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.