Just think: Johnny Depp could have had the career of, say, Richard Grieco. In 1988, they were both break-out stars, young TV cops working undercover as high school students in the fledgling Fox network's first hit show, "21 Jump Street."
The conventionally handsome Grieco made the leap into features in 1991 with "If Looks Could Kill," a teen spy vehicle scripted by Darren Star, who would go on to create "Beverly Hills 90210," "Melrose Place" and "Sex and the City." Depp went the opposite direction, doing absolutely what was not expected of a Tiger Beat coverboy: He made fun of the whole idea of being a teen heartthrob in, of all things, "Cry-Baby," a John Waters movie musical set in the 1950s. Depp played the title character, a romantic tattooed juvenile delinquent who combined elements of Elvis, James Dean and maybe even a dash John Travolta in "Grease."
When he took his first major movie role, as Heather Langenkamp's sleepy boyfriend in the 1984 Wes Craven horror classic "A Nightmare on Elm Street," he considered himself a musician who was just acting for the money. He made quite a splash right from the beginning -- swallowed by his own bed and then sloshed all over the ceiling. (He also appears, fleetingly in Oliver Stone's 1986 "Platoon.")
Few leading actors of his generation have portrayed such an array of eccentric characters, from the blade-fingered Edward Scissorhands (a fairy-tale homage to Freddy Krueger, who gave him his start?) to the flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow, inspired by Keith Richards, in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies.
In addition to working with a number of first-time directors, Depp has also collaborated with some of the most distinctive directorial names in contemporary movies --Roman Polanski, Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam, Sally Potter, Robert Rodriguez, Lasse Hallstrom and, of course, Tim Burton, with whom he has made five phantasmagoric films: "Edward Scissorhands," "Ed Wood," "Sleepy Hollow," "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."
He's played on-screen protege (and off-screen friend) to some of the giants of an early generation -- Marlon Brando ("Don Juan DeMarco"), Al Pacino ("Donnie Brasco"), Robert Mitchum ("Dead Man"), Vincent Price ("Edward Scissorhands"), and gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson ("Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas").
Using his broad cheekbones and delicate features, Depp has often played outsiders who are somewhat fragile or vulnerable, but also a stubborn resilience. His characters sometimes manage to fixate on their goals -- whether it's Ed Wood making a movie, The Duke relentlessly pursuing hallucinogenic chemical extremes of consciousness in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," or the Second Earl of Rochester plunging headlong into a life of debauchery in "The Libertine." Depp hasn't been afraid to be "out there."
Here's how Roger Ebert has tracked the career of Johnny Depp over the years. (Linking titles will take you to the full reviews.)
"Cry-Baby" (John Waters, 1990)
The movie tells the story of Cry-Baby himself, played by teen idol Johnny Depp as a juvenile delinquent who forever has a tear sliding halfway down his cheek, a reminder of a grief he will live with forever, a teenage tragedy that has left its mark on his soul, a lost romance.
The first time we see Sam [Johnny Depp], riding on the bus, he's reading a book about the silent clown Buster Keaton. This is not idle curiosity. Sam has somehow determined to internalize the genius of Keaton, Chaplin and the other early screen comedians, and although he never says that out loud, either, it becomes clear in a gradual, unforced way, as he incorporates bits from their films into his daily life.
If I had been reading the screenplay of "Benny and Joon," I would have started to form ominous misgivings at about this point, since the conceit of bringing a character like Sam into the story seems a little too precious. But Depp pulls it off. In "Edward Scissorhands" he demonstrated two of the skills that are crucial to his performance in "Benny and Joon": He was able to build an essentially wordless performance out of expression and gesture, and he had natural physical grace.
Here, without ever explaining himself, he simply behaves sometimes in the real world in the way Keaton and Chaplin behaved in their movie worlds.
There is a moment at a lunch counter, for example, when he sticks two forks into two dinner rolls, holds them under his chin, and moves them to suggest that the rolls are his feet, and he is dancing. It's a steal from "The Gold Rush," but done with an offhand charm that makes it work all over again.
"What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (Lasse Hallstrom, 1994)
The special quality of "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" is not its oddness, however, but its warmth. Johnny Depp, as Gilbert, has specialized in playing outsiders ("Edward Scissorhands," "Benny and Joon"), and here he brings a quiet, gentle sweetness that suffuses the whole film. Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Arnie, the retarded kid brother, has been nominated for an Academy Award, and deserves it.
"Ed Wood" (Tim Burton, 1994)
In Burton's version, Wood is a man who not only accepts reality, but celebrates it. Far from being secretive about his love of dressing in women's clothes, he treats it as the most natural thing in the world, putting on an angora sweater, skirt and high heels to help himself relax while directing a scene. "Are you a homosexual?" he's asked. "No!" he replies cheerfully. "I'm a transvestite!" Depp plays Wood as a man deliriously happy to be making movies. He rarely makes two takes of the same shot because the first one always looks great to him. (In one take Tor Johnson misses the door and walks into a wall, shaking the set, but when the cameraman in amazement asks Wood if he doesn't want another shot, he replies thoughtfully, "You know, in actuality Lobo would have to struggle with that problem every day").
It stars Johnny Depp, who in "Benny and Joon" and "Arizona Dreams" showed the kind of delicate touch an actor needs to slip into the darkness of the soul and find human comedy there.
Like both of those films, this one deals with mental illness: Depp plays a character who is convinced he is Don Juan, the world's greatest lover. He gets other people to believe it, too, in dialogue so steamy that maybe only Depp could have delivered it, with his deadpan sincerity and big honest eyes. "What do you know of love?" he asks a psychiatrist. "Have you ever loved a woman until milk leaked from her -- as if she had just given birth to love itself, and now must feed it or burst?" The psychiatrist admits he has not. He doubts Don Juan has, either. Don Juan finds himself in the mental hospital for a 10-day evaluation process, after being committed because he has, in the diagnosis of the experts, "obsessive-compulsive disorder with eroto-manic features."
"Nick of Time" (John Badham, 1995)
Watson, played by Depp with a low-key ordinariness that is mostly convincing, grows desperate. There is no danger that he'll turn into a surprise action hero; they cast Depp and not Stallone for a reason. No, he tries to use his brain to figure a way to save his daughter without killing the governor. And his efforts are ingenious. I won't reveal them.
"Dead Man" (Jim Jarmusch, 1996)
"Dead Man" is a strange, slow, unrewarding movie that provides us with more time to think about its meaning than with meaning. The black and white photography by Robby Muller is a series of monochromes in which the brave new land of the West already betrays a certain loneliness. Farmer brings to the Indian a sweetness and a curious contemporary air (he talks like a new age guru), and Depp is sad and lost as the opposite of Nobody -- which is, I fear, Everyman. A mood might have developed here, had it not been for the unfortunate score by Neil Young, which for the film's final 30 minutes sounds like nothing so much as a man repeatedly dropping his guitar.
"Donnie Brasco" (Mike Newell, 1997)
As the two men face their moment of truth, we are reminded what fine acting the movie contains. We expect it from Pacino, who is on ground he knows well, and is poignant and gentle as a man who is "just a spoke in the wheel," a loyal soldier who lives and dies by the rules. For Johnny Depp, "Donnie Brasco" breaks new ground; he seems a little older here, a little wearier, and he makes the transition from stoolie to friend one subtle step at a time.
"Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Johnny Depp has been a gifted and inventive actor in films like "Benny and Joon" and "Ed Wood." Here he's given a character with no nuances, a man whose only variable is the current degree he's out of it. He plays Duke in disguise, behind strange hats, big shades, and the ever-present cigarette holder. The decision to always use the cigarette holder was no doubt inspired by the Duke character in the comic strip, who invariably has one -- but a prop in a comic is not the same thing as a prop in the movie, and here it becomes not only an affection but a handicap: Duke isn't easy to understand at the best of times, and talking through clenched teeth doesn't help. That may explain the narration, in which Duke comments on events that are apparently incomprehensible to himself on screen.
"Sleepy Hollow" (Tim Burton, 1999)
What it depends upon is Burton's gift for bizarre and eccentric special effects, and a superb performance by Johnny Depp, who discards everything we may ever have learned or thought about Ichabod Crane and starts from scratch.
Depp plays Crane at the "dawn of a new millennium," he says, confusing theroll-over of 1799 to 1800 with the transition from the 1000s to the 2000s. It is time to discard the barbaric torture of the past, he believes, and bring the legal system up to date with improved methods of investigation and justice. He sees himself as a detective of the new order, and a New York judge, impatient with his constant interruptions, banishes him to the upstate hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, where there has been an outbreak of decapitations. Let him practice forensics there....
Johnny Depp is an actor able to disappear into characters, never more readily than in one of Burton's films. Together they created Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, and now here is an Ichabod Crane who is all posture and carefully learned mannerism, attitude and fastidiousness. It's as if the Horseman gallops ahead in a traditional horror film, and Depp and Burton gallop right behind him in a satire. There's a lot of gore (the movie deserves its R rating), but it's not mean gore, if you know what I mean -- it's gore dictated by the sad fate of the Headless Horseman.
"The Ninth Gate" (Roman Polanski, 2000)
The film stars Johnny Depp in a strong if ultimately unaimed performance as Dean Corso, a rare-book dealer whose ethics are optional.... What's best about Corso's quest is the way he conducts it. Depp and Polanski bring a film noir feel to the film; we're reminded of Bogart pretending to be a rare-book buyer in "The Big Sleep."
Johnny Depp stars as Inspector Frederick Abberline, an opium addict whose smoke-fueled dreams produce psychic insights into crime. The echo of Sherlock Holmes, another devotee of the pipe, is unmistakable, and "From Hell" supplies its hero with a Watsonoid sidekick in Peter Godley (Robbie Coltrane), a policeman assigned to haul Abberline out of the dens, gently remind him of his duty, protect him from harm, and marvel at his insights. Depp plays his role as very, very subtle comedy -- so droll he hopes we think he's serious.
"The Man Who Cried" (Sally Potter, 2001)
Depp more or less imports his soulful gypsy from "Chocolat," sensitive and moody.
And yet the movie made me grin at times, and savor the daffy plot, and enjoy the way Depp and Rush fearlessly provide performances that seem nourished by deep wells of nuttiness. Depp in particular seems to be channeling a drunken drag queen, with his eyeliner and the way he minces ashore and slurs his dialogue ever so insouciantly. Don't mistake me: This is not a criticism, but admiration for his work. It can be said that his performance is original in its every atom. There has never been a pirate, or for that matter a human being, like this in any other movie. There's some talk about how he got too much sun while he was stranded on that island, but his behavior shows a lifetime of rehearsal. He is a peacock in full display.
Consider how boring it would have been if Depp had played the role straight, as an Errol Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks (Sr. or Jr.) might have. To take this material seriously would make it unbearable. Capt. Sparrow's behavior is so rococo that other members of the cast actually comment on it. And yet because it is consistent and because you can never catch Depp making fun of the character, it rises to a kind of cockamamie sincerity.
"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" (Robert Rodriquez, 2003)
The actors in a movie like this have to arrive on the screen self-contained; there are flashbacks to their earlier lives, but they explain what happened to them, not who they are. With Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek and Johnny Depp as his leads, and a supporting cast including Ruben Blades, Eva Mendes, Willem Dafoe and Mickey Rourke, Rodriguez has great faces, bodies, eyes, hair, sneers, snarls and personalities to work with. Banderas is as impassive as Eastwood, Hayek steams with passion, and Johnny Depp steams with something -- maybe fermenting memories of "Pirates of the Caribbean."
"Finding Neverland" is the story of a man who doesn't want to grow up, and writes the story of a boy who never does. The boy is Peter Pan, and the man is Sir J.M. Barrie, who wrote his famous play after falling under the spell of a widow and her four young boys. That Barrie was married at the time, that he all but ignored his wife, that he all but moved into the widow's home, that his interest in the boys raised little suspicion, would make this story play very differently today. Johnny Depp's performance makes Barrie not only believable, but acceptable. And he does it without evading the implications of his behavior: The movie doesn't inoculate Barrie as a "family friend," but shows him truly and deeply in love with the widow and her boys, although in an asexual way; we wonder, indeed, if this man has ever had sex, or ever wants to.
The movie stars Johnny Depp in another of those performances where he brings a musing eccentricity to an otherwise straightforward role. He plays Mort Rainey, a best-selling novelist of crime stories; like the hero of "Misery," he reminds us that the original story is by Stephen King. The computer on his desk in the loft contains one paragraph of a new story, until he deletes it. He spends a lot of time sleeping, and has possibly been wearing the same ratty bathrobe for months. His hair seems to have been combed with an eggbeater, but of course with Johnny Depp you never know if that's the character or the actor.
"Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (Tim Burton, 2005)
Now this is strange. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" succeeds in spite of Johnny Depp's performance, which should have been the high point of the movie. Depp, an actor of considerable gifts, has never been afraid to take a chance, but this time he takes the wrong one. His Willy Wonka is an enigma in an otherwise mostly delightful movie from Tim Burton, where the visual invention is a wonderment....
Johnny Depp may deny that he had Michael Jackson in mind when he created the look and feel of Willy Wonka, but moviegoers trust their eyes, and when they see Willy opening the doors of the factory to welcome the five little winners, they will be relieved that the kids brought along adult guardians. Depp's Wonka -- his dandy's clothes, his unnaturally pale face, his makeup and lipstick, his hat, his manner -- reminds me inescapably of Jackson (and, oddly, in a certain use of the teeth, chin and bobbed hairstyle, of Carol Burnett).
The problem is not simply that Willy Wonka looks like Michael Jackson; it's that in a creepy way we're not sure of his motives.
"The Libertine" (Laurence Dunmore, 2006)
I admire Depp's performance, which plays fair with his opening comment and contains nothing that would inspire us to like him. I was engaged by the patience of Charles II, played by Malkovich as a man smart enough to prefer amusement to flattery; when he cautions Rochester to dial down, it isn't that he's personally offended, but that it's a bad idea for the king to be seen giving license to offense. Samantha Morton's character bewitches Rochester by out-thinking him, which he finds more intriguing than any sexual favor. And Rosamund Pike, as Rochester's wife, is touching as a woman who will put up with almost anything, but not, finally, with everything.
Libertines are not built for third acts. No self-respecting libertine lives that long. Johnny Depp finds sadness in the earl's descent, and a desire to be loved even as he makes himself unlovable. What a brave actor Depp is, to take on a role like this. Still, at the screenplay stage, "The Libertine" might have seemed a safer bet than "Pirates of the Caribbean," a movie studio executives reportedly thought was unreleasable.
In both cases, Depp accepts the character and all of its baggage, and works without a net. He is capable of subtle nuances, but the pirate and the earl are not, and Depp gamely follows them into wretched excess. You will not like the Second Earl of Rochester. But you will not be able to take your eyes from him. Having made his bed, he does not hesitate to sleep in it.