange couples.
Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Johnny Depp and Tim Burton again. However, this time in a gorgeous R-rated horror movie. Sleepy Hollow is probably Burton’s most beautifully crafted film. The choice to make the film rated R was brilliant. A gothic story about a headless ghost rider beheading people has to be violent and adult. Enter Depp, who plays Ichabod Crane much like a Phileas Fogg. He is a man of science who does not accept the myths and legends of Sleepy Hollow. He arrives in town with his bag full of steampunk scientific instruments and can’t quite grasp this superstitious town.
Soon, Depp’s calm and skeptical personality disappears and he turns into a hysterical child. It lends the perfect dose of levity to this super-serious affair. Without Johnny Depp’s pitch perfect Crane, Sleepy Hollow might have been just a dark, dreary smudge. With him, the film is an opulent horror fairy tale.
George Jung in Blow (2001)
Take the year 2001 Coup as the very talented son-in-law of Goodfellas. It’s certainly not as good as Scorsese’s opus (few films are); however, the late Ted Demme fashioned one hell of a movie out of George Yung. Yung almost single-handedly introduced cocaine culture to America in the 1970s. It’s a flash-bang movie with all the 70s swagger you could want. George’s arc is funny, sweet, scary and exciting. Johnny Depp completely owns this role and it is integral to Coup being an exceptional film.
Depp describes ‘Boston George’ as confident, ambitious and loyal. Although, more importantly, not wanting to imitate his own childhood, wants to do good by his family. Depp is actually rather reserved for a man in the middle of Pablo Escobar’s cartel business. This is exactly what makes it so fascinating. George Jung works like he’s invincible. He struts around thinking ‘I’m Pablo’s guy’, which is his greatest strength and his most dangerous weakness. It’s so refreshing to see Depp play a man who is brave enough to travel to an enemy private island just for the sake of putting a gun to his head. However, it’s masterful when that same man can gently make pancakes for his daughter and share a scotch with her dad.
Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Ed Wood (1994)
It’s completely baffling that Tim Burton Ed Wood performed so well. Edward D. Wood, Jr. has the unfortunate legacy of being the worst director of all time. He earned this nickname during a time in Hollywood history when large amounts of cinematic trash were being released. So you know it must have been particularly awful. Tim Burton has decided to make his biopic. He needed a young actor to play this gleefully clueless author who also happens to be a transvestite. Who else would he have gone with than Johnny Depp?
Depp plays Ed Wood as the passionate idealist he was. It’s hilarious to see him move through the industry with such cornball naivety. Wood never really understood that he had no talent. He was going to make his movies no matter what. Plus, he won’t apologize for wanting to wear pink angora sweaters. As funny as it all is, Ed Wood also has a huge heart. Ed befriended Bela Lugosi (Oscar winner Martin Landau) in the twilight years of his life. He threw it away when the rest of the world thought he was already dead. Not only that, it helped him get into rehab. It’s a beautiful friendship that maintains the madness of Ed Wood’s cinematic hijinks.
JM Barrie in Finding Neverland (2004)
One of Johnny Depp’s greatest performances comes from a role without gimmicks, makeup or any quirks. In 2004, Marc Forster directed Depp in Finding Neverland. This is the story of JM Barrie; author of Peter Pan. It’s a wonderfully touching story of how Barrie befriended the Llewelyn Davis family. His relationship with recently widowed Sylvia (Kate Winslet) and her four young sons inspired him to write the iconic story.
Depp plays the British gentleman so perfectly and has many substitute roles for his new friends. He is a charming love interest for Sylvia. He is a great friend of Jack, George and Michael. But her relationship with Peter is the most moving. Peter (Freddie Highmore) has not gotten over the sudden passing of his father. Barrie’s presence angers and confuses him. Thus, Depp delicately becomes the boy’s mentor, therapist and surrogate father. The film hurts the heart in many ways, but makes it sing in others.
Sweeney Todd in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Johnny Depp may not be a great singer, but he definitely gives his all as the titular hairstylist. Sweeney Todd is one of the most unique musicals. Often you don’t see the throat banging and cannibalism set to music. Either way, Tim Burton wonderfully crafts a Burton-esque London that would even give Charles Dickens nightmares. Then he lets Depp step into his role.
Depp is anything but two-dimensional as Benjamin Barker and later as Sweeney Todd. He is a desperate man, consumed by hatred and stinks of revenge. Depp is such a good actor that he doesn’t just sing Steven Sondheim songs, he imitates the lyrics. Much like Location, Sweeney Todd’s songs are there to express emotion and lay out plot, and Depp feels perfectly suited to that.
Sands in Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Grindelwald isn’t Johnny Depp’s first foray into cinematic villainy. In 2003, Robert Rodriguez completed his The Mariachi Trilogy with Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Depp plays CIA agent Sands. He is one of those agents who will do absolutely anything, no matter how horrible, to achieve his goals. Sands wants El Mariachi to come out of self-imposed exile to help stop a plot to kill the president. It’s a bit ostentatious, but Depp is completely badass. Maybe more than he ever was. Sands has a shtick with fake arms which is really cool. Also, when something horrible happens to him, he becomes even more dangerous. You’d think there are a dozen people more suited to the role in Rodriguez’s bullet-fest. However,
Edward in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
This Frankenstein – An Inspired Fairy Tale is the first time Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have dressed up. It really brought Depp and Burton into Hollywood royalty. First, here’s this young gothic director with the audacity to make a movie about a man with scissors for his hands. It was madness. Then there was the 21st Jump dude with wacky hair, an s&m bodysuit and a ghostly complexion. More madness.
Well, it’s magic. Johnny Depp played Edward with such innocence and purity that it completely breaks your heart. The world wasn’t quite ready for a creature like him. Vincent Price’s inventor persona created and raised him through fairy tales, poetry and etiquette. The real world is afraid of him, wants to take advantage of him and even have sexual experiences with him. Although looking like something out of a nightmarish horror movie, Edward is a child. He just wants to fit in. Besides, he doesn’t want to hurt anyone.
Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Captain Jack Sparrow is Johnny Depp’s greatest role. However, he is also one of the greatest characters in the history of cinema. It had been years since a smearing pirate movie had been done well. Does anyone remember Cutthroat Island? So when director Gore Verbinski set out to adapt Disney’s iconic attraction, I seemed doomed. Well, it couldn’t have been more perfect. Of course, the quality if the franchise is in decline. However, this first is a masterpiece of popcorn cinema.
Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio couldn’t have dreamed what Johnny Depp would bring to their written words. Depp is famous for saying he was inspired by Keith Richards, and that’s genius. Jack Sparrow is a perpetually drunken, oddly effeminate and lustful train wreck. However, he might just be the smartest hacker around. Or at least the lucky ones. There is little doubt that Captain Jack Sparrow will be Johnny Depp’s eternal legacy. The performance, and therefore the character, is as perfectly iconic as Indiana Jones.