Johnny Depp is easily the silver-screen idol for women (and men) young and old. His on-screen personae and leading-man charisma are remarkable for their lack of definition and comfort---from making you cringe as the syphilis-afflicted Earl of Rochester in The Libertine, to making knees weak in the romantic drama Chocolat. His work from the last decade has played to younger audiences, also creating that cross-generational appeal.
Depp makes quirky choices, but his quirkiness is often expressed under the rubric of conventional storytelling: he's a gypsy musician in Chocolat, and plays writer J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan, in the true story Finding Neverland. While intense likeability is a common thread among all his sympathetic and relatable heroes, Depp informs his darker characters with compelling tics as well. With Public Enemies coming out this week, where Depp portrays real-life bank-robber John Dillinger, a discussion of the qualities that inform some of his more-recent characters is timely.
In true Depp fashion, his bad guys are never cut and dry. They are never unambiguously evil: They all have their reasons for wrong-doing. The titular Sweeney Todd, from Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, vents his murderous rage on the throats of his barbershop customers after a revenge scheme against the corrupt Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) fails, and he waits for another chance to finish him off. Depp never sang publicly before this musical (that wasn't his voice in Cry-Baby) and acquits himself well to the task. It's another example of Depp stepping outside the boundaries---not only of his acting experience, but within the genre itself. Sweeney Todd turns the relentlessly chipper tone of recent musicals like Mamma Mia and Hairspray on its ear with Todd's giddy revelling in gore and macabre stylization.
Depp grabbed the mantle of rogue pirate by the throat in the Pirates of the Caribbean pictures, earning an Oscar nomination for his outrageous and unexpected performance (even for Depp) as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl. While not the outright villain of the piece, Sparrow isn't the hero either; he's usually too drunk or in pursuit of his raggedy pirate ship to be trusted to act altruistically.
Famous are the stories of Disney chief Michael Eisner disliking the performance for its flamboyance---he felt that Depp had too many gold teeth in his make-up---and failing to anticipate the delight audience would take in the character. There is nothing uniquely quirky in Pirates---Orlando Bloom is an Errol Flynn-type dashing hero and Keira Knightley is a spunky damsel in distress---but Depp parlays his leading-man charisma and offbeat charm into a film combining blockbuster momentum with surprising and original performances from an overall great cast.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was a curious experience, not only for its searing portrayal of factory practices that flout various safety and labour standards, but also for the queasy resemblance Depp's Wonka has to the now-late Michael Jackson, whose molestation trial was winding down at the film's release in 2005. Roger Ebert wrote, "Can anyone look at Willy Wonka and not think of Michael Jackson? Consider the reclusive lifestyle, the fetishes of wardrobe and accessories, the elaborate playground built by an adult for the child inside. What's going on here?" Though Depp insisted there was no influence of Jackson in his performance, the poor timing hijacked his intention.
Of John Dillinger, Depp has stated that he feels the "'30s bank robber was a hero for his time." He told Entertainment Weekly: "Some people might disagree, but I think he was a real-life Robin Hood," indicating that this is another character informed by unlikely choices. Public Enemies is R-rated and, therefore, not skewed toward the same broad audiences that lapped up the Pirates movies. But Dillinger, the character, fits perfectly in Depp's oddball repertoire: a career that has room for Edward Scissorhands, Donnie Brasco and Hunter S. Thompson.