Dissecting Johnny Depp!

Last Updated on July 31, 2021


Man oh man, Johnny Depp used to be my favorite actor. Seriously, who had a more prolific, widely decorated run of films in the 1990s? Kevin Spacey? Tom Hanks maybe? I mean it. From about 1990 to 2005 – Depp embodied everything we wanted in a constantly watchable film actor. The dude exuded a cool, indie, artsy, offbeat, daring, bold, challenging, totally antiestablishment demeanor. He seemed to carve his own path, create his own niche, play by his own rules of authenticity in a way that allowed him to artistically express himself on screen. His script choices were superb. His performances soared. Dude's an absolute original. So what the hell happened? Surely Depp didn't have grand designs on becoming a Disney pitchman when he took on Jack Sparrow for the first time in 2003. Hell, maybe the joke's on us. Maybe Depp saw how corporate the landscape of major studio filmmaking was headed and decided to cash in while he still could. After-all, here's a dude who's on record as never have seen a single frame of most of his own movies. But in the 90s? Who was better, honestly.


Tirade aside, let's not forget how involved Depp has proven to be in the genre world. We all know he got his post Jump Street start getting the ever-loving life sucked out of him in the original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, but what about the rest? EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD, DEAD MAN, NICK OF TIME, DONNIE BRASCO, THE NINTH GATE, THE ASTRONAUT'S WIFE, SLEEPY HOLLOW, FROM HELL, SWEENEY TODD, all the way up to the diminishing returns of ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, SECRET WINDOW, THE TOURIST, DARK SHADOWS, TRANSCENDENCE, etc. etc. The choices have clearly waned, yes, but so too has the climate of original filmmaking.

Excuses? Truth? Overreaction? All this and more as we finally try to Dissect the genre work of one Mr. Depp. Ladies, gents…Here's Johnny!



Subjectively speaking, you could single out any number of roles as Depp's finest. GILBERT GRAPE, DONNIE BRASCO, FEAR AND LOATHING, the surprisingly soft FINDING NEVERLAND…all quality candidates. But we're talking horror here, genre joints, and in that regard, I think the most fruitfully fulfilling movies must be the one Depp has made with his cinematic partner in crime, Tim Burton. Eight films they've made together, surely more to come, many of which are ensconced deeply in the world of the macabre. The three that stick out most and have stood the test of time, to our minds, have to include EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD and SLEEPY HOLLOW!

SCISSORHANDS, the ghastly fairytale it is, features a beautifully delicate turn from Depp, who almost gives an entirely silent performance. What he's tasked with doing with nothing but antsy, awkward body-language and deeply expressive eye movement is nothing short of brilliant. Even under pounds of makeup, Depp was still able to plumb a depth of emotion in that character in a way that's made the movie a bona fide classic. The S&M getup, the facial scars, the terrifying knives on his arms…it's a dark and daunting look to bring inner-light to. But that Depp did, and did so with humor and a light humanistic touch. Aside from dredging heartfelt pathos, SCISSORHANDS is also one of Depp's funniest performances. He absolutely nails the socially awkward mien of a monster in hiding forced to commingle with the outside world. It's a beautifully drawn line…soft, scary, sad, sinister, salient!


And if you didn't think that was bold, what about ED WOOD? Sheesh. Depp lends unbridled verve to the most infamous of cross-dressing directorial dreck-hounds. And it he's having a blast while doing it! In fact, Depp has been on record has saying he molded his performance as the titular Z-movie filmmaker out of three muses: Ronald Reagan, The Tin Man and Casey Casem. Dude was having a ball indeed. But not all play equals flippancy. I'd argue ED WOOD is Burton's most mature film, and explores a side of humanity not often seen in his work. We know Marty Landau won an Oscar for playing horror legend Bela Lugosi, but anchoring the entire thing is Depp's overly-eccentric enthusiasm and wildly magnetic charm. It's a stark contrast to what he laid down just four years prior in SCISSORHANDS.

Not to be outdone though is SLEEPY HOLLOW, one hell of a Gothic detective period piece. To entertain himself this time, Depp played the foppish Ichabod Crane with the following inspirations in mind: Roddy McDowell, Basil Rathbone and Angela Lansbury. Laugh if you will, but a fine performance was crafted in a movie that still stands strong as a worthy adaptation of a classic tale. And I liked NICK OF TIME and all, but this is the superior Depp/Walken collaboration, even if they trade no real lines of dialogue. Depp's dainty dandy of a constable is unlike anything we'd seen him attempt up until then, ED WOOD included, and really couldn't be further from his turns in previous Burton collaborations. All three are singular achievements, yes, but together, they total something greater and stand tall as the holy triad of Depp/Burton genre hits!


Throw a dart at Depp's filmography over the last decade or so and you're bound to nail a nominee for one of his worst flicks. MORTDECAI, anyone? What the hell was that!? I stress flicks though, because even in the poor script choices Depp has made, he usually never delivers a poor performance. It's just that he's begun to choose some pretty awful projects and tends to phone in his turn once he's committed. Even his directorial BFF, Tim Burton, isn't exempt. DARK SHADOWS is an abysmal farce of a farce…a long two-hour in-joke between the two that never quite struck a chord among the masses. How could it? Unless you happened to be a fan of the campy 60s soap on which it was based, all you're really left with is an unfunny fish-out-of-water story that squanders the chemistry he and my girl Michelle Pfeiffer could have enjoyed. Disappointing!

And speaking of chemistry, I've seen gas pilots with bigger flames than between Depp and Jolie in THE TOURIST, another expensive but forgettable debacle. I've not yet seen YOGA HOSERS, but apparently Depp reprises his TUSK role of Guy Lapointe in the new Kevin Smith horror-comedy. I didn't dislike TUSK as much as many, but you cannot for a second consider that absurdly comical cameo as one of Depp's stronger turns. Or choices. Can you?

All this to say TRANSCENDENCE just might be the worst thing that Depp has attached his name to. Well, that and the Viper Room I guess. Yes, it's even worse than SECRET WINOW…at all no easy feat! But as far as movies go, one that had such a promising premise, stellar supporting cast and first-rate visualist behind the camera (Chris Nolan's DP Wally Pfister), TRANSCENDENCE really ought to be called DESCENDENCE. As in, it only goes downhill from the jump. Down the drain, rather! To take such a pressing and prescient topic like singularity – or digitally uploading one's conscious in order to prolong a lifespan – to turn such a serious subject like that into a lame, manipulative, stultifying action movie with one of the most risible endings we could remember, well it's damn near unforgivable. Hell, it actually makes one pine heartily for PIRATES 4!



We all know well and good that Johnny has established himself as one of the most diverse actors to come around in a generation. Dude's talent known no limits. But to our minds, the most impressive through-line among his work is that he has and continues to portray real-life characters. Ed Wood (ED WOOD), Joe Pistone (DONNIE BRASCO), Hunter S. Thompson (FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS), Ichabod Crane (SLEEPY HOLLOW), George Jung (BLOW), J.M. Barie (FINDING NEVERLAND), Frederick Abberline (FROM HELL), John Wilmot (THE LIBERTINE), John Dillinger (PUBLIC ENEMIES), Whitey Bulger (BLACK MASS)…these are all real people who lived at one time or another. And Depp had enough respect for, and big enough balls to, tell these men's stories in a way that will live on forever.

What this does is add another level of responsibility to get the character right, to do justice in the eyes of not only that person, but whatever living relatives that may see the film. It therefore ups the challenge to play real life characters, as you're not just trying to make the part believable, but trying to acquit yourself well in the eyes of people who intimately knew the genuine article. It's one of the things we've always admired about Depp, and since proving he's still capable of doing so in BLACK MASS, really hope he continues the trend. It's when he's at his best!



Don't let the Disney tentpoles distract you, Depp has a slew of fine diamonds in the rough. Before we appraise such with a jeweler's eye, first allow us to call attention to a movie that's damn near impossible to track down. It's the superb 1992 movie ARIZONA DREAM, truly one of Depp's best and least known efforts. It was made by some Estonian gypsy named Emir Kusturica. Find it if you can, you'll reap rewards. 

Depp also directed and starred in his own movie, THE BRAVE, costarring Marlon Brando in 1997. Opinions vary on the merits of that one, I personally have never come across the film, so I'll abstain from critiquing. Instead, there's a trio of movies we'd like to briefly shine some light on as must-see Depp performances. Here's some hints: Jarmusch, Polanski and the brothers Hughes!

DEAD MAN is a true triumph of cinematic minimalism. Much like what he was tasked with doing in SCISSORHANDS, Depp's transformative turn as a wandering spirit of few words is a remarkable sight to behold. He must convey feelings and emotions with his body as the main instrument, bringing to life a weary revenant of sorts that must traverse the mystic underworld of the wild west. As an accountant turned outlaw whose body, like his moral compass, begins to evaporate, Depp finds the perfect pitch to play the character of William Blake. Jim Jarmusch lends his artsy sensibilities to the story, which goes a long way in creating what feels like one odd, surreal fever-dream of movie. It's a hauntingly unforgettable experience featuring one of Depp's most alluring performances.


Then, in 1999, one of the all time most fecund years for movies, Depp undertook a trio of genre-tinged thrillers. The aforementioned SLEEPY HOLLOW, the unspeakable ASTRONAUT'S WIFE, and Roman Polanski's oft-panned THE NINTH GATE. I really feel like this movie has been short-shrift. Sure the final third tends to devolve into the laughable, but the mystery and subtext of the movie is really quite compelling. Depp plays a rare book dealer trying to track down a highly sought after satanic tome, which leads him down a hellish path of shady characters, femme fatales and ever increasing supernatural danger. Much like what Kubrick did with EYES WIDE SHUT the same year, Polanski tricks the audience with a superficial plotline, only to bury a deeply disturbing hidden subtext. I'll let you read up on that yourselves elsewhere, but here's a hint for the next time you watch: count the number of gates Corso (Depp) himself passes through in the movie. And if you have the time and interest, we urge you to go down the IMDB rabbit hole for serious discussions about all this movie is trying to communicate. You'll be surprised how many critics missed the mark on this one!


Finally, Depp squares off with Jack The Ripper in the splendid period whodunit FROM HELL. Albert and Allen Hughes (MENACE II SOCIETY, DEAD PRESIDENTS) recreate Victorian London with great accuracy and give Depp the opportunity the chance to play a deeply flawed antihero. Wracked with opium addiction, our not so reliable protagonist must put the pieces together – through his twisted clairvoyance – the true identity of Jack the Ripper and put an end to the grisly slayings for good. Depp's portrayal of a Scotland Yard investigator who uses his own inner-demons to help get into the mind of the serial murderer is spot on…so much so that we can't help but suspect himself to be the killer for long stretches of the film. The ability to ride the line so closely between protagonist and antagonist, and still cull utter sympathy is a testament to Depp's subtle acting skill. Straight up, watching FROM HELL along with SLEEPY HOLLOW is an excellent Depp double feature!


Still in high demand, it's nice to see Big John Depp take a step back from his tireless Disney slate (PIRATES, ALICE) and embrace a classic horror tale. Not sure you heard, but it was recently announced that Johnny is attached to play the titular character in Universal's THE INVISIBLE MAN redux. First Tom Cruise as THE MUMMY, and now Depp pulling a Claude Raines. Universal isn't f*cking around with their classic monster movie exhumation, are they?!?

Based on the infamous H.G. Wells novel, here's a synopsis for the 1933 James Whale film adaptation:

Working in Dr. Cranley's laboratory, scientist Jack Griffin was always given the latitude to conduct some of his own experiments. His sudden departure, however, has Cranley's daughter Flora worried about him. Griffin has taken a room at the nearby Lion's Head Inn, hoping to reverse an experiment he conducted on himself that made him invisible. Unfortunately, the drug he used has also warped his mind, making him aggressive and dangerous. He's prepared to do whatever it takes to restore his appearance, and several will die in the process.

Given all we've just examined in Depp's quiver, this seems to be a perfect arrow to sharpen up his credibility. Now all we need is Universal to ink a deal with Tim Burton to really stoke the intrigue. What do you think? Seems a perfect project to atone for the wildly misguided DARK SHADOWS.

Not for nothing, but we suppose it's worthy glancing over the fact Depp will also appear in an uncredited cameo of sorts in LONDON FIELDS, a psychic-thriller starring his wife Amber Heard. Supportive, yes, but less assuring is the fact Katy Perry music director Matthew Cullen makes his feature debut with the project.



What can't parse it any other way. The tide's been a bit choppy for a decade or so, but it doesn't change the fact that Johnny Depp was, is, and will likely continue to be one of the best actors of his generation. Or any other for that matter. From about 1990-2005 in particular, there's no single actor whose movies I'd repeatedly want to watch more. In genre, out of genre, even in the gargantuan Disney flicks he seems most content in today, Depp is the ultimate chameleon (I see you, RANGO). In his heyday, from SCISSORHANDS to FINDING NEVERLAND (up through PUBLIC ENEMIES and BLACK MASS), Depp honestly made the hippest, most gallant, off-center, noncommercial movies of anyone his age…the kind that his GILBERT GRAPE mentee DiCaprio now seems to exclusive carry the torch for.

Perhaps today's moviemaking climate would never allow for flicks like EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD, DEAD MAN, NICK OF TIME, DONNIE BRASCO, THE NINTH GATE, SLEEPY HOLLOW, FROM HELL, SWEENEY TODD, and the many equally original non-genre fare he's partaken in to be produced. If that's the case, who are we to cast aspersions on Johnny for taking the money and running? I just hope Depp hasn't lost the passion for acting. Now that would be a true shame. Then again, anyone who saw BLACK MASS should be hopeful if not confident that the daringly roguish bad-boy is still alive and well!

Source: AITH

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Jake Dee is one of JoBlo’s most valued script writers, having written extensive, deep dives as a writer on WTF Happened to this Movie and it’s spin-off, WTF Really Happened to This Movie. In addition to video scripts, Jake has written news articles, movie reviews, book reviews, script reviews, set visits, Top 10 Lists (The Horror Ten Spot), Feature Articles The Test of Time and The Black Sheep, and more.