Johnny Depp, whose staggeringly rich performance as John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester animates the current release The Libertine, finally became bankable with Pirates of the Caribbean after years of teetering on the edge of superstardom. But he's been so good (and so much fun) for so long that the distinction seems a mere formality, a sop to an industry that has always conflated popularity with talent.
Looking back over his career in the wake of The Libertine I realized a few things about Depp. First, he's rarely just okay; more often he's either inspired or annoyingly mannered, with no in-between. This seems a temperamental inclination. Depp strikes me as the sort of actor who always swings for the fences, even when a bunt would suffice. Second, since escaping the shackles of his old Fox TV show 21 Jump Street, Depp has usually appeared in movies that were worth having an opinion on even when they fizzled or stank. (I find the The Ninth Gate almost unwatchable. Ditto Chocolat, Blow, Nick of Time, Once Upon a Time in Mexico and the overrated What's Eating Gilbert Grape, which is torn between being sublime and utterly conventional, with Depp's performance falling in the second camp.)
Third, as I wrote in my New York Press review of The Libertine, "Every American leading man with a smidgeon of intellectual pretension would love to be compared to Marlon Brando. But only Johnny Depp really earns the comparison…Brando caught characters in the act of becoming, and fixed the moment in a look or a gesture. He turned psychology into poetry. And no matter how high his star had risen or how low it had sunk, he always seemed as if he were having fun (even if you weren't). By treating every performance as an experiment while still conveying a sense of fun, Brando grasped multiple meanings in the line, 'The play's the thing.' Depp shares all these qualities, along with Brando's glimmers of cynicism and cruelty and hints of decadent boredom. Despite Depp's pay increase after Pirates, he still seems an outlaw in the Brando sense—an actor who consistently pushes against audience expectations and who treats each part as a puzzle, a game and a chance to see what he can get away with."
Here, in order, are my five favorite Depp performances.
1. The Libertine (2005): Director Laurence Dunmore's movie is just all right, but Depp is astonishing as the title character, a poet, playwright, whorehouse regular, royal gadfly, social critic and artistic revolutionary, a man so in love with the ideal of total autonomy that he reflexively insults his most devoted royal patron and systematically destroys his marriage. To prove he needs no one, he drives everyone away. For my money, this is Depp's greatest all-around performance, indulging his love of costumes and makeup (especially near the end, which boasts a plot twist guaranteed to nauseate) and most of all, his disdain for the very idea that an artist should have to care whether anyone likes him. As Philadelphia Weekly's Sean Burns observed: "It takes an actor in complete command of his charisma to get away with this kind of murder, shoving aside all boundaries of taste or common decency and exposing the sick blackness of his soul with a sultry smile."
2. Ed Wood (1993): Many actors would have condescended to the title character, who typically ranks #1 on most critics' lists of the worst directors of all time. But Depp plugs into director Tim Burton's sincere affection for Wood, which is based around Wood's ability to unite dispossessed outsiders around a common cause. Without ever ascribing gifts Wood didn't possess, Deep makes him an idealistic showbiz archetype: the independent filmmaker as small businessman, outlaw artist and bohemian ringleader. The movie's heart is a one-scene coffee shop encounter between Ed Wood and Orson Welles (Vincent D'Onofrio) that finds commonality between a joke and a legend. Wood is Welles without the talent.
3. Donnie Brasco (1997): The actor's interlaced performances as FBI agent Joe Pistone and the title character, who's trying to infiltrate a down-on-its-luck mob crew in 1970s New York, confirm Depp's leading man dexterity, showing you Pistone's fear of being discovered while plausibly concealing that fear from the other characters. The story, the characters and Depp's dual performance all explore acting's connection with life: you pretend to be whatever you need to be in any given situation, the movie says, and if you do it with conviction, the world decides to play along. The mob believes in Brasco for the same reason we believe in Pistone/Brasco (and in Depp): because we enjoy the lie too much to poke holes in it. When sad-sack supporting mobster Al Pacino, playing a character who's like the Willy Loman of the Mafia, teaches Pistone/Brasco the correct way to walk, talk and handle money, we're not just seeing a criminal tutorial, but a defining moment in American movies: one icon bequeathing his legacy to another.
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005): Easily his most divisive lead performance, Depp's Direct-from-Neptune star turn as candy mogul and showman extraordinaire Willy Wonka was the opposite of Ed Wood: introverted and falsely public where Wood was extroverted and genuinely embracing; damaged and defensive, compared with Wood's exuberance and ability to withstand rejection and abuse. The performance really comes together in the final third, when Wonka accepts mortality, embraces Charlie as his apprentice and artistic heir (like the Depp/Pacino relationship in Donnie Brasco) and admits his limitations after years of submerging them beneath pomp. The scene where Wonka eats dinner with Charlie's family never fails to move me.
5. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998): I hesitated to put this Hunter S. Thompson biography on the list because it's one of Depp's more drastically hit-and-miss performances, in a movie that's so unmodulated, so psychedelically intense from start to finish, that it's often tedious. It's as if director Terry Gilliam and his cowriter, Tony Grisoni, had taken the half theatrical, half cartoonish dream sequences from Brazil and tried to make a whole feature out of them. Against all odds, though, it makes me laugh, thanks mainly to the machine-like physical intricacies of Depp's performance. With his palsied crabwalk, Joe Cockerish hand gestures and pacifier-esque use of the cigarette holder, protagonist Raoul Duke (Thompson's alter ego on the page) might as well be an animated version of Thompson as drawn by Ralph Steadman. Other pluses: Duke's unexpectedly warm, lived-in relationship with pistol-packing Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro), and some out-of-nowhere poignant moments, like when Duke looks out of his hotel window, "sees" Haight-Ashbury circa 1967, hears The Youngbloods singing "Smile On Your Brother," and says, "Now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark, the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.