We are not anti-Johnny Depp. We love films like Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Donnie Brasco, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—all of which are highlighted by stellar Depp performances. But for a Hollywood A-lister, he’s made some undeniably bizarre career decisions, and here are his oddest.
In the wake of what Variety dubbed “one of the biggest trainwrecks of the year,” the trade publication reported that Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer blamed “critics” for The Lone Ranger’s box-office failings. Clearly, the fact that the 2013 movie was way too long, way too dull, and featured a Depp in Tonto “redface” drag that Time magazine kindly dubbed “problematic” had nothing to do with it.
A lot of movies are too long and too dull though. Not many in this day and age, however, dare poke into the realms of cultural appropriation. As Slate’s review of the film points out:
The Lone Ranger does its best not to marginalize Tonto: For the majority of the story, this is his film, not the Lone Ranger’s. Depp and the screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio have gone to great lengths to reverse some of the antiquated tropes found in many classic westerns. But they were also obligated to remain at least somewhat faithful to their original source—and sometimes they end up reinforcing the stereotypes they’re trying to subvert.
Before the film was released, Depp told Rolling Stone (which mentioned out that the actor “has Native American blood” without offering any specifics) that he wanted Tonto to be “no joke:”
“First of all, I wouldn’t fuck with someone with a dead bird on their head. Second of all, he’s got the fucking paint on his face, which scares me ... I wanted to maybe give some hope to kids on the reservations,” says Depp, who’s wearing an ancient Comanche symbol on the end of his rope necklace. “They’re living without running water and seeing problems with drugs and booze. But I wanted to be able to show these kids, ‘Fuck that! You’re still warriors, man.’”
A worthy goal, and probably a heartfelt intention... brought to the big screen by an actor who told Entertainment Weekly that he had “some Native American somewhere down the line” wearing a costume inspired by a fantastical painting by a white artist.
Okay, this movie isn’t even out yet. But hear us through!
In 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl—a movie many discounted prematurely, considering it was based on a Disneyland ride—proved a surprisingly fun mega-hit. It earned Depp his first Oscar nomination, and seems to have given him the confidence to pursue ever-wackier roles, some of which appear on this list.
It’s now 12 years later, and the Pirates franchise is still lurching onward, with Depp traveling to Australia in early 2015 to reapply those gold teeth and dreadlocks, and film the fifth installment: Dead Men Tell No Tales (the logline is “Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon”).
Look, we all know why he’s playing the same character yet again (because $$$$$). But doesn’t he have enough $$$$$ at this point? What creative and artistic satisfaction could he possibly getting out of this? Did he sign a Disney blood oath or something? Dead Men is due in 2017; however, Dead Man, the Jim Jarmusch neo-Western Depp starred in back when he was still an exciting actor, came out in 1995. And it’s awesome.
Johnny Depp as a haunted London detective chasing Jack the Ripper, with the at-the-time inspired choice of the Hughes Brothers (Dead Presidents) behind the helm? What could go wrong? A lot of things, it turned out, especially the fact that From Hell, drawn from a graphic novel that focused on the mystery and mysticism surrounding the Ripper case, became a film more about Depp’s eccentric performance choices (including his iffy accent) than anything else.
And truth be told, we didn’t hate this Alan Moore adaptation as much as the famously Hollywood-averse author did. But we see where he was coming from when he took Depp to task in an interview with MTV:
I mean the police inspector in “From Hell,” Fred Abberline, was based on real life: He was an unassuming man in middle age who was not a heavy drinker and who, as far as I know, remained faithful to his wife throughout his entire life. Johnny Depp saw fit to play this character as an absinthe-swilling, opium-den-frequenting dandy with a haircut that, in the Metropolitan Police force in 1888, would have gotten him beaten up by the other officers.
Not every Johnny Depp-Tim Burton collaboration has been a self-indulgent ride on a train bound for Whimsytown. We’ve already expressed our love for Ed Wood; there’s also the wonderful Edward Scissorhands and Corpse Bride (a winning Depp voice performance that’s up there with the non-Burton entry Rango), and the entertaining if imperfect Sleepy Hollow movie.
More at issue, in chronological order, are Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (more gloomy than quirky, but included here because Depp sings), Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows.
We’re picturing the meetings that happened before each of these, and they consist of Burton silently nodding as Depp outlined his vision for each character, allowing every zany indulgence a free pass. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, already treading on sacred ground by remaking what was already the definitive film version of the Roald Dahl book, makes this list chiefly because it’s so freaking creepy, and (unlike in Alice in Wonderland, where at least there’s other weird performances to look at) Depp is in your face running on 11 the entire time.
Roger Ebert’s review took the most issue with the fact that Depp seemed to be (perhaps subconsiously) paying homage to Michael Jackson, who went on trial for child molestation in 2005, the same year the film was released:
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.
Gene Wilder, iconic star of the 1971 adaptation Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, reserved his criticism more for the remake itself, telling Entertainment Weekly:
“It’s just some people sitting around thinking, ‘How can we make some more money?’ Why else would you remake Willy Wonka? I don’t see the point of going back and doing it all over again,” Wilder said at the time. “I like Johnny Depp and I appreciate that he has said on the record that my shoes would be hard to fill. But I don’t know how it will all turn out. Right now, the only thing that does take some of the edge off this for me is that Willy Wonka’s name isn’t in the title.”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also gets elevated to a spot on this list because along with Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka seems to be the character that made Depp dive full-throttle into the realm of hair, make-up, and funky prosthetics. A gateway drug, if you will. How else to explain this Alice in Wonderland look ...
...other than, as Variety does, as having “Bozo-like red hair, unblinking emerald eyes, gap teeth, bushy eyebrows and makeup that makes coulrophobia a most rational fear”?
Depp, having gotten a taste of on-screen crooning in Sweeney Todd, returned for more in this fairy-tale musical adaptation, playing the predatory Big Bad Wolf. The film’s producer, John DeLuca, told the Hollywood Reporter that a real effort went into “not making [the Big Bad Wolf’s scenes] too heavy on the pedophilia front.” Seems prudent.
Depp’s brief on-screen presence was still so distracting that The Stranger titled its review of the film “Johnny Depp Can’t Quite Ruin Into the Woods,” noting that his acting here is “all eyeballs and aimlessness and weirdness for weirdness’s sake ... In the best-known stage version of Into the Woods, the wolf was outfitted with a really good mask that moved when he sang. But in this movie, it appears the costume and makeup people just let Johnny Depp wear whatever he was wearing when he walked onto the set.”
Sounds about right. Here’s the scene; judge for yourself:
Confession: we didn’t even watch this box-office bomb, which was released in January and was dubbed an (extremely) early contender for worst movie of 2015.
It’s about a kooky art dealer obsessed with tracking down a stolen painting. The Telegraph called it “psychotically unfunny,” and the paper didn’t stop there:
Mortdecai: mort de cinéma, more like. It’s hard to think of a way in which the experience of watching the new Johnny Depp film could be any worse, unless you returned home afterwards to discover that Depp himself had popped round while you were out and set fire to your house. This is comfortably the actor’s worst film since Alice in Wonderland, and even dedicated fans will find their hearts shrivelling up like week-old party balloons at its all-pervading air of clenched desperation.
Also, he has a mustache.
Not on this list: Depp’s current release, Black Mass, which is maybe the least inexplicable career decision he’s ever made; it’s a calculated move to tackle a grittier role than anything else he’s bothered with lately.
Though we didn’t care for the film, it signals a more encouraging direction than the upcoming Alice in Wonderland sequel. And at this point, one film can hardly be enough to spur a full-on comeback, even for an actor we once admired. But maybe... it’s a start?