Chris Nashawaty and Tim Carvell
December 26, 2003 AT 05:00 AM EST

Johnny Depp is one of our Entertainers of the Year

Doesn’t Johnny Depp know anything? Doesn’t he know that there are two types of performers — actors and stars — and that he belongs to the former category? Actors appear in independent, impenetrable movies as dark, tortured geniuses. They are adored by critics and shunned by audiences. They live in France. They do not — repeat, do not — show up in movies with the name ”Bruckheimer” in the credits. Especially not if that movie is based on a Disney theme-park ride.

And yet there Johnny Depp was, starring in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl — and, almost as bizarre, he seemed to be having the time of his life. Depp’s previous performances had a certain remoteness, but in Pirates he let audiences in on the fun. His blurry, slurry Jack Sparrow was an effeminate, self-dramatizing lush, but Depp played him with a wink, as if to say, ”Can you believe they’re letting me get away with this?”

They almost didn’t, of course: Some Disney executives tried to rein in his performance. Those same executives called to thank him as the film blew past $300 million at the domestic box office, becoming the year’s most unexpected hit. ”I’ve felt for years that the moviegoing audience has been underestimated,” Depp says. ”So with Pirates, it felt good to get letters and phone calls from certain Disney executives who said, ‘You were right, I was wrong.”’ The role transformed Depp into a box office draw for the first time in his career. His follow-up film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, opened with $23.4 million — almost as much as its prequel Desperado made in its whole run.

As both performances showed, Depp seems at ease with characters with a flair for the dramatic and bizarre; at one point in Mexico, he has his alter ego, the villainous CIA agent Sands, lapse into an impersonation of Marlon Brando for no discernible reason. Asked to explain, Depp says that it was ”just another aria of weirdness.” This year, those arias became music to moviegoers’ ears.

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