He’s constantly chided for playing weird characters (his latest being an art dealer detective dork in Mortdecai), but Johnny Depp hasn’t cornered the market on eccentrics. In fact, he’s only been “unusual” in about half his films. The rest of the time he plays regular people placed in unusual circumstances or situations. Of course, the medium loves a good madman (or woman), and there are plenty of examples outside of Captain Jack Sparrow’s capable career arc. Here are ten of our favorites, including the movies that made them (in)famous. While almost all are imaginary, it’s no surprise that our top two are real. After all, like they say, truth is often much, much stranger than fiction. Or Johnny Depp.
He’s the ultimate non-conformist, a comedy writer who’s down on his luck because he refuses to play the games society requires. Unfortunately, he’s been left to raise his abandoned nephew, and the State of New York and its Child Services do not look kindly on an unemployed and slightly unhinged guardian. Assayed effectively by Jason Robards, Murray becomes an early example of a post-modern idealist. He lives by his unique personal rules. He reluctantly gives in when he’s threatened with the loss of the only thing he cares about.
An eccentric billionaire with money to burn, this calculated crackpot actually pays people to do what he says, pushing the theory that “everyone has a price” to its very limits. Originally, author Terry Southern set his novel in the old South. Peter Sellers was hired to play the character and the entire narrative was moved to London (with Ringo Starr playing a supporting role). The film is a fiasco of failed ideas and interesting insights, but Sellers, as usual, offers a natural nuttiness that his hard to dislike.
She owns a popular beer brand and is looking for a way to promote it. Before you can say “six pack,” this grand dame of hops and barley has set up a contest to find the most depressing sounds ever. All the musician or songwriter has to do is make her cry and the $25,000 prize money (the film is set in the Depression) will be theirs. Director Guy Madden adds to the oddball quality of this film by shooting everything in a style reminiscent of the ’20s and ’30s.
While not the focus of the film (that would be Michael J. Fox’s accidental spirit medium and the ongoing murders being committed by the ghost of a serial killer), the minute he arrives in the person of cult movie fave Jeffery Combs, Milton Dammers makes this Peter Jackson horror comedy his own. From the Hilter-like haircut to the specific focus and diction, this prototype for the FBI’s X-Files is so compelling, and so completely and utterly bonkers, that you can barely catch your breath in between his insanities.
He’s a paranoid schizophrenic who believes he is Jesus Christ. He’s also some manner of British royalty, with the death of Ralph Gurney, the 13th Earl of Gurney, leading to him becoming the 14th. The question becomes, is he really a title holder, or just a stark raving loon. In between song and dance routines and attempted cures, our hero faces friction on all sides. Things start to unravel, however, when electroshock therapy leads our subject to believe he is another Jack — Jack the Ripper.
Gene Wilder is a genius. Who else could turn a typical fairy tale character (the weird man who lives in a candy factory) into a slick combination of savvy and psycho, compassion and cruelty. His version of Roald Dahl’s famed confectioner has so many levels, so many conflicting facets, that he often threatens to implode. But because the performance is so pitch perfect, and the script gives Wilder so much to work with, Wonka turns from a tyrant to a treasure in the blink of an enchanted eye.
Okay — so he’s not a “human.” He’s an unfinished robot boy made by a reclusive scientist inventor (Vincent Price) who longed for a son he could never have. What we eventually learn is that Edward is a wiz with his cutlery appendages and has a naivete that flies directly in the face of the gossipy suburban soccer moms who embrace, then torment him. Even surrounded by such subterfuge, Edward endures. Thanks to Johnny Depp’s brilliant performance, he’s one of the most memorable cinematic oddities ever.
All he wants is a shot on a famous late night TV talk show. He even has a recreation of the set in his basement, and cardboard cut-outs of the particular players to interact with. All he has to do is avoid his screaming mother, and every day is The Jerry Langford Show. One of Robert De Niro’s greatest performances, Pupkin is both a throwback to a different era (the movie was made in 1983) and a foreshadowing of the social media shape of things to come.
His goal was/is simple — to make money. Sadly, he soon became a slave to his own greed. That obsession would later become his curse, ambition acting as fuel to foul everything he would or could create. By the end, this mighty man of oil is reduced to a hate-filled hermit, his need to feed his percolating avarice the reason for his irrationality. Paul Thomas Anderson’s riff on old money manages to make us both care and despise this despotic, idiosyncratic tycoon.
Their claim to fame was innocuous at best (they were related to former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis), that is, until they were discovered living in a decrepit Hamptons manor with raccoons and cats using the formerly elegant estate as their toilet. Luckily, documentarians David and Albert Maysles read a story about the defiant divas and created one of the greatest fact-based films about former society matrons turned oddball outcasts ever. Little Edie, in particular, steals the show with her “shower curtain” fashion sense and dreams of fame.