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Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Johnny Depp

@Russellisation

There was a good period of time in the late 1990s and early years of the new millennium where there was no bigger name in Hollywood than Johnny Depp. With gruff good looks and an undeniable charm, Depp took to the industry with natural talent, elevating each and every film he appeared in, from the small independent dramas to the big-budget blockbusters that would make him a household name. 

A character actor who would transform mainstream cinema, Depp made Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise into a cinematic icon, whilst working with Tim Burton to create alluring screen roles, time and time again. Although the momentum of his career slowly eased in the first decade of the new century, Depp has continued to be a public figure for better and for worse. 

Having recently disembarked from a defamation lawsuit with his ex-wife Amber Heard, coming out on top after an emotional trial, the actor is now looking to get his career back on track. Having worked with the likes of Oliver Stone, Wes Craven, Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch and John Waters, it’s easy to forget just how prolific the actor’s career has been.

From his debut to his most recent success, let’s take a look back at the filmography of Johnny Depp through his six most definitive films. 

Johnny Depp’s six definitive films:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

An eager musician in his youth, Depp moved to LA at the age of 20 with the ambition of taking California by storm. Shortly after they moved, however, the band broke up and the young musician was left without a motive. This was until he was introduced to Nicolas Cage, with the duo becoming good friends, with the iconic Rumble Fish actor helping Depp to get his first audition for Wes Craven’s classic horror A Nightmare on Elm Street

With no acting experience, Depp found himself in one of the most influential films of the 1980s almost by mistake, becoming a key character in part thanks to his good looks. 

Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990)

With fate firmly on his side, Depp steadily climbed the Hollywood ladder, taking a starring role in the 1985 comedy Private Resort, before landing a supporting role in the iconic Vietnam war movie Platoon by Oliver Stone. Almost by coincidence, Depp had become a teenage heartthrob during the late 1980s, starring in the Fox TV show 21 Jump Street that received great commercial acclaim. 

A starring role in John Waters’ cult favourite Cry-Baby followed, as well as a challenging role in his very first collaboration with the gothic filmmaker Tim Burton in Edward Scissorhands. A peculiar film that featured Depp as a subversive take on a horror archetype, Edward Scissorhands went on to become a phenomenal success, with the actor’s appearance alongside Winona Ryder and Dianne Wiest catapulting him to superstardom. 

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

As an established industry name, Depp was still eager to experiment in his early career, lending his acting abilities to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 1993, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man in 1995 and the crime drama Donnie Brasco in 1997. Rarely failing to make a significant cultural impact, it was the release of the Terry Gilliam film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson that really got Hollywood talking. 

Allowing Depp to fully embrace his weird side, Thompson’s drug-fuelled road trip would be the perfect vehicle for the actor to show off what he could do, with his performance in the 1998 cult classic informing his most iconic character of all time…

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinski, 2003)

As original cinematic characters go, Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow is certainly one of the most iconic, channelling all of his unique eccentricities to bring the manic pirate to life in Disney’s enthralling live-action adventure flick. Earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance, Depp has previously reported that he based the character on The Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as well as the cartoon skunk Pepé Le Pew. 

Bringing a massive amount to the Disney movie, Jack Sparrow would become a figurehead of the movie studio, inspiring four sequels each of which billing Johnny Depp as the leading man. 

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Tim Burton, 2007)

It was in this period that the identity of Johnny Depp was truly monetised, with the actor becoming recognised as a character actor capable of taking on any Hollywood role. Appearing as Willy Wonka in Tim Burton’s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005, Depp also flourished in his Jack Sparrow character in two sequels, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End in 2006 and 2007, respectively. 

Having previously worked with Depp five times by this time, Tim Burton had become something of a creative muse for the actor, with the pair once again collaborating in 2007 for the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Once again playing an elaborate character with a large screen presence, Depp proved that he could play a serious character and also put on a thrilling performance, being nominated for an Academy Award for the third time.

Minamata (Andrew Levitas, 2020)

It’s no secret that Depp’s career hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing in recent years, becoming entangled in a bitter defamation case with his ex-wife Amber Heard at the start of 2022. With his popularity decreasing before this event, experiencing consistent box-office failures in 2010s The Tourist, 2011s The Rum Diary and 2013s The Lone Ranger, Depp’s private life and public career collided in 2018 with the controversial release of Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. 

With many decrying the actor’s involvement in the Harry Potter series due to accusations of assault from Amber Heard, he was removed from the project and became blacklisted from Hollywood as a result. Barely working in the industry since, it wasn’t until the release of Minamata in 2020 that the actor once again enjoyed a morsel of success, with his performance being celebrated in the middle of a mediocre project. 

Showing that he was still indeed capable of transforming into a character and putting on a rousing performance, Minamata could be seen as a critical film of Depp’s career, deciding which way his Hollywood life could take in the coming future.