Film & TV

Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Don Juan DeMarco’: When Johnny Depp Was Johnny Depp

BY Mark Jackson TIMEMay 3, 2022 PRINT

Mega-movie star Johnny Depp is currently all over the news due to a courtroom showdown with his ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation of character. (She claims she was a victim of spousal abuse; he claims her alleged lies ruined his career.) So it seemed like a perfect time to take a look at 1995’s “Don Juan DeMarco” and Johnny Depp of the ’90s, whose star was then on the rise.

People always took him seriously as an actor, even while his stock in trade was shaping up to be odd characters in movies of fantasy and whimsy, like Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands, and later Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s massive franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

In “Don Juan DeMarco,” Depp plays an eccentric young man who’s convinced that he’s the world’s greatest lover. Marlon Brando plays the psychiatrist assigned to divest him of his delusions. The results are hysterical.

young man wearing cape in DON JUAN DEMARCO
Don Juan DeMarco (Johnny Depp) tells his tale to “Don Octavio de Flores” (a psychiatrist named Dr. Mickler played by Marlon Brando), in “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

‘Now I Must Die’

As the film opens, a young man in a Zorro mask, cape, and fencing sword has climbed to the top of a billboard, about to jump to his death. The cops call in Dr. Jack Mickler (Marlon Brando) to talk him down from the ledge. Mickler goes up in a cherry picker to the top of the billboard. When the psychiatrist is asked his identity by the potential jumper (who himself claims to be the real Don Juan), Mickler decides to play along and improvises, “I am… Don… umm… Octavio… de Flores.”

older man talks to young man with hat anDON JUAN DEMARCO
“Don Octavio de Flores” (Marlon Brando, L) tries to talk Don Juan DeMarco (Johnny Depp) out of jumping to his death from the top of a billboard, in “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

Young Mr. Don Juan is promptly hustled off to a mental asylum. However, his presence very soon has all the nurses in a romantic tizzy and absconding with more Valium than the patients are taking.

Mickler, burned-out as he is, and ready to retire, is intrigued by the young man’s serious demeanor, sincerity, and by the ring of truth and wisdom underlying his outrageous claims and statements. He asks his reluctant supervisor for 10 days to evaluate the young man.

two men talk in an office in DON JUAN DEMARCO
Don Juan DeMarco (Johnny Depp, L) tells his tale to Dr. Mickler (Marlon Brando), in “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

Don Juan regales Dr. “de Flores” with fantastical stories about his adventures and vast history of female conquests. Mickler listens intently. The reason, it turns out, that Don Juan was about to jump to his death was because, while he had successfully seduced in excess of 1,000 women, he could not win the woman of his dreams, the beautiful Doña Julia (Talisa Soto)—the one whom, when he looked into her eyes, he could see his unborn children there. And so life was therefore no longer worth living.

young woman reading book and young man in DON JUAN DEMARCO
The beautiful Doña Julia (Talisa Soto) and Don Juan DeMarco (Johnny Depp), in “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

The stories, told in flashback, become ever more fantastical—there’s a Mexican hacienda! His father dies in a sword duel! There’s a desert island called Eros, with yet another true love, and an Arabian seraglio with thousands of women!

“Every woman is a mystery to be solved,” instructs the young Don Juan. He explains how, at age 10, he first saw a woman standing at an open window one moonlit night and noticed the way her clothes “followed and caressed the curves of her body, as if on a cushion of air.” It was at this moment, “I learned how a woman is to be touched.”

Depp plays it all completely straight-faced, and soon Dr. Mickler is so fired up that he rushes home to romance his wife (Faye Dunaway) and their stale marriage with flowers (he is after all Don Octavio de Flores), jewelry, champagne, and a mariachi band.

man gives flowers to wife in DON JUAN DEMARCO
Mrs. and Dr. Mickler (Faye Dunaway and Marlon Brando), in “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

Director Jeremy Leven

Jeremy Leven, a novelist who once made his living as a clinical psychiatrist, wrote and directed this impressive debut, and having scored a hat trick of three powerhouse leads, delivered a hilarious comedy that’s remarkably believable and unpredictable. Depp agreed to work with Leven on condition that his hero, Marlon Brando, be his co-star.

Don Juan DeMarco (Johnny Depp, L) and Dr. Mickler (Marlon Brando), in “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

“Don Juan DeMarco” is, of course, a variation on the old theme of the shrink who learns from his patient, like “Awakenings.” It’s also a celebration of romance, poetry, love, and adventure. Its fragile illusion wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny, of course, but Depp—who at the time had evolved as America’s most unpredictable and interesting young star—read all his lines with complete sincerity and not a hint of camp (which is really the most powerful and effective way to play most kinds of comedy).

two men arguing in DON JUAN DEMARCO
Dr. Mickler (Marlon Brando, L) has a heated debate with Don Juan DeMarco (Johnny Depp) in his office, in “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

In these times of political correctness, the concept and stereotype of the hot-blooded Latin lover (as represented by, say, Valentino) has become an endangered species. Which is an excellent reason in and of itself to watch Depp try on Valentino’s mantle. The other reason is that you will laugh yourself silly. Or at least find the proceedings highly amusing.

Ultimately, though, the inspiration that underlies the whole film is the magic of discovering the sublime in the superficial by dedicating one’s life to living perfectly in the moment. Which is the reason Dr. Mickler chose to put his retirement on hold; he senses a new lease on life as a present of working with the Mexican Don Juan. The present of living fully in the present.

Movie poster for "Don Juan DeMarco." (New Line Cinema)
Movie poster for “Don Juan DeMarco.” (New Line Cinema)

‘Don Juan DeMarco’
Director: Jeremy Leven
Starring: Marlon Brando, Johnny Depp, Faye Dunaway, Rachel Ticotin, Talisa Soto
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: April 7, 1995
Running Time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars for delightfulness, 3 stars for execution

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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