|photo by Anne Althiede|
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Don Juan DeMarco
What's Eating Gilbert Grape
Benny & Joon
If you look past all the celebrity hype and the sometimes painfully quirky projects he chooses, Johnny Depp is one of the greatest living actors around.
He is one of the great chameleon actors who morphs into whatever role he needs. The transformation from part to part is nearly unparalleled (except by our #3 actor).
Depp has always been a bit of an iconoclast. He seems to intentionally choose parts that are strange. While not every attempt at this works (see the awful Dark Shadows), it has given him a diverse body of work that highlights his particular set of skills.
His first great performance was as the title character in Edward Scissorhands. Depp had very little dialogue to perform. He had to get his character across mostly with non-verbals like facial expressions and body language. Considering his horrific appearance, Depp had a huge challenge ahead. But he delivered beautifully. Who doesn't remember Edward's gentle soul when thinking of that film?
Depp continued to use his physical skills in Benny and Joon. As Sam, the Buster Keaton enthusiast, Depp had to be able to mimic the physical genius of silent movie stars like Keaton and Charlie Chaplain. And Depp rose to the occasion and became so physically dynamic that he completely stole the show.
He toned things down physically for his solemn performance in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? People often point to Leonardo DiCarpio's Oscar nominated performance here. But just as powerful is Depp's Gilbert who is a young man trapped by a family that he loves. Depp plays him as guilt-ridden and hypocritical; Gilbert is a man of contradictions. And through it all Depp makes us care about him and his relationship to his family.
One of my favorite performances of his is as Edward D. Wood Jr. in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. It is a heavily stylized performance with quirky accents and tones. But Depp does not turn Ed into a caricature. He plays him as full of optimism and frustration and feeling beneath his manic smile and wide-eyed enthusiasm. I think of the scene where he confesses to a girl on his first date that he likes wearing women's clothes. He doesn't lose any of his outward affectations, but he uses them to get deep into the vulnerability of the character.
This acting-witin-acting is even more potent in Donnie Brasco (I never noticed until now how many movies Depp is in where he plays the title character). The challenge of the undercover cop movie is that you have to be able to see both sides of the character without it being too obvious, or we would not believe that they could pass as criminal. One of the things that I liked about the performance is that as he gets pulled deeper in, he pulls away from his family and the audience. He makes us care about him getting lost in his own lies.
His first Oscar nomination was as Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribean: Curse of the Black Pearl. In retrospect, we can see how wonderful Depp's choices were. But at the time they were a risk. What I love about his take on the character is how fully he committed to an unorthodox take on the script. I think of Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, where all of his acting choices were things I never would have thought of. Depp did this same thing with Sparrow. But, like Ledger, he infused such conviction and believability into the life of Sparrow, that he made the material soar.
And Depp once again threw out all of his acting tricks to play the very straightforward part of JM Barrie in Finding Neverland. Instead of covering his character with too many quirks, he tones down all of those instincts and plays the part straight. But with Depp that does not mean dull. His Barrie is as alive and vibrant as any of his other characters. And he gives him a reality that makes his emotional journey so fulfilling.
Depp is a risk taker when it comes to his roles as an actor. And while this means making plenty of mistakes, it also leads to great success.