When Johnny Depp Made Good Movies

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
There was a time, especially in the early-to-mid-'90s, where if Johnny Depp was on the billing, then the movie was guaranteed to be good — even if it wasn’t necessarily financially successful.

Throughout much of his career, Johnny Depp made career choices that were damn near unimpeachable. And, a few of his early films — like Edward Scissorhands and Nightmare on Elm Street — became instant classics. Of course, there was an undeniable method with which Depp chose roles. He loved oddballs and eccentrics with weird hair, bizarre mannerisms, and affected accents. For a long time, playing complex weirdos was a trajectory that worked for Depp.

Then, over time, something changed. Depp clearly lost his way. His characters ceased having that bit of vulnerability that grounded the character and reminded the viewer that the role was actually of a three-dimensional, complicated person, and not a live-action cartoon, as evidenced by Depp's flat portrayal of Willy Wonka in 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That's also the point where it became clear to audiences that Depp's fruitful partnership with director Tim Burton was starting to go stale.

Soon, we were left with a Depp who took on roles that seemed weird, but lacked depth and that kernel of relatability that was apparent in past work. His tendency of choosing movies that are weird just for the sake of being weird is apparent in the incomprehensible marketing art for his latest vehicle, Mortdecai.

However, instead of dwelling on his baffling career trajectory, let's take a look back to when Depp chose movie roles that were both compelling and enjoyable. If you haven't already seen the movies we share ahead, we recommend you check them out this weekend. It's better than blowing your money at the box office on another Depp flop.
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Photo: Courtesy of New Line Cinema.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Wes Craven's surrealist interpretation of the slasher-horror genre was Johnny Depp's first film role. How else would you explain the fact that he's in the cast, yet John Saxon gets top billing? In this 1984 classic, Depp plays a reliable supporting role as fresh-faced high school football player who is one in a series of teenagers mowed down by Freddy Krueger, a razored-glove-wearing slasher who inhabits the subconscious and attacks within the confines of the victims’ dreams. Although Depp is certainly competent as the boyfriend to Heather Langenkamp's Nancy, the film's "final girl," it's his death scene that is truly remarkable, and astoundingly inventive given the film's shoestring budget.
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Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Cry-Baby (1990)

A John Waters set is probably the one place where Johnny Depp is not the most eccentric person in the room, especially when he's in a cast with Iggy Pop, Willem Dafoe, Patty Hearst, and Waters muse Mink Stole. Unfortunately, this 1990 spoof of Elvis movies and '50- era scared-straight-style shorts was a box-office bomb. However, if the movie had been successful, it's hard not to obsess over an alternate universe where Depp enjoys a Tim Burton-style partnership with everyone's favorite Baltimore-bred transgressive cult filmmaker.
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Photo: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Johnny Depp has yet to lose himself in a character again quite the way he did in his first Tim Burton collaboration. This dark, modern fairy tale features Depp as the not-quite-human product of an inventor, who is cloistered away from the world in a Gothic mansion and, as the title would suggest, has large scissors for hands (and an impressive, BDSM-themed jumpsuit). Depp's Scissorhands is plucked out of his mansion hideaway and thrust into Burton's quirky interpretation of suburban cul-de-sac living, where he falls in love with beautiful teenager Kim, played by his then-fiancée, Winona Ryder.
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Photo: Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Benny & Joon (1993)

Benny & Joon is a romantic comedy that seems like it shouldn't work, based on the unconventional premise alone. Mary Stuart Masterson plays the titular Joon, who is supported by her protective brother Benny (Aidan Quinn) and suffers from an undisclosed mental illness that is most likely schizophrenia. In exchange for losing a hand in poker, she's forced to give an opponent's relative, the eccentric Sam, played by Johnny Depp, a place to stay for a few days. Given that Sam has devoted his life to emulating silent film star Buster Keaton, it's easy to see why his relative was looking to pass the burden of hosting him off to someone else. Joon and Sam soon find themselves drawn to each other and play out one of the sweetest yet most complicated romances in film history.

This is one of those roles where Depp was able to find the subtlety and nuance in an an offbeat character without seeming totally consumed by the eccentricities. It's hard to imagine someone other than Depp in his prime successfully executing, especially since so much of the performance is wordless.
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Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
What's Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

This quiet 1993 dramedy is a refreshing departure from the weirdos and oddballs that Depp gravitates toward. He plays the titular Gilbert Grape, a convenience store clerk who is tasked with being the patriarch of his dysfunctional family after his father commits suicide and his mother stops caring for the family and lapses into morbid obesity.

On top of that, Gilbert is also trying to raise his brother Arnie (a young Leonardo DiCaprio), who is afflicted with a developmental disability, despite the family's crushing poverty. Gilbert has all but made peace with the fact that he forfeited his own future in order to care for his family when a love interest in the form of Juliette Lewis shows up and complicates his life.

Although the premise sounds grim, this adaptation of the Peter Hedges novel of the same name has a lot of wry humor and heart. Plus, those who are fatigued from Depp's insistence on playing cold and quirky eccentrics will be pleasantly surprised at his masterful depiction of a grounded and relatable character. It's one of the few times Depp plays an everyman, and he really nails it.
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Photo: Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures.
Ed Wood (1994)

This black-and-white portrayal of universally reviled film director Ed Wood is another resounding critical success in the exalted Depp-Burton partnership, even if it pulled in a fraction of the movie's budget at the box office.

Depp gives a very sympathetic and nuanced depiction of the filmmaker, who is generally remembered as one of the worst directors to ever pick up a camera. Depp famously studied Ronald Reagan speeches in order to harness the kind of unbridled optimism Wood held in executing movie projects that were inherently terrible.
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Photo: Courtesy of TriStar Pictures.
Donnie Brasco (1997)

This 1997 mob drama is another offering based on a true story. In this '70s-era crime story, Depp takes on the role of an undercover FBI agent who infiltrates a New York City mob family by selling the ruse that he's a jewel thief named Donnie Brasco. The mobster who vouches for Depp is Benjamin "Lefty" Ruggiero, played by mob-movie veteran Al Pacino. Sharing scenes with Pacino sounds like a daunting task, but Depp really shines as the undercover agent who finds himself in too deep and eventually can't separate his criminal ruse from his personal life.
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Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)

Johnny Depp takes to playing the drug-addled gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson like a fish takes to water. In fact, one could argue that the affected speech he used to imitate Thompson in the movie bled into the way he spoke in interviews for years after the fact. Of course, that might be due to the fact that the two men became good friends prior to the shooting of the movie. Such good friends, in fact, that Depp even let Thompson shave his head in preparation for the role.

Terry Gilliam's adaptation of Thompson’s 1971 roman à clef Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was a box-office bomb that garnered only a lukewarm critical reception. However, Depp's immersion into Thompson's role, and particularly his use of psychedelic drugs, inspired a rabid cult following in the years since its release.
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Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)

The third film in the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp partnership is often overlooked, which is a shame because it's a legitimately terrifying, visually arresting, and somewhat campy interpretation of the classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Depp's performance essentially reinvents the character of Ichabod Crane, casting him as an unorthodox New York City constable banished from the city and sent off to small town Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of beheadings. Plus, his chemistry with costar Christina Ricci is undeniable.
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Photo: Courtesy of New Line Cinema.
Blow (2001)

When choosing to portray characters adapted from true stories, Depp tends to lean toward the subversive, and his character in Blow certainly keeps with the trend.

Like Donnie Brasco, Blow takes place in the '70s, but this time Depp's character, George Jung, is firmly camped out on the wrong side of the law. Depp gives a fascinating portrayal as "Boston George," a smuggler who teamed up with Colombia's notorious Medellin Cartel and imported massive amounts of cocaine into the United States. Although it was a modest box office success and received mixed reviews, the one thing on which every critic agrees is that Depp performance is superb.
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Photo: Courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures.
Pirates Of The Caribbean (2003)

The fact that this 2003 blockbuster was based on a Disney theme park ride may not sound particularly promising, but leave it to Johnny Depp to bring a unique and compelling interpretation to a role that could have just been a two-dimensional swashbuckling hero.

While researching the role of Jack Sparrow, Depp found that 18th-century pirates had a lot in common with contemporary rock stars, and decided to base his portrayal on Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. His unconventional interpretation of the character worried the Disney top brass. Studio head Michael Eisner was convinced that Depp was ruining the movie during filming, but Depp was eventually left to his own devices. Director Gore Verbinksi was right to gamble on Depp's unique vision, since his portrayal of Jack Sparrow is arguably the most memorable pirate portrayal in film history and drove a highly profitable film franchise.
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Photo: Courtesy of Miramax Films.
Finding Neverland (2004)

Another example of Depp's talent for playing real people: In 2004's Finding Neverland, Depp plays playwright J.M. Barrie as he develops a friendship with the family who inspired the enduring classic Peter Pan. The film is partly a semi-faithful biopic and partly an examination on how Barrie's unconventional relationship with a widow (played by the always-illuminating Kate Winslet) and her young sons was frowned upon in Edwardian England. If the premise, coupled with the fact that the film is a lush costume drama, sounds like awards bait, well, that's because it was. The film picked up multiple Academy Award nominations, including a nod to Depp for Best Actor.
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