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Strange Arcs: Johnny Depp

The legendary actor was all over the place during this three-film stretch.

Johnny Depp
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    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.

    —Adriane Neuenschwander
    Staff Writer

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    Benny & Joon

    Benny-Joon-3-benny-and-joon-27775614-1434-936

    Year: 1993

    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.

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    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?

    WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE

    Year: 1993

    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.

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    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

    Ed Wood

    ed wood johnny depp Strange Arcs: Johnny Depp

    Year: 1994

    Director: Tim Burton

    Co-stars: Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Patricia Arquette, Jeffrey Jones, Bill Murray

    Tagline: Struggling filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr. sets out to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Unfortunately, his talent doesn’t match his ambition, and he winds up making one of the worst movies of all time, Plan 9 from Outer Space.

    Why It’s a Departure: In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Johnny was the straight man surrounded by a cast of off-the-wall characters. This time, he’s the center of his own bizarre universe. He trades in the subtlety and relatability of Gilbert Grape for a much broader performance defined by quirks. Everything about Ed Wood is out of the ordinary, from his childlike naiveté and enthusiasm to his obsession with angora. Yet despite the cartoonish behavior, Depp still allows Ed’s humanity to shine through. Ed Wood is a character that elicits laughter and sympathy in equal measure.

    Most Eccentric Moment: During the wrap party for Bride of the Monster, Ed performs a celebratory belly dance for the crew in a meat locker. Dressed in a veil, sari, and bustier, he twirls around the set, seducing Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) with a silk scarf and pausing to let a fortune teller (Jeffrey Jones) shove a dollar down his pants. The whole shebang ends with Ed ripping off the veil to reveal a goofy smile, which is made all the more jarring because his dentures have been removed.

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    Signature Scene: In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Ed Wood storms off the set of Plan 9 dressed in drag and frustrated that his producers are questioning his directorial choices. He flees to a bar, where he spies his hero, Orson Welles, across the room. Johnny Depp performs a 180-degree tonal shift here, going from frenetic and ridiculous to calm and apprehensive. There’s even a nice moment where Ed glances into the bar’s mirror and has a rare moment of self-awareness. He realizes how silly his getup looks to others, so he quickly removes his blonde wig before mustering up the courage to approach Orson. The two directors chat like equals, even though Ed’s angora sweater and relative lack of talent puts him at a distinct disadvantage. Finally, inspired by his conversation with Orson, Ed goes back to the set to finish his masterpiece. —Adriane Neuenschwander

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