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

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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