When Actors Wear Out Their Oscar-Nominated Roles

By  · Published on September 9th, 2015

Buena Vista Pictures

Imagine if Daniel Day-Lewis kept returning for more movies about Abraham Lincoln. After three or four sequels to Lincoln, would we forget he won the Oscar for that first performance? Would we want to take it back? That’s how I feel when Johnny Depp is dismissed as an actor these days, especially in his continued appearances as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Let’s not forget that he received his first ever Academy Award nomination for the first movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl. And he hasn’t exactly phoned it in for the three others.

Yet Depp’s new role as Whitey Bulger in Black Mass is earning a lot of raves not just as a great performance but as a great comeback. Finally, a serious performance as a real-life person, a la his second Oscar nod for portraying J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland. Not like his zanier, campier work for Tim Burton, which would include his third Oscar-nominated performance in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Sure, Depp has some done some bad movies of late, but I’d argue only his Transcendence performance exhibited little effort. He’s really not bad in Mortdecai, just in a bad movie playing a bad character.

It’s rare, unfortunately I say, that we don’t see more fun blockbuster performances like Depp as Sparrow nominated. But it’s also rare that we see such performances. Also, the fans who don’t recognize that Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the first Iron Man isn’t the same thing make pushes for this sort of role turn into a joke. Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, however, is definitely on the level. That performance also deserved to be recognized in the lead actor category, even if he wouldn’t have won the award, like he did as supporting.

Franchise characters aren’t often considered Oscar-worthy, at least not after their initial movie. And if voters had the whole of the Pirates series or Rocky series or the other Thomas Harris adaptations starring Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter or the Wall Street sequel with Michael Douglas’s return as Gordon Gekko or John Travolta in Staying Alive or Dudley Moore in anything, let alone Arthur 2: On the Rocks, to look at for context, they might not have honored the original performances, either.

Paul Newman likely got a pass for The Color of Money because it was easy to forget the movie was a sequel, the role a reprisal. Even if his first time playing Eddie Felson, in The Hustler, was also nominated. For her first nomination, with Aliens, Sigourney Weaver didn’t get a pass, she just got totally bad ass, in a role that unprecedentedly hadn’t even been recognized in its first instance, with Alien. And after two dwindling-quality sequels plus another on the way we’ve never grown tired of Ellen Ripley the way we apparently have of Captain Sparrow.

Al Pacino is another exception. He earned two nominations for playing Michael Corleone, first as a supporting role in The Godfather and then as a lead performance in The Godfather Part II. But he didn’t go three for three with his return as the lead in The Godfather Part III. The performance isn’t as good, of course, but it’s also not bad enough that it’s ruined our appreciation of the work in the previous two installments. Maybe there’s an age difference there that we don’t have with Depp, because many people similarly think Pacino is regularly bad now but it’s all distanced enough from his peak material in the 1970s.

We also collectively tolerate Sir Ian McKellen enough after six appearances as Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series, his first having earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor but none after, that we’d gladly watch him in more. Other supporting performances we still like in spite of the character being diluted with sequels or in one case a TV show include Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive, Don Ameche in Cocoon, Pat Morita in The Karate Kid, Eileen Brennan in Private Benjamin and Burgess Meredith and Burt Young both in Rocky, but maybe not as much Jack Palance in City Slickers. Of course, he didn’t technically play the same guy in City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly’s Gold so maybe that’s a different issue.

Characters and their portrayals also have a chance of being worn out if it’s merely their conception that was recognized by the Academy. There’s “Crocodile” Dundee, from an Oscar-nominated screenplay co-written by the guy who played him, Paul Hogan. Other franchise-starters in the category include Beverly Hills Cop, Back to the Future and Star Wars, though none of their leads have been too harmed by multiple follow-ups the way Dundee became more and more of a cartoon caricature of an exoticized Australian outback. American Graffiti and The Sting also spawned bad sequels, but neither had the same sort of iconic characters.

But Oscar-nominated characters don’t always need sequels to be worn out. Tom Hanks’s performance as the title simpleton in Forrest Gump has been imitated to death, to the point that it’s hard to take the performance seriously. Same goes for Pacino in Scent of a Woman and Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful. There aren’t too many female characters we grow to hate in the same way. Or in any way, as you can tell from this whole article.

If you disliked the Captain Sparrow character and performance from the start, that’s fine. But if you loved it then, why not later? Never mind whether the movies themselves are not as good as the series goes on. I’ve always returned to them solely because I still enjoy Depp as Sparrow, and he always delivers in them. As he does in otherwise weak movies like Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And if you thought him a great actor in earlier oddball roles, why not later? Just because the movies are bigger, more commercial? Hate the choices, fine, but not the performances.

And when Black Mass comes out next weekend and you’re surprised to like it, chalk it up in part to Depp (though maybe you’ll tire of this one, too) but don’t call it a comeback. But also celebrate the fact that someone has made a great movie around his great performance for the first time in a while. Hopefully the Oscar-nominated directors behind the next Pirates movie, Dead Men Tell No Tales, due in 2017, manage to do the same. I bet that return for Captain Sparrow will at least be better than the next showcase for Ellen Ripley.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.