Upon viewing a still image of Johnny Depp as Tonto for the upcoming Lone Ranger flick (2013), I came to the conclusion that Johnny Depp looks tremendous in makeup. He probably looks good all the time, but he shines in makeup. While the choice to have Depp represent Tonto may be politically and culturally dubious (as if the character of Tonto is not always already fraught with political and cultural dubiousness), Depp nonetheless looked terrific in makeup that may or may not be a culturally and historically accurate representation of Native Americans. Maybe it is the slight and angular nature of Depp’s face and jawbone, or maybe his constant work with director Tim Burton has made me accustomed to seeing him made up with eyeliner, rouge, and base. Whatever the reason, Depp almost always wears some sort of painted mask, yet this mask has not hidden his gaze. Indeed, Depp, at his core, seems to always be clown, a jester, a joker. He is always playing at playing someone or something else. Instead of hiding behind the makeup, the makeup illuminates his true cinematic self.
The image of Depp as Tonto along with the release of Dark Shadows (2012), another Burton film in which Depp dons a heavy dose makeup, provided the genesis of this five film favorites list. Depp’s career is surprisingly long and agile; he has artfully and successfully meandered through a multitude of genres and styles.
Depp also has the distinction of being cited as a hottie by some of the coolest and most intelligent women I have known. He is the anti-Matthew McConaughey in the same way that Cate Blanchett is the anti-Angelina Jolie. Without further ado, my five favorite Depp films.
Ed Wood (1994) – Directed by Tim Burton
A terrific examination of the cult B-movie director, Ed Wood indulges in Depp’s ability to simultaneously be both goofy and sincere. This is also one of Burton’s more sincere films. Burton often deals in fantasy, but Ed Wood depicts an actual artist’s striving and longing. While often played for laughs, neither Depp nor Burton ridicule Wood’s desire and devotion. The film also has terrific support from Martin Landau, Bill Murray, and George “The Animal” Steele.
I can say, without hesitation or qualms, that this is my favorite Depp film. Similar to Ed Wood, Depp is beautifully rendered by black and white film. Indeed, the entire cinematography of Dead Man is stunningly gorgeous. Aside from being my favorite Depp film, this is also my favorite Jarmusch piece. Both Depp and Jarmusch should make more Westerns. There is so much to love about Dead Man: natural black and white cinematography, references to William Blake’s poetry, Robert Mitchum (Robert Mitchum!), and Crispin Glover. I once took a date to see Dead Man at the University of Chicago. She thought that the film was dull and tedious. We did not go on another date.
Depp plays a tough guy, a FBI informant deeply embedded within the mob, and he exhibits a range and skill set that had not been afforded to him in previous films. Depp is still most frequently cast as the artsy or quirky loner or trickster, but here he pulls off the FBI/mob tough guy schtick well. He easily holds his own alongside more traditional tough guy actors such as Al Pacino, Michael Madsen, and Bruno Kirby.
Depp’s turn as author J.M. Barrie is both similar and different to many of his earlier roles. He is an odd and artsy loner, but his performance is reserved and understated. While the British accent is nothing special, he does pull off a particularly British mode of masculine self-restraint and emotional repression: a necessity in any British period piece that, like Finding Neverland, seeks to mimic a Merchant/Ivory production. This film deservedly earned an Oscar nod, as did Depp, and is filled with terrific performances all around: Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Radha Mitchell, Dustin Hoffman, and Kelly Macdonald.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) – Directed by Tim Burton
I suppose that this might be classified as a British period piece, but it certainly contains no restraint or repression. Gore and guts abound. Probably my favorite Burton film, Sweeney Todd succeeds as a lavish and horrific fantasy and a musical. Moreover, it succeeds as a musical even though Depp and Helena Bonham Carter cannot sing. In other words, it avoids the fate of Paint Your Wagon (1969). Depp is able to get through the musical numbers by relying on his rock star like persona rather than his voice. The more I reflect back upon Sweeney Todd, the more I like it. And rather than list all the reasons that recommend this film, I will list only one: Alan Rickman. If you need more explanation, you are beyond help.