Today sees the release of supernatural vampire comedy “Dark Shadows,” director Tim Burton’s big-screen adaptation of the gothic soap opera of the same name that aired from 1966-1971. To mark its release, I thought I’d take a look at the ten finest on-screen performances of its leading man: Johnny Depp, the 48-year-old acting chameleon and global megastar whose 28-year career has seen him playing oddball outsiders, murderous madmen and actual chameleons in drug-addled dramas, quirky comedies, gothic horrors and computer-animated family flicks. Let’s begin.
10. Willy Wonka, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005)
The Role: A reclusive owner of a magnificent chocolate factory who one day allows five randomly selected children to take an eventful tour around his wacky workplace.
The Performance: While no patch on Gene Wilder’s iconic rendition of author Roald Dahl’s beloved character in the 1971 adaptation, Depp’s performance in Tim Burton’s 2005 version is nevertheless a scrumptious feast for the eyes and ears to behold, not unlike the film itself. In playing the wonderfully weird crafter of candy, Depp dives face-first into his much-explored eccentric side, channeling the late Michael Jackson, pale face and all, in a leading performance as deliciously enjoyable as it is utterly bonkers.
9. Gilbert Grape, “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993)
The Role: A small-town shop assistant who every day must care for his morbidly obese mother and mentally challenged younger brother, which gets in the way when love enters his life.
The Performance: Depp is much more subdued than usual here, stepping aside to let his very talented plethora of co-stars shine; a 19-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, was Oscar-nominated for his stunning supporting performance as Gilbert’s mentally disabled little brother. Still, the film’s long-haired leading man is quietly enchanting and subtly appealing as a young man forced into a position of high responsibility, Depp skillfully drawing us into what is a very beautiful story and ultimately acting as the glue that holds the film together.
8. Ichabod Crane, “Sleepy Hollow” (1999)
The Role: An unorthodox, late-18th century New York City police constable sent to the rural village of Sleepy Hollow to investigate a strange series of murders seemingly inflicted by a supernatural horseman bereft of a head.
The Performance: We’re back in eccentric mode now, as Depp heartily hams it up as a nervous nelly of a police detective whose skepticism of the supernatural slowly but surely evaporates as the film progresses and as Ichabod begins to experience bloodcurdling, otherworldly terror. Depp rather interestingly summed the character up thusly: “I always thought of Ichabod as a very delicate, fragile person who was maybe a little too in touch with his feminine side, like a frightened little girl.” It’s inspired, I must say.
7. Joseph D. Pistone / Donnie Brasco, “Donnie Brasco” (1997)
The Role: An FBI agent working undercover under the alias “Donnie Brasco” who, in the ’70s, successfully infiltrates a New York City crime family, but ends up finding himself a little too involved in the job.
The Performance: Performing side-by-side with the legendary acting behemoth that is Al Pacino, Depp more than holds his own as a moustache-sporting, gum-chewing wise guy with greasy, slicked back hair and a fondness for a brown leather jacket. He wholly convinces as a man leading a double-life, although one side, his undercover alias, is heavily smudging itself over the other, his real life. He is completely endearing from start to finish, offering fleeting glimpses of deeply buried humanity hidden amongst his hard-bitten, no-nonsense undercover personality. What’s more, he completely nails the New York accent.
6. J. M. Barrie, “Finding Neverland” (2004)
The Role: Scottish playwright J. M. Barrie, who, following a miserable flop, finds himself befriending a widow and her four young sons, who ultimately serve as the inspiration for what would become his biggest hit, “Peter Pan.”
The Performance: As J. M. Barrie, Depp is essentially playing a man-child; apt for the man who created Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. As one would predict, Depp conveys Barrie’s famously childish sense of humour with breathtaking charm and a striking believability, performing a character whose playfulness is irresistible and whose undying spirit is truly heartwarming. Much like the film, his Oscar-nominated performance is absolutely fascinating, endearingly tender and utterly magical. Also, take it from a true Scotsman: his Scottish brogue is spot-on.
5. Raoul Duke, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998)
The Role: A kooky, hedonistic journalist assigned to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas who decides to take advantage of the trip by consuming a vast array of mind-bending drugs along with his psychopathic friend-slash-lawyer.
The Performance: In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Depp is essentially playing the author of the book upon which the film is based, a certain Mr. Hunter S. Thompson. In preparation for the role, Depp spent four months living in Thompson’s basement, learning the author’s peculiar mannerisms and even having Thompson shave his head for him. It seems the preparation paid off: Depp is deliriously and delightfully unhinged in the film’s leading role, playing a crackpot madman stuck in a near-perpetual state of psychedelic intoxication, be this from cannabis, speed, acid or a combination of all three. It’s certainly one of Depp’s most effortlessly entertaining roles, and unquestionably one of his most instantly unforgettable ones.
4. Edward, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990)
The Role: A robot-slash-Frankenstein’s Monster living on his lonesome in an abandoned mansion who’s taken in by a suburban family, the nosy neighbours of whom immediately strike up a keen interest in him.
The Performance: Following a taste of teen idol stardom thanks to police procedural TV show “21 Jump Street,” “Edward Scissorhands” provided Depp with what proved to be his breakthrough role, and deservedly so. Under the careful direction of Tim Burton for the first time, Depp was magnificent. Drawing inspiration from stars of the silent era such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he utterly convinces as a quiet and shy outsider unaccustomed to everyday life and frequent human interaction. His character is a tragic figure: an artificial man yearning to show love but always held back by his unsightly disfigurement: two sets of blades and knives where his hands should be. It’s a performance that’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and set Depp on a tremendously promising career path he would more than live up to and fully indulge in.
3. Sweeney Todd, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)
The Role: A vengeful barber who returns to his London shop on Fleet Street, determined to slit the throat of the unscrupulous judge who locked him up in a prison cell for 15 years on a false charge and snatched his beloved wife and child from him.
The Performance: Who knew that Johnny Depp could sing so gloriously? In “Sweeney Todd,” which I should mention is based on a hit broadway musical, Depp bellows out Stephen Sondheim’s richly written lyrics with an unrestrained passion and vigour so spookily stirring it should send a cold but welcome shiver up any viewer’s spine. Once again under the direction of Tim Burton (who’s rarely been better), Depp plays the part with a steely-eyed glare and a coldly calculating menace that renders his on-screen presence an irresistible pleasure to behold. And, with meaty sideburns, sunken eyes, a thick cockney twang and a luxuriant white stripe running through his jet-black mane, he is a striking presence indeed, earning himself an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win for the hair-raising performance.
2. Captain Jack Sparrow, “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” (2003)
The Role: A roguish 18th century pirate captain who reluctantly helps a young blacksmith rescue a governor’s daughter from the clutches of villainous seafarers plagued by a supernatural curse.
The Performance: Disney executives were initially baffled and confused by Depp’s off-kilter performance, asking him whether the character was meant to be drunk or gay; chief executive officer Michael Eisner even complained while watching the film’s dailies that Depp was “ruining the film.” Director Gore Verbinski, however, stuck by Depp, and the result, as they say, was history. Depp, clad in a red bandana and brandishing a sexy goatee and lengthy dreadlocks, plays Sparrow with a drunken swagger and a flamboyant charm, oozing as much charisma as there is water in the seven seas. Depp, honoured with his first Oscar nomination for the role, is now often cited as the main reason for the film’s unforeseen global success, as well as that of the three sequels, the franchise having currently made over $3 billion worldwide. I’d say that’s pretty good for an unapologetic imitation of craggy-faced “Rolling Stones” rocker Keith Richards – indeed, Richards made an appearance in the third film as Sparrow’s pirate father.
1. Ed Wood, “Ed Wood” (1994)
The Role: Edward D. Wood, Jr., aka the world’s worst film director, whose friendship with his aging idol, Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi, leads him to making his magnum opus, 1959’s “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
The Performance: The accidental legend that is Ed Wood is performed with charm, zest and a strange adorability by Depp in Tim Burton’s black-and-white biopic of the man widely considered to be the worst filmmaker in the history of cinema. Depp is nigh unrecognisable as the notorious anti-genius of ’50s movie-making, completely disappearing into Wood’s slightly deranged personality, conveying him with a zany, unbreakable can-do optimism. There’s a sweetness, too, to his near-obsessive relationship with Lugosi, as played by Martin Landau, who received an Academy Award for his scene-stealing performance. But it is Depp who is the film’s real star, and rightfully so: the film sees Depp at his transformative best and in what many consider to be his greatest, most remarkable performance.
By Stephen Watson