Home Movies Movie Lists

15 Best and Worst Johnny Depp Roles: From Scissorhands to Sparrow

‘Black Mass’ star’s career highlights — and lowest of the lows

Depp

Once upon a time, Johnny Depp was synonymous with artistic integrity, a heartthrob who counterintuitively evolved into a superstar by resisting his matinee-idol looks in favor of whacked-out character-actor roles that sparked his imagination. And then Pirates of the Caribbean happened, and the rest is Bruckheimer-produced history Depp's descent into self-parody has certainly been lucrative — these days, the man can buy islands the way the rest of us buy coffee — but his reputation isn't what it used to be, (a few Mortdecais will do that to you). But you dismiss one of the world's last true movie stars at your own peril.

This weekend's Black Mass, in which the actor aims a loaded shotgun at our lowered expectations, could be the spark that ignites the Deppessaince. (Hey, if McConaughey gets one, our man Johnny should too). Smothering his good looks under a thin head of hair and his expressive eyes beneath a pair of cloudy contact lenses, Depp plays notorious Boston mobster Whitey Bulger with the kind of violent urgency you can't take for granted. The jury is still out on the overall effect: Some think that the gangster role is a return to form; others argue that it's just a more violent and Oscar-friendly version of the same grandstanding that's defined the back half of Depp's working life. Still, the fact that everyone's buzzing about it is a testament to the incredible scope of his legacy, slightly tainted or otherwise. Join us as we look back at the good, bad, and very ugly of a truly unusual career.

Play video

Everett

Best: ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (1990)

It was early in his career that Depp realized that his looks would be more interesting as an obstacle than a crutch — and Tim Burton was the perfect director to push him in the right direction. Essentially playing a sharper, Hot Topic version of Frankenstein's Monster, Depp transformed a character defined by his isolation into the kind of performance that would be embraced by everyone from Tiger Beat aficionados to arthouse snobs.

A dark mark on the cookie-cutter world of suburbia, Burton's lonely and disfigured hero is born into the world as a tragic figure. But Depp never allows Edward to know that; the actor's unblinking eyes reflecting the joy of every new experience. Clumsy except for when he's masterfully shearing the local shrubs (and poodles, and women), Edward is so gentle and uninterested in the violence suggested by his body that the vein-like scars streaking across his face soon begin to look like tears, and every time he cuts himself, you feel it too.

Play video

Everett

Worst: ‘Benny & Joon’ (1993)

Depp actually isn't that bad in this Nineties quirkfest, but his performance as Sam, a Spokane eccentric with an affinity for silent film stars, so accurately predicts his future badness that it has to be mentioned here. On the one hand, the character allows the star to display a nascent gift for physical comedy; he recreates Charlie Chaplin's dancing dinner rolls routine with such casual perfection that he makes it look easy. On the other hand, Sam is the kind of character who's clumsily assembled from a mess of eccentricities in the baseless hope that they'll cohere into a real person. He's introduced hiding in a tree for fun. That tells you everything you need to know. Perhaps no one sentence has ever articulated Depp's future better than a passing line of dialogue that's aimed at him here: "Having a Boo Radley moment, are we?"

Play video

Everett

Best: ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’ (1993)

Depp doesn't exactly have a rich history of the playing the straight man (The Tourist is probably the closest he's come lately, and, well, the less said the better). Even by 1993, the normalcy of the star's eponymous role in in this drama was strikingly against type: His first major scene finds him sticking price tags onto soup cans in the podunk grocery store where he works.

Ripped from the pages of Abercrombie's most sensitive catalogue, Gilbert is the glue holding his tortured midwestern family together, his plainspoken narration allowing him to literally serve as the voice of reason. It's his relatives who are the strange ones, from the obese mother who never leaves their house to the mentally handicapped younger brother (Leonardo DiCaprio) whom he has vowed to protect. Depp is wonderfully endearing, and the disconnect between the actor's beauty and our hero's circumstance is at the heart of the film's fable-esque power.

Play video

Everett

Worst: ‘The Libertine’ (2004)

"Allow me to be frank at the commencement: You will not like me. The gentlemen will be envious and the ladies will be repelled. You will not like me now, and you will like me a good deal less as we go on. Ladies, an announcement: I am up for it, all the time."

So declares John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, who may not be the most interesting character that Depp has ever played, but is almost certainly the horniest. It's a nice change of pace…though you wish that the actor weren't quite so dedicated to the historical hedonist's flair for the debauched. His tendency to inflexibly fixate on a certain way of playing a part should work for a character who can't resist his own urges (even when he's being eaten alive by syphilis), but the role has more wig hair than cleverness. Wilmot hates his audience, and The Libertine was the first movie in which it felt like Depp might secretly hate his.

Play video

Everett

Best: ‘Ed Wood’ (1994)

It'd be irresponsible not to observe that one of Depp's best performance resulted from him playing a man who enthusiastically deludes himself into thinking that he's making great movies. But it'd be off-base to suggest that Ed Wood's penchant for delusion is what made the actor perfect for reanimating him from the depths of Hollywood lore. On the contrary, Depp is the ideal person for the part because — as this film makes clear — the actor works from a place of love. (The fact that he hasn't deviated from that approach is what makes his performance as Whitey Bulger so fascinatingly screwed). Delivering even the most pitiable lines with a smile that stretches across his entire face and a voice that never dips below its cheeriest octave, the star shows palpable affection for the Worst Filmmaker of All Time — the same love, in fact, that Wood had for his own chintzy Z-movies. And those Angora sweaters!

Play video

Everett

Worst: ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ (2005)

Depp's version of Willy Wonka is like a young child experiencing a night terror starring Gene Wilder's version from the original film. Reinventing Roald Dahl's iconic calorie tycoon as a cross between Howard Hughes and a To Catch a Predator subject, Wonka 2.0 is so noxiously loud that he mugs the entire movie away from the young boy whose name has finally been returned to the title. And Depp's look is defined by Kabuki-pale skin and huge white sunglasses — it's a hot mess of new bad ideas and bad ideas that he and Burton have already had (it sure sounds like Ed Wood is underneath all those props).

Play video

Everett

Best: ‘Dead Man’ (1995)

Yes, you could blame Jim Jarmusch's psychedelic Western for giving Depp the false confidence required to play Tonto (see below) so many years later. But the film is simply too damn good to find fault with in any way, shape or form; from it's very first scene, in which Depp sits across from the legendarily weird Crispin Glover on a train, the movie seemed to confirm once and for all that the young actor was never going to let himself become your usual vanilla flavor-of-the-month.

Playing William Blake (the accountant, not the poet), Depp is extraordinary as a man with a one-way ticket to his own grave. He subtly navigates his anonymous middle-class hero through an accidental murder, a spirit quest, a bunch of not so accidental murders, and ultimately a communion with the fading soul of the country he never really knew. To this day, none of his other characters have ever experienced such a profound sense of change. For a character who's so often mistaken for someone else, William Blake feels as indivisibly real as anyone Depp has ever played.

Play video

Worst: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (2010)

Taking a mulligan on his performance in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Depp took Burton back to the well in order to pervert yet another beloved icon of children's literature. And so we arrive at Tarrant Hightopp (a.k.a. The Mad Hatter), whom — it must be said — isn't the most garish thing in this ghastly feature-length stink bomb of hideous digital imagery (that honor probably belongs to Helena Bonham Carter). And really, it may not be Depp's fault so much as the pressures of the studio system: Burton's vision for Alice in Wonderland was never going to go down the rabbit hole without a large role for one of Earth's bankable stars. Taking a one-note character from Lewis Carroll's novel, stapling a frazzled poof of orange hair to his scalp, and filling him up with hot air, Depp's Hatter is a cautionary tale for actors who think that making too many choices about a character will naturally lead them to the right one.

Play video

Everett

Best: ‘Donnie Brasco’ (1997)

When people refer to Depp as a "good actor," they're usually thinking about Mike Newell's solid gangster saga that proved the star could pull off a serious, brooding performance when he felt like it. Playing real-life undercover FBI agent Joseph D. Pistone (alias Donnie Brasco), Depp spends the movie toggling between 21 Jump Street and Goodfellas modes. Yeah, he spends roughly 82% of his screen-time calling mob confidant Al Pacino a cocksucker (and the other 18% denying that he is a cocksucker, himself), but the man delivers every line of crude gangland vernacular with the barely perceptible anxiety of a guy who's auditioning for the role of his life. Whenever Brasco banters with his Mafia marks or punches an old acquaintance who publicly refers to him by his real name, Depp works to make the character simultaneously authentic and scared shitless. It all builds to one of his best screen moments, when Pistone spells it out to his wife: "I am not becoming like them, Maggie. I am them."

Play video

Everett

Worst: ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’ (2011)

Depp's career hasn't been the same since it crossed paths with Captain Jack Sparrow and went nuclear; the role at the center of Disney's action-comedy franchise essentially transformed the actor into a human license to print money. The most harmlessly blithering pirate in film history, Sparrow was first forged from Keith Richards' slur and Buster Keaton's divine clumsiness. By the time the woozy prince of the seven seas returned for his fourth adventure, however, his performance was less "perpetually drunk guitar god" than "man with a chronic inner-ear infection who's maybe a little too into cosplay." If you squint you could probably even find a grim irony to the fact that the plot puts Sparrow on a quest for the Fountain of Youth, but there's no need to look that hard for reasons why his yo-ho-ho turn here feels so damn old.

Play video

Best: ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ (1998)

"He who makes a beast of himself…"

Hunter S. Thompson lives on in Depp's performance, which spends the entire movie several dozen tokes over the line. The most incredible thing about his turn isn't that he nails the Gonzo writer's voice and look so much as he's able to sustain it for nearly two hours — it starts with the drugs kicking in and Raoul Duke swatting off the bats of his imagination, and it only goes south from there.

A look of comic paranoia etched onto his face, Depp's Duke quickly becomes like a mescaline-addled Virgil guiding us through a crazed desert inferno, incepting the American Dream and finding all sorts of unpleasant creatures hiding in its deepest layers. Funny and frightening in equal measure, it's amazing how much of this performance would wind up informing Captain Jack Sparrow, the iconic backbone of a multi-billion dollar Disney kids franchise. Indeed, Depp was so good as the "doctor" of journalism that, like a stubborn tab of acid, he would never really leave the part behind.

Play video

Everett

Worst: ‘The Lone Ranger’ (2013)

Gore Verbinski's widely mocked super-flop is a much better film than people are willing to give it credit for, but Depp's Razzie-nominated performance as the Native American Tonto feels like the brainchild of a Disney executive who watched the star do Captain Jack Sparrow and thought: "That was great, but why not make it 412% more offensive?" If the star's work in Benny and Joon partially borrowed from Buster Keaton, his performance here steals from the Great Stoneface wholesale, creating an acrobatic klutz with the power to turn a speeding train into his own personal jungle gym. But at this point in his career, Depp was mostly stealing from himself. Grafting Jack Sparrow's wobbly walk onto a voice that's part William Blake and part Hunter S. Thompson, Depp's wide-eyed Tonto bumbles around the periphery of this bloated epic like a zombified pastiche of Depp's most successful choices. The crow on his head isn't a prop; it's a metaphor.

Play video

Everett

Best: ‘Sleepy Hollow’ (1999)

By the time of Depp's third collaboration with Tim Burton, the two simpatico souls understood exactly what they wanted from one another. Depp's turn as well-intentioned but overeager constable Ichabod Crane is in perfect harmony with the rest of the movie, feeling less like a performance than it does an extension of the story's brooding design. He's in one mode for the vast majority of the film (in over his head, fumbling but bright), and his face constantly makes it seem as though he's just smelled something awful. Of course, it helps that the character often has. There's something very Gilbert and Sullivan about the whole thing, as if the director had told his lead that every facial expression needed to be seen by someone in the last row of a big theatre — but the actor's undying enthusiasm makes it work.

Play video

Everett

Worst: ‘Mortdecai’ (2015)

"Sophistication has a name," the poster said — and in all fairness, it did not specify that it's name is "Mortdecai." The titular character of this recent embarrassment is an aristocratic art dealer and general miscreant, but his defining trait is the appalling twirl of a mustache that lies dead across his upper lip, forcing itself to become the subject of nearly every other line of dialogue (still, it's better than the things that come out of Mortdecai's mouth, such as when he propositions Gwyneth Paltrow by suggesting that he let her "Sink the Bismark"). Beneath the tonsorial monstrosity is Depp's trusty British accent, this time sounding as though it's been dipped in brandy.

Honestly though, you didn't see this movie — nobody did. So you have no idea whether one of the film's most painful scenes finds Mortdecai confusing a hotel key for a credit card, and citing it as a cause of the 2008 recession. Or if another drops in on Depp and Ewan McGregor spending a full five minutes in fancy leather chairs trying not to eat an explosively foul hunk of cheese. Consider yourself blessed, folks.

Play video

Everett

Best: ‘Rango’ (2011)

Depp had always been on the verge of playing a cartoon, so it's no surprise that he took to the idea of actually being one with such brilliant enthusiasm (his stiff turn in Corpse Bride doesn't count). Much of the credit belongs to Gore Verbinski and his toon team, who insisted that their cast actually perform their parts rather than just spit their words into a microphone — which resulted in what remains the best and most convincingly full-bodied CG performance this side of Andy Serkis. Nodding to a host of past Depp endeavors from Don Juan DeMarco to Arizona Dream, the eponymous chameleon that the star voices in this animated Western isn't just informed by the actor's previous work; it might just be the closest thing to a self-portrait that Depp has ever done. 

In This Article: Johnny Depp

Show Comments