If film actors are fortunate, in the course of their careers, they’ll deliver several choice performances, or even several moments within those performances, that become, to indulge in a cliche, iconic. They’re the yardsticks by which we measure everything else that they do. Think of Brando, and really just three or four films come to mind: A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, The Godfather…and maybe Apocalypse Now, although the last one is doubtful. Still, from that shortlist of work, we define Brando as the benchmark actor of his generation.
You can easily name other actors who, even with a fine, expansive body of work under their belts, are linked in our minds with a few signature efforts. Robert De Niro: Raging Bull, GoodFellas, and any other Scorcese film. Jack Nicholson: Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and A Few Good Men. Dustin Hoffman: The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Rain Man. One could easily make a bar game out of this, trading competitive triads of performances, with loser picking up the tab. A more engaging alternative to poker dice.
Of course, picking out three films for the most iconic names isn’t that difficult. For supporting players, it’s more of a challenge. Joe Pesci, for example, who came to the attention of American film audiences largely due to brilliant casting by Martin Scorcese (apparently, De Niro had spotted him initially). Pesci was perfect as Jake LaMotta’s brother in Raging Bull. But his performance in GoodFellas was on another level. And the defining scene of the performance…well I don’t think I really even need mention it. “I amuse you?” was the signature line in a scene that Pesci improvised. And it’s the kind of scene that younger actors, who grew up watching films helmed by the likes of Martin Scorcese and Francis Ford Coppola, can only dream of.
Lo and behold, Johnny Depp, whom I have come to grudgingly respect over the years, mostly because of his willingness to take on quirky roles, has found his Joe Pesci moment. In the new film Black Mass, which is based on the true crime book of the same title, Depp plays real life thug Whitey Bulger. This is the sort of role that De Niro or Pacino would have played 30 years ago. Unfortunately, those men haven’t found the secret to eternal youth, and now supporting roles as geriatric wiseguys or cranky fathers-in-law. But Depp is willing to attempt to fill those very large wiseguy shoes. Note in the trailer below how he even has his own Joe Pesci type moment in the new film. In a few brief moments, he travels an arc from flattering his dinner host, to making the man fear for his life, to letting him know he was only being toyed with…kind of. Check it out.