Johnny Depp couldn't deliver a bad performance if he tried, and the fact that he continues to work with Tim Burton suggests that he's trying very, very hard (I'd apologize for snarking at an easy target, but 'Alice in Wonderland' won two Oscars on Sunday, which has to go down as the worst cinematic injustice since 'The Wolfman' won an Oscar about four minutes earlier). Depp is an irrepressible talent who remains eminently watchable even in some truly unwatchable films, and if the early buzz on Gore Verbinski's 'Rango' is to be trusted it would seem as if his unique charms have made the leap from hobo-chic human to leathery lizard intact. The mumbling goateed wonder has time and time again unearthed depths from characters that seemed completely bereft of such things, his complex and complete portrayals of paper-thin parts like Jack Sparrow and Ichabod Crane have meant the difference between his work being iconic rather than merely effective.
Also, people want to have sex with him. Even when he played an unwashed alcoholic pirate or a deranged torturer of children, people still wanted to have sex with him. Even when he had giant scissors for hands or suffered from the worst case of Syphilis the cinema has ever known ('The Libertine'), people still wanted to have sex with him. And yet even though in his very best role Depp's handsomeness was allowed to go unimpeded throughout almost the entire film, you seldom hear people talk about how much they want to get it on with 'Ed Wood.'
There's a thin line between an actor "making a choice" and "turning a role into a total caricature," and it's a line that Johnny Depp knows how to walk as well as any actor out there. Many of his more recent parts haven't afforded him the chance to find that balance, but Ed Wood -- fondly known as the worst director to ever make a movie -- offered Depp his ultimate challenge.
All Ed Wood wanted to do was be like his hero Orson Welles and make motion pictures. He wasn't exactly the most talented guy out there, but what he lacked in skill he more than compensated for in tenacity, enthusiasm, and a bubbly can-do attitude. In fact, Wood was so relentlessly spirited and optimistic that he was essentially able to will his way into film history. The man behind ecstatically terrible movies like 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' and 'Glen or Glenda' is often remembered as something as a laughingstock, but Tim Burton's biopic argues that Wood was a hero and a visionary in his own right -- that Depp was able to split the difference remains the masterstroke of his career.
Depp inhabits Ed Wood like a jump scare. In other words, Depp understands that Wood was -- at first blush -- a rather silly guy, and he wants you to laugh at him. He wants you to laugh at him early and laugh at him hard, to laugh at his affected high-pitched voice and his giddy dreams and the sad fact that he's dating someone who looks alarmingly like Carrie Bradshaw. Depp wants you to get it all out of your system in the first 10 minutes so that you can spend the 110 that follow freed from the biases that dominate his legacy. It's an unusual introduction, but the actor ensures that the character is deprived of an incubation period and at his most earnest and forthright from the very start. As a result, by the time Wood is writing, directing, producing, and starring in his sex-change opus 'Glen or Glenda,' Depp has you comfortable with the guy he's embodying, convinced of his sincerity and rooting for Wood rather than pitying him.
The most critical element of Depp's performance might be that he never forgets the joy. Ed Wood loved what he did and he accepted who he was, and Depp and Burton both appreciate how admirable that is. Wood was a showman to the core, a notion epitomized by the scene in which he reveals to his girlfriend that he's a transvestite. Wood hustles her into his bedroom to read his long-gestating first script, and when she emerges 70-some horrifying pages later, she finds him dolled up in a wig, a lumpy bra, and her favorite fuzzy sweater. Petrified, she yells at him that the script is a thinly-veiled account of their life together, to which he responds with wide-eyed excitement, "That's why you should play the part!"
Wood so fervently believed in the movies as the most beautiful salves that money could finance, and Depp wisely plays the eponymous filmmaker as if he's living his entire life in a pitch meeting. As a result, the actor maintains a certain self-serving quality (always appropriate when playing a Hollywood icon), and so even when Wood is adamantly believing in friends that have given up on believing in themselves, you're never quite sure if his support is heartfelt, or if he's just saying what he has to in order to get his latest project in the can. Wood's relationship with faded film legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) routinely rests against that tension. Wood -- spurred by his child-like star worship -- rescues the aging actor from drug-addled obscurity, but is then quick to ignore the old man's troubles when they threaten to jeopardize his productions.
That unrest is mercifully allowed to remain unsolved, as the film remembers Wood as a man for whom everything was subservient to his dreams. The beauty of Depp's depiction is that he never judges his subject -- he believes that Wood believed, and that makes for a deeply honest portrayal. Wood responds to a financier's phone call, answering, "Really? Worst film you ever saw. Well, my next one will be better!" It's a testament to Depp's performance that he doesn't just sell that logic, he also has you reaching for your checkbook. It may not be as sexy as Depp's other roles, but vision is a beautiful thing.