Geoffrey Rush has hailed him as “one of the great character actors of our time, trapped in a leading man’s body” and whether you love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Johnny Depp has cashed in some of the most unique and memorable performances of the last 30 or so years. From Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, and Donnie Brasco right through to Captain Jack Sparrow, Willy Wonka and Sweeny Todd — there’s no shortage of the irreverent and iconic. These are Johnny Depp’s five best performances, ranked.
5. Donnie Brasco in Donnie Brasco (1997)
Directed by Mike Newell and based on a true story (‘Donnie Brasco: My Undercover Life in the Mafia’), Donnie Brasco represents the first real instance where Depp plays a straight shooting, no nonsense character on the big screen.
Depp’s character, Joe Pistone, infiltrates the New York mafia under the guise of Donnie Brasco where he befriends Lefty Ruggiero (Al Pacino) and works undercover to expose mafia leader Sonny Black (Michael Madsen).
It is through the Depp/Pacino on-screen dynamic that this film separates itself from simply being another cliched 90s gangster, mafia type ordeal. Pacino plays a much more heartfelt character while channelling all the qualities (loud voice, edgy movements, alluring eyes) that have underpinned his performances prior.
Depp compliments Pacino’s supporting role by matching him in those qualities while also proving that he has more reach as an actor should he be offered the right role to display it. He plays the anxiousness of this character so effectively and you can sense the difficulty of his characters position as an informant through this anxiousness.
4. Ed Wood in Ed Wood (1994)
The first of two Tim Burton collaborations on this list, Ed Wood is perhaps best known for Martin Landau’s Oscar winning support performance, but Johnny Depp’s portrayal as the titular cult classic filmmaker was just as profound.
Like the real Edward Wood, Depp has certain eccentricities that can come across as quite peculiar, and they have allowed him to play strange characters, like Wood, on-screen in ways that other actors would not have. Depp’s casting as Wood can be considered a “perfect fit” by Richard Dyer’s work on Star Theory, as his star image fits perfectly with all the traits of the character, and he leans into the strangeness of Tim Burton’s own unique vision to bring the character to life.
In this way, Depp’s performance as Ed Wood is the first real instance where the actor finds a balance between the humorous characteristics he would later inject into his performances to a greater extent, as well as the more heightened moments of ecstaticity.
3. John Dillinger in Public Enemies (2009)
Depp’s performance as the notorious American gangster/outlaw John Dillinger is perhaps the most contentious on this list. That might be due to the film in question, with Public Enemies being one of Michael Mann’s less layered works compared to say Heat (1995) or Collateral (2004), but it works because Mann is able to get the best out of his performers.
John Dillinger was evidently quite a misunderstood man by Mann’s depiction as he was more interested in taking from the state rather than from regular folk and found a certain connection to the people, and they to him. Depp can be seen as quite a misunderstood figure as well if not for his really uncanny demeanour, then definitely for the way he approaches his work and collaborations.
His performance as Dillinger is quite a strong one in that sense and it also represents a return to performances and films more akin to Donnie Brasco and a later mafia-esque film in Black Mass (2015).
2. Edward Scissorhands in Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Edward Scissorhands is easily one of Depp’s best performances due to how well the actor brings Tim Burton’s interest in outsiders and outcasts to light. Burton has never been shy on exploring characters who separate themselves from the public eye (like in his Batman films) or characters immersed in strange, gothic settings (like in 1988’s Beetlejuice).
A large reason why films like Edward Scissorhands and Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) work is because the synergy between Depp and Burton allows them to get to the heart of why these characters are the way they are.
There’s no doubt that Burton has nurtured Depp’s performances in ways other directors haven’t, but it’s in that very strangeness where Depp is at his best and can convince you that there could well be someone like Edward Scissorhands (figuratively speaking) out there. This performance is one of his best due to how well he uses his facial expressions, physicality and gestures, as the character rarely (if ever) actually speaks.
1. Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean (2003-2017)
It wouldn’t be a ‘best performances by Johnny Depp list’ without the iconic Captain Jack Sparrow. Aside from the fact that Gore Verbinski’s original Pirates trilogy is one of the most audacious and well worked in cinema history, it simply wouldn’t be as memorable without Depp’s very individualised performance as Captain Jack Sparrow.
Depp not only imbued Sparrow with his own signature idiosyncrasies and oddness, but he also drove a majority of the creative choices around the character. From the Pepé Le Pew and Keith Richards inspired look/feel, to the very specifics of how he walked and talked — this character went against the grain of expectation that Disney had initially wanted.
Depp subverted the image of how pirates historically acted and carried themselves by playing the role in a very caricature like manner. He injected Sparrow with a certain flamboyance courtesy of his gestures, and gave him a drunken demeanour even when Sparrow was at his most sober. Depp went as far as to suggest that the character should walk normally when he is on the ship, while being off-kilter and erratic when on land.
All of these choices alongside the bravado with which Depp delivered them through his performative toolkit are what gave the Pirates franchise such clear bearings. There is no Pirates of the Caribbean without Jack Sparrow and there is no Jack Sparrow without Johnny Depp.
Notable omissions: Sweeny Todd in Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), William Blake in Dead Man (1995), and Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999).