4 Performances - Johnny Depp

This weekend we wered treated to the fourth film in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise, ON STRANGER TIDES.  In honor of that film's release (which could honestly have one of these columns written about any number of actors in it), and its star attraction Johnny Depp, I want to discuss four of my favorite performances from the prolific, idiosyncratic and extremely talented actor.  I'm also going to forego discussing his terrific (and career changing) turn in Jim Jarmusch's minimalist masterpiece, DEAD MAN because I want to write about that a bit in-depth in the near future.

1)  Sam, BENNY AND JOON (Jeremiah S. Chechick, 1993)

One of Depp's earliest attention-grabbing performances was as Sam, an eccentric man who has apparently modeled himself off Buster Keaton, opposite a terrific Mary Stuart Masterson as Joon, an emotionally distant woman who opens up to be herself in the presence of Sam.  Funny, sweet and just enough oddball to herald the career to come, BENNY AND JOON is remarkable character work by a burgeoning star.

2) George Jung, BLOW (Ted Demme, 2001)

BLOW is one of only two pictures that have ever made me cry in the theater (I don't mind telling you the other is Tim Burton's BIG FISH).  A wholly engaging crime drama as well as character study, BLOW follows George Jung, a big time cocaine dealer who, at one time, was responsible for roughly 70% of the imported coke in the U.S.  Tracking his rise and fall, the film utilizes the considerable acting chops of Depp and Ray Liotta, who plays his father, who gets all the best lines.  Directed by the late Ted Demme (nephew of Jonathan), BLOW is electrifying in its use of rock music, the production design and gorgeous, coked-out set pieces that rival the best of De Palma and Scorsese for 70s/80s period gangster drama.

3) Ichabod Crane, SLEEPY HOLLOW (Tim Burton, 1999) / Inspector Frederick Abberline,  FROM HELL (The Hughes Brothers, 2001)

I often conflate these two characters, though I don't rightly know why.  Perhaps its because Depp plays the same character very similarly, though adding or subtracting a bit of aloofness from his performances (respectively).  His Ichabod Crane is a man of science on the hunt for the Headless Horseman, and who is nearly driven mad by the ordeal.

Ditto Inspector Abberline, who is searching for a similar boogeyman in the shadows of London with Jack the Ripper on the prowl and the city gripped with fear.  While neither role is a huge departure from Depp's usual repertoire of weirdos and malcontents, it's refreshing to see him take on characters that are at least grounded in the real world, and who partake in normal movie star activities like solving murders and being hunted by ghouls in the night.

4) John Dillinger, PUBLIC ENEMIES (Michael Mann, 2009)

While the film itself has some problems - chiefly its on-again off-again commitment to a watchable image during its action sequences - Depp's portrayal of John Dillinger, America's favorite antihero, is spot-on perfection.  Dapper, clean and charming, Depp here proves that he can really be an everyman, just as long as that everyman has charisma and is terribly handsome.  In this regard it's a better role for him than other forays into similar territory, like 2004's SECRET WINDOW or last year's THE TOURIST, which gets my vote for best film everyone hated for no good reason in 2010.  It also doesn't hurt that he plays against type by being the flat-out bad guy, and that he gets to go head-to-head with fellow pop-thesp Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis, the Federal agent given the assignment of taking Dillinger down.

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