Strange Arcs is a new feature in which our film staff explore the unlikely, unusual, and downright bizarre career arcs of some of our favorite film industry mainstays.
Johnny Depp has had an eclectic career, to say the least. He’s been wowing and confusing audiences for just over three decades now, popping up in every genre from horror films (Nightmare on Elm Street) to animated westerns (Rango) to comedies like his newest release, Mordecai. In addition to the genre-hopping, his career has also been defined by an oddball mix of high and low art. He manages to successfully churn out box-office bait like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Tourist alongside smaller indie films such as Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And, of course, there are all the cult hits with long-time collaborator Tim Burton, who, at his best, creates worlds that allow Depp to disappear into character, to become an outsider, to camouflage those matinee-idol good looks and let his freak flag fly.
To honor Mr. Depp’s bizarre cinematic journey, Consequence of Sound has decided to explore one of his strangest career arcs. These three consecutive roles in his filmography highlight just a few of the actor’s unexpected choices and unique characterizations. They showcase his versatility as a performer and his exceptional ability to walk that delicate line separating realism from absurdism. If this arc proves anything, it’s that you just can’t pin ol’ Johnny down.
Benny & Joon
Director: Jeremiah Chechik
Co-stars: Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn, Julianne Moore
Tagline: An eccentric drifter who idolizes Buster Keaton moves in with a mentally ill woman, Joon, and her older brother, Benny.
Why It’s a Departure: Depp had played offbeat before this role, most notably as the title characters in 1990’s one-two-punch of Cry-Baby and Edward Scissorhands, but tackling Sam was an altogether different exercise. Here Depp plays an oddball who is grounded in reality, not in some heightened fantasy world like the satirical James Dean-Danny Zuko hybrid of Cry-Baby or the sweet fairytale-Frankenstein creation of Edward. Still, the real world doesn’t seem to agree with this guy, either. Sam prefers to live in an alternate timeframe (Keaton’s 1920s heyday, presumably, in both silent movie-era costume and behavior) and is someone who, in his avoidance of reality and misinterpretation of social cues, wouldn’t be a stretch to diagnose as being on the autism spectrum. Joon has an unspecified mental illness as well, and watching Sam interact with her — connecting on a level that few others outside of their inverted world can access or even understand, much less tolerate — is a revelation, providing many of the film’s most charming and touching moments.
Most Eccentric Moment: Although it’s tough to pick just one (Sam’s introduction via spinning hubcab? The hat pickup routine in the park? The slow-motion shot of Sam all doe-eyed, swinging outside Joon’s hospital window? Don’t make me choose!), I will admit to having a favorite: the ironing of grilled cheese sandwiches.
Signature Scene: Sam’s diner dance, culminating in a spontaneous, go-for-broke performance of Julianne Moore’s character’s climactic death scene in a B-horror movie. —Leah Pickett
What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
Director: Lasse Hallström
Co-stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Juliette Lewis, Darlene Cates
Tagline: Gilbert struggles to care for his mentally retarded brother and obese mother, enters into an affair with an older housewife, and opens up to a new love that comes to his small town.
Why it’s a Departure: Depp rarely plays “straight” characters, in the sense that they are not at least somewhat quirky or peculiar in their mannerisms. Stereotypically zany Tim Burton roles aside, think Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Raoul Duke in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Guy Lapointe in last year’s Tusk: all a bunch of weirdos. And while Depp has never been nor will ever be normcore — early 21 Jump Street pin-up days notwithstanding — Gilbert Grape marks the closest that Depp has come to playing a “normal” guy with everyday problems and minimal, if any, affectation. His Gilbert is a soft-spoken, greasy-haired townie, someone who wouldn’t look out of place bagging groceries at the local Piggy Wiggly and keeping mostly to himself, but Depp accomplishes the tricky feat of elevating what could have been a boring character into a driving, complex, and empathetic one.
Most Eccentric Moment: This time, the characters that surround Gilbert provide most of the eccentricity, particularly his brother Arnie (DiCaprio), mother Bonnie (Cates), and love interest Becky (Lewis), and they do their parts to crack his stoicism bit by bit. One such moment comes when Gilbert is trying to talk Arnie down from a water tower. Gilbert’s deep love for his brother is laid bare in the tenderness he shows him, and eventually, playfulness, as he gives in to the eccentricities of this young man who will stay a child forever, while he cannot.
Signature Scene: When Gilbert tells Bonnie that he isn’t ashamed of her. “You’re no joke, Mama.” Ugh, gets me every time. –Leah Pickett