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Deep Depp

October 5, 2010

by John Farr

This week, Reel 13 airs the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp cult hit, Edward Scissorhands. Here’s a look, courtesy John Farr, at three of Johnny Depp’s unheralded leading performances.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993)

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In small-town Endora, young Gilbert Grape (Johnny Depp) is the de facto household head, caring for his retarded brother Arnie (Leonardo DiCaprio), endlessly mortified teen sister, Ellen (Mary Kate Schellhardt), and 500-lb. widowed mother (Darlene Cates), who hasn’t left the house since Gilbert’s dad hanged himself. Gilbert constantly negotiates a flurry of demands without fail, but when a well-traveled gal named Becky (Juliette Lewis) rolls into town with her grandmother, Gilbert gets his first taste of freedom.


Adapted by Peter Hedges from his novel, Hallstrom’s endearing, offbeat drama features soulful heartthrob Depp as a fatherless young man with lots of worries and little time for his own happiness. Oscar nominee DiCaprio gives a remarkably tender performance as Arnie, a mentally challenged kid who’s difficult to deal with but impossible not to love. Hallstrom develops the quirkier aspects of Hedges’s story-including Gilbert’s involvement with a lonely wife and a worldly newcomer-with a light comic touch. Excellent support from Lewis, John C. Reilly, Crispin Glover, and nonactress Cates kicks things up a notch. Beneath its unusual skin, this “Grape” is quite sweet.

Ed Wood (1994)

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Fledgling LA director Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) has a perverse passion for putting on god-awful plays featuring a company of outcasts and nobodies – like transvestite-to-be Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray) and Ed’s tolerant girlfriend, Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker). Undaunted by failure, Wood – a secret cross-dresser himsel f -finally gets a shot at directing a low-budget film for B-movie producer George Weiss (Mike Starr). But Wood’s biggest boost comes when he meets and befriends his idol, Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), now an aging, drug-addicted has-been.


This suitably quirky, beautifully acted homage to real-life B-movie hack Ed Wood, creator of “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and other bizarre turkeys, could have played the facts of his strange life strictly for laughs. Instead, Burton portrays this oddball visionary with extraordinary warmth and kindred sympathy, in effect honoring the outlandishly awful movies he made. Depp is marvelous in the lead role, giving Wood a bit of mad naivete as he fumbles his way through Hollywood’s lower depths. And Landau’s crabby performance as the ailing, morphine-addled Lugosi won him an Oscar. Filmed in glorious black-and-white, “Ed Wood” is a droll, endearing tribute to an artless wonder.

Finding Neverland (2004)

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Married Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp), meets a widow, Sylvia Davies (Kate Winslet), with four young boys he becomes very attached to, and is inspired to write “Peter Pan,” an ode to everlasting youth that would become a children’s classic. But Barrie’s efforts to produce the play at the Duke of York’s theater in London are fraught with difficulty, even as his love for the Davies clan continues to grow.


Man-child Depp is perfectly cast in this endearing biopic about Barrie’s relationship with the family who inspired his greatest and most beloved work, and his comely co-star, Kate Winslet, fits the bill just as nicely. Depp has always taken eccentric roles, but here he plays the real-life writer with authentic human warmth. Forster allows us to see the world as Barrie does, depicting not just the emotional pangs (grief and the passing of loved ones is a theme in his life) but the flights of fancy soaring in his imagination, and the effect is charming. See this one with the kids, or just for your own enchantment.

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  • View Comments
  • rayban

    Johnny Depp is such a great artist, and I especially like him in really “outre” roles like “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory”. But, when he’s not being “outre”, he can still be effective like he was in “Donnie Brasco” and “Secret Window”.

  • Nikki

    My favorite Depp role is Roux in “Chocolat.” He’s so completely into the character that you don’t recognize him until the credits roll.

  • Theresa

    Depp is truly the best actor. His ability to portray so many different characters is outstanding. Johnny is the one who decides which films he is willing to be a part of; this I admire about him. He chooses wisely in the best interst of his children and girl. My favorite movie is actually Gilbert Grape. I can definitely relate to all of the emotions he went through at the time of filming the movie, both within the story and within his personal life.