Ranking the Major Performances of Johnny Depp

Ranking the Major Performances of Johnny Depp

Apr 16, 2014

Few actors have been as adventurous or as weird, and few have risen to stardom so fast. Johnny Depp's filmography is as strange and varied as anyone's.

With Transcendence hitting theaters this week, it's time to look back over the career of Johnny Depp and craft the definitive ranking of his performances. Here are our rules: only major roles are eligible (so no A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) and voice work in animated movies won't be ranked (so no Corpse Bride or Rango). The Brave is not ranked because it's still unavailable and unseen in North America.

From worst to best, here are the 29 major Johnny Depp performances, ranked in quality.

29. Mad Hatter (Alice in Wonderland)

This is it -- the nadir of Johnny Depp. No one plays eccentrics better than Depp, but when left to his own devices with seemingly no interference, he is capable of producing profoundly irritating monstrosities. 

28. Gene Watson (Nick of Time)

If the Mad Hatter is Depp getting too comfortable, Gene Watson is him being too uncomfortable. Although he can be remarkable when restrained, Depp isn't built to play a totally average everyman whose most recognizable trait is his total lack of recognizable traits. As a perfectly ordinary guy who is manipulated into assassinating a politician to save his daughter, Depp looks, for the first and last time, truly out of his element.

27. Frank Tupelo (The Tourist)

Frank Tupelo is a prime example of Depp resting on his laurels and hoping that he can coast by on oddball charm alone. The lack of effort is rough, but at least it never reaches levels akin to physical pain. 


26. Commander Spencer Armacost (The Astronaut's Wife)

You'd think an actor as weird as Depp would bring something truly wacky to the role of an astronaut whose physical form has been taken over by an alien entity, but he really doesn't bring anything fresh to the table. It's not a bad performance, but it's a bland one, feeling like the kind of stoic, emotionless work that lesser actors could have tackled just as well.

25. Tonto (The Lone Ranger)

The problem with Tonto isn't that it's a bad performance. It's a nutty character, but Depp admirably chooses to play with just enough restraint to avoid transforming him into a total cartoon. 

24. Inspector Frederick Abberline (From Hell)

In the realm of "brilliant but troubled detectives," Depp's Frederick Abberline falls somewhere around "pretty good." The main problem is that the performance is stuck inside of a muddled movie that never really gives him anything particularly exciting to do. Depp plays a fine drug-addled Victorian detective, just not a memorable one.

23. Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker (Cry-Baby)

Director John Waters cast Depp as Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker after seeing his mug on a bunch of teenage girl magazines and his reasoning is obvious: he wanted a popular and gorgeous TV star in his movie just to make the debauchery surrounding him feel all the more nasty. Depp has little to do beyond look jaw-droppingly handsome and smolder, but since this is a Waters film, it's the kind of smoldering that leaves a burnt hole in your soul.


22. Roux (Chocolat)

While Cry-Baby used his good looks for satiric effect, Roux is a more honest romantic figure, a mysterious and suave gypsy who exists simply to sweep Juiette Binoche off her feet. It's a simple role and it's barely a character, but Depp turns the charm up to 11. Who wouldn't want to spend the rest of their life with this guy?

21. Mort Rainey (Secret Window)

On paper, there is almost nothing special about troubled author Mort Rainey, a fairly standard character in a fairly standard thriller. But Depp finds a handful of eccentric touches and tics that actually enliven him rather than make him feel like a joke. Depp belongs to a handful of actors who can make a shaggy-haired weirdo wandering around his house eating chips into reasonably compelling viewing.

20. John Wilmot (The Libertine)

Depp's Jon Wilmot opens the film by informing the audience that they won't like him and that he's a despicable man, but his charm cuts straight through the viciousness and perversity. Yeah, Depp plays a total bastard, but he's the kind of bastard we like spending time with.

19. Sam (Benny and Joon)

If there were ever a prime example of the "manic pixie dream guy," Sam would be it. There's not very much depth to this character, but it's hard not to admire Depp's comedic chops, especially when he's emulating the vaudevillian physical comedy of silent-era movie stars. It's a skillful and amusing performance, but one that's just begging for a little meat on its bone.


18. James Barrie (Finding Neverland)

It's unusual for Depp to play generally decent guys whose main flaws involve caring too much, but Depp shows off his rare straight and sweet side, transforming Peter Pan creator James Barrie into something an interesting character. In fact, Depp is pretty much the only good thing about this overly sentimental film, which may make his performance look far better than it actually is.

17. Don Juan (Don Juan DeMarco)

Like Cry-Baby and Roux, Don Juan is a character who relies exclusively on the fact that Depp is a preposterously good-looking man with a charm that is as mysterious as it is intoxicating. The fact that Depp's Spanish-accented master lover may very well be a genuine nutcase lends the performance an edge lacking in his other pretty boy performances.

16. Willy Wonka (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

You have to give Depp credit for not simply doing a Gene Wilder impersonation, but his Willy Wonka does take some getting used to. One part Michael Jackson and one part '70s game show host, this updated take on the iconic chocolatier is such a strange mixture of ideas and quirks that you can't help but wonder how and why Depp makes the choices that he does. This weird (and weirdly innocent) take still divides fans, but it's audaciousness makes it noteworthy.


15. George Jung (Blow)

Depp playing a criminal? Okay. Depp playing a suave criminal with a great wardrobe? Check. Depp playing a suave criminal with a great wardrobe who runs drugs for Pablo Escobar in the '80s? Check! This may be one of the least showy characters Depp has played, but his automatic otherworldliness does wonders for what could have been a stock crime character.

14. Barnabas Collins (Dark Shadows)

Depp's performance as immortal vampire-out-of-time Barnabas Collins is the kind that seemingly demands to go over-the-top, so it's strange that he chooses to play him with a shocking amount of restraint. It's still a big performance, but it's one that finds its wackiness in small details instead of costumes, props and stupid hats. Depp feels like a perfectly tuned instrument in a larger orchestra, his oddities adding, rather than distracting, from the whole.

13. Dean Corso (The Ninth Gate)

Dean Corso is one of the great unsung Depp characters, as well as one of the great deadpan comic performances of his career. Ostensibly the main character in a supernatural thriller, Corso's quest to authenticate a Satanic text becomes increasingly chaotic and his icy, detached nature steadily slides into quietly hilarious desperation. It's a performance compelling enough to make antique book collecting seem fascinating.

12. Paul Kemp (The Rum Diary)

Depp has played alter egos on his friend and hero Hunter S. Thompson twice in his career; once as a cartoon and once as a real guy. Paul Kemp is the latter. Although he adopts Thompson's distinct cadence, Depp throws away many of the cliches associated with the late "gonzo" journalist, whittling away at the legend until only a man remains. The film may be scattershot, but Depp's performance is one of his best and most measured in recent years.

11. Sweeney Tood (Sweeney Todd)

Depp can't sing and really doesn't have much business starring in a musical, and yet he somehow manages to make Sweeney Todd work. He may not sing particularly well, but he sings with menace and conviction, creating a simmering and low-key take on the Demon Barber of Fleet Street that is entirely his own. A properly trained singer would do better at hitting the notes, but they wouldn't be any better at portraying Sweeney's bloodthirsty rage.


10. Sheldon Sands (Once Upon a Time in Mexico)

CIA Agent Sheldon Sands may be a secondary lead, but he steals the film from actual lead Antonio Banderas and makes it look easy. A sleazy government operative with a vast collection of tacky tourist T-shirts, Depp makes his transformation from trashy minor villain to blinded, disgraced and vengeful assassin in a journey worth experiencing. 

9. Ichabod Crane (Sleepy Hollow)

There are few cinematic heroes quite like Depp's take on Ichabod Crane. An intellectual and a coward, he's a cop with a mind for modern police work living in a superstitious age, and faced with a malevolent supernatural threat. Depp's choice to play him effeminate and meek is terrific, instantly separating him from virtually every one of his action-hero contemporaries. It's refreshing to see a horror adventure where the hero is just as terrified of the monster he's hunting as we would be.

8. William Blake (Dead Man)

Depp spends much of this film bleeding out from a bullet in his chest, but he's the compelling center around which the film's cast of increasingly insane and dangerous characters orbit. It's a rare case of Depp playing a reactionary character and it looks good on him.

7. John Dillinger (Public Enemies)

Depp had to become a true movie star before he could play legendary gangster John Dillinger. Director Michael Mann harasses his leading man's trademark charm, cuts out every eccentric tic and distils Depp down to his essence, resulting in a performance that's as old fashioned as it is frightening. Depp's Dillinger is a celebrity with a license to kill, an American James Bond on the wrong side of the law. This is terrific and underrated work.

6. Captain Jack Sparrow (The Pirates of the Caribbean Series)

There's a reason Captain Jack Sparrow elevated Depp to superstardom. Eleven years after the character debuted, he's still one of the weirdest to headline a blockbuster franchise, and yet many of Depp's choices still feel fresh and inspired. Jack may have worn out his welcome after three sequels, but there's no denying the impact the character had on the Hollywood landscape. Lightning only strikes pop culture like this once a generation or so.


5. Gilbert Grape (What's Eating Gilbert Grape)

Gilbert Grape is one of Depp's most generous performances. He may play the lead role, but he lets his costars share the spotlight with him in every scene. There's a reason Leonardo DiCaprio's Arnie Grape snagged an Oscar nomination -- the character works because Depp provides a counterpoint to his theatricality. In an age where Depp is most known for his extravagance, a quiet and personal work that anchors a movie and doesn't show off is a refreshing change of pace.

4. Edward Scissorhands (Edward Scissorhands)

Although Edward Scissorhands was one of Depp's first major roles, it feels like a microcosm of everything he has done since. Saying more with his eyes and body language than most actors could accomplish with a dozen monologues, he brings heartbreaking pathos to a surreal fantasy world and humanity to an unfinished android. At his best, Depp can take the unreal and bring it down to earth, find reality in the fantastic and make us sympathize with the impossible. That's Edward Scissorhands in a nutshell.


3. Raoul Duke (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

Depp has always been a funny actor, but Raoul Duke is his comedy masterpiece. An exaggerated riff on Hunter S. Thompson, Duke is a disillusioned madman powered by drugs and alcohol, a symbol of the '60s who won't go down without a fight. The site of of his last, debauched stand against Nixon's America takes place in a nightmarish Las Vegas, where things get started with hallucinations of gigantic lizards and only get worse from there. Although Depp brings surprising depth to the character in the final stretch of the film, the bulk of it is a showcase for his astonishing physical comedy. There's an alternate universe where he had Jim Carrey's career.


2. Joseph Pistone/Donnie Brasco (Donnie Brasco)

The role of undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone has few frills. It's a simple, straightforward character, the cinematic equivalent of meat and potatoes. But that's why it's such a refreshing turn for Depp, who tackles the role with the subtly and quiet ferocity of a young Al Pacino (which is hugely appropriate since an older Pacino costars in the film). This is a '70s character who escaped to the '90s and one of the best to ever appear in a mafia movie. This role is why you should be excited to see Depp in the upcoming crime film Black Mass.


1. Edward D. Wood Jr. (Ed Wood)

Depp's take on infamous B-movie filmmaker Edward D. Wood Jr. isn't just the best performance of his career, it's one of the best performances of all time. It would be easy to mock the man who made many of the worst movies of all time, but Depp plays him as the ultimate optimist, a good-natured, warm-hearted guy whose infinite reserves of enthusiasm cloud his utter lack of talent. A World War II veteran, transvestite, genre-movie buff, avid learner, great friend and tortured artist, Ed Wood is a hero for every kind of outcast. This may be the least cynical performance of all time.

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