At the 2010 People’s Choice Awards, Johnny Depp was up for Favorite Actor of the Year. After receiving more votes than anyone in the history of People’s Choice, he ended up being named Favorite Actor of the Decade. Depp, who often has been absent from awards shows where honors are bestowed upon him, actually showed up and gratefully acknowledged that the only reason any entertainer is up on that stage (or any stage) is because of the people — the fans. Click here to see Depp’s cool yet humble acceptable speech.
Sacha Baron Cohen’s introduction of Depp was both funny and accurate, especially in this respect: Depp hasn’t followed trends; he has set them. Over the past three decades, Depp’s shrewd choice of material, in all but a couple of unfortunate instances, has been impeccable and his performance always on the money. Speaking of money, the films he’s been in have grossed more than $2 billion (that billion with a B).
One thing that’s fascinating about Depp is that he’s taken his own road and engendered nothing but respect. Even when people are not huge fans, like yours truly, no one seems to despise him; that’s a tough claim for actors of his generation to make (the only other I can think of who doesn’t seem to have any real haters is John Cusack).
I’ve been a Depp fan from the get-go. Yup, I giggled over his bare midriff under a cut-off football jersey in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and religiously watched 21 Jump Street (1987-1990). His films are among the few that I always go see first-run in the theater. My Depp collection contains everything he’s ever done, including films that aren’t distributed in the States (exceptions are a couple of voice-overs and early one-off appearances on series like Arthur Hailey’s Hotel and Lady Blue … bet you don’t even remember those).
On the heels of Depp’s latest award, I thought I’d take a stab at creating my own ranking of “The Johnny Depp Library.” Here goes!
The Essential Johnny Depp
The following baker’s dozen films, when taken together, represents the many sides of Depp’s acting repertoire, from innocent to hapless to devious and sometimes even utterly insane.
Benny & Joon (1993) – funny, heartwarming, and absolutely charming tale of romance between an intelligent but mentally ill painter (Mary Stuart Masterson) and a Buster Keaton wannabe (Depp). Features Aidan Quinn, Oliver Platt, and Julianne Moore.
Dead Man (1996) – poetic tale of accountant William Blake (Depp) whose life changes irrevocably just as the frontier is changing. Luckily he has an Indian named Nobody (Gary Farmer) to guide him.
Ed Wood (1994) – the mostly-true story of the wackiest director of all time as told through Depp’s innocently enthusiastic portrayal and Tim Burton’s directing. Boasts a fantastic cast and uncanny reproductions of Wood’s material.
Pirates of the Caribbean films (2003, 2006, 2007) – especially the first film is a must-see, but what the heck, see them all, and take in the genius of Depp’s hilariously alluring Captain Jack Sparrow.
Edward Scissorhands (1990) – Depp portrays his first Tim Burton character, an inventor’s unfinished “son,” with all the guile and innate wisdom of a true innocent. Diane Wiest and Alan Arkin are perfect as suburbanites Peg and Bill.
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993) – what’s eating Gilbert (Depp) is that he’s stuck taking care of his family while life passes him by, until a carefree girl rolls into town. Heartfelt performances make this a beautiful film based on Peter Hedges’ first novel.
Cry-Baby (1990) – one of John Waters’ most fun films is a spoof of Grease, and it’ll rock your socks off (no, the cast didn’t do its own singing). Uproariously funny and filled with many memorable moments!
Don Juan de Marco (1995) – Depp turns on his full charm as a young who believes he is Don Juan, the greatest lover in the world … or is he? The delightful story is told in real time, flashbacks, and fantastic sequences, and also stars Marlon Brando, Faye Dunaway, and Bob Dishy.
The Libertine (2005) – the dark side comes out in this controversial film as Depp portrays John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, a promiscuous 17th century poet who died of venereal disease and alcoholism, but not before showing admirable but squandered intelligence and also coaching Elizabeth Barry (Samantha Morton), who went on to become the most notable actress of her age.
Sleepy Hollow (1999) – charmingly scary film in which Depp plays a delicate and disturbed Ichabod Crane, with Christina Ricci as his love interest and Christopher Walken as the headless Hessian Horseman. Another deliciously diabolical Tim Burton masterpiece!
Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) – in this sequel to Desperado, writer/director Robert Rodriguez completes the story of “el Mariachi” (Antonio Banderas), with Depp as a psychotic CIA agent who believes he must maintain the balance south of the border.
Also Worth Seeing
Donnie Brasco (1997) – based on the true story of Joe Pistone, Depp realistically portrays the quiet desperation of being undercover in the Mafia and having mixed feelings about taking down the aging mobster (Al Pacino) who befriended him.
Sweeney Todd (2007) – darker than ever, Depp pours cold vengeance and pained regret into his portrayal of the demon barber of Fleet Street.
From Hell (2001) – as Scotland Yard’s flawed yet dedicated Inspector Abberline, Depp tries to catch Jack the Ripper and falls for Mary Kelly (Heather Graham).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) – although I’m a big fan of Where the Buffalo Roam as the quintessential Hunter S. Thomason biopic, Depp does a commendable job, in the process showing us yet another weird and whacky side of himself.
The Ninth Gate (2000) – Depp plays a rare book dealer in search of a text supposedly authored by the Devil. Directed by Roman Polanski.
Secret Window (2004) – a Stephen King horror-thriller, this film has its flaws, but it has a wonderfully askew Depp performance as a writer losing his grip on reality and co-stars Maria Bello, Timothy Hutton, and John Turturro.
The Brave (1997) – hard to find because it was not released in the United States, The Brave was written and directed by Depp, who stars as its main character, an Indian man who sells himself to a snuff film maker (Marlon Brando) to provide for his family. It’s necessarily dark and often introspective but ultimately proves deeply thought-provoking.
Obscure Films and Smaller Roles Worth Seeking Out
Chocolat (2000) – Lasse Halström’s lovely film of delicious redemption is made sweeter with Depp as Roux the river rate, a love interest of the main character (Juliette Binoche).
Before Night Falls (2000) – this remarkable Julian Schnabel biopic about writer Reinaldo Arenas (Javier Bardem) is worth watching for a glimpse into Cuba as it entered the age of Communism, plus you’ll catch Depp both as transvestite inmate Bon Bon and as a handsome young officer who helps Arenas escape.
Arizona Dream (1995) – another hard-to-find gem, this film is like a dream within a dream as Alex (Depp) is lured to Arizona to take on the family business and meets one zany character after another. Fascinating with an incredible cast including Jerry Lewis, Faye Dunaway, Lili Taylor, and Vincent Gallo.
The Source (1999) – a made-for-TV biography traces the Beat Poets, with Depp reading as Jack Kerouac, Dennis Hopper as William S. Burroughs, and John Turturro as Allen Ginsberg, plus great footage from the Beat era.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Playback (1995) – a collection of music videos, all good in their own right, feature Depp as Eddie, the rebel without a clue in “Into the Great Wide Open.”
These three lists represent the best of Depp’s performances in film, plus some extras for true Depp fans. However, there are additional films worth seeing, including Public Enemies (2009), Nick of Time (1995), Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (voice, 2005), Finding Neverland (2004), Lost in La Mancha (documentary about Terry Gilliam’s cursed attempt to make a film about Don Quixote, 2002), Blow (2001), The Man Who Cried (2001), Platoon (1986), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (Depp’s debut, 1984).
Feel Free to Miss These
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) – completely unnecessary remake, devoid of plausible emotion; as I’m a fan of both Depp and director Tim Burton, my disappointment was immense. I’ll stick with the brilliant original, thanks.
The Astronaut’s Wife (1999) – poor excuse for a sci-fi tale in which Depp is mainly wooden, while on-screen wife Charlize Theron whines and loses her mind.
Slow Burn (1986) – ’80s mystery thriller starring Eric Roberts and Beverly D’Angelo: enough said.
Private Resort (1985) – awful spring break flick in which Depp and Rob Morrow troll for sex with older women at a Florida resort.