Johnny Depp has always been one of those actors who’d rather — literally — disappear into the skin of his characters than coast on the fact that’s he a movie star. More often than not, Depp hides his good looks under layers of makeup and latex, be it Edward Scissorhands or the Pirates of the Caribbean films. His ability to transform made the iconic actor even better at portraying real-life characters, a trend that continues with this week’s Black Mass, where Depp is completely unrecognizable as notorious gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. But does his turn rank among his best portrayals of real people?
5. John Dillinger — Public Enemies
On first viewing, Michael Mann‘s Public Enemies felt like a drag in spots, especially when the film focused on Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) instead of Public Enemy No. 1, the charismatic gangster John Dillinger (Johnny Depp). Later viewings reveal a film that isn’t slow at all, but instead revels in the day-to-day life of a Prohibition-era bank robber like Dillinger. Depp channels his inner rock star to play the doomed gangster, who lives every day like it may be his last.
4. Joseph P. Distone/Donnie Brasco — Donnie Brasco
As Pistone, the FBI agent who spent years undercover infiltrating the mob as Donnie Brasco, Depp brings to life the strain of leading a double-life as he’s pulled deeper undercover and further from his family. Donnie Brasco is an underrated gem of a flick that features understated performances from both Depp and Al Pacino, who’s rarely been so sympathetic a character.
3. James “Whitey” Bulger — Black Mass
Black Mass is a return to form for Depp, after the disastrous Transcendence and The Lone Ranger. Depp has Bulger nailed perfectly, from his looks all the way to his mannerisms. It’s a shame the film plays out more like a greatest hits selection of Bulger’s misdeeds instead of a more cohesive narrative, but Depp, complete with insanely scary blue eyes, has never been so terrifying. Even his teeth are nasty in Black Mass. The film is just pretty good, but all of the performances, and especially Depp’s, are worth checking out.
2. Ed Wood — Ed Wood
Many argue that Ed Wood is Tim Burton‘s best film, though I’d go with Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands, but what’s undeniable is the energy and optimism Depp brings to the title character, a cross-dresser was was dubbed “the worst director of all time.” The film won Martin Landau an Oscar for his portrayal of an elderly Bela Lugosi.
1. Hunter S. Thompson — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Rum Diary
Depp went full Gonzo in Terry Gilliam‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then played a pre-Gonzo variation on Thompson in The Rum Diary. Depp went bald for the role, wore some of Thompson’s actual clothes, even did a spot-on impression of the man’s voice. The two even became such good friends that the actor was present at the spreading of the Gonzo journalist’s ashes. The Rum Diary, a fictionalized take on Thompson’s early days as a reporter in the Caribbean, is a more refined and drunken version of the man, painting a portrait of what he was like before all of the hallucinogenics.