His career has had so many ups and downs it could be one of the scarier rides at Disneyland. There was a point where no film studio wanted him in their movie. As an actor, he was, in their eyes, just too Hollyweird, especially when he seemed to take on Hunter Thompson’s real-life persona around the time he was filming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Now, he’s the principal reason Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest made the biggest one-day gross in history because of  his unique acting talent. He put a bold personal imprint on his pirate, Jack Sparrow. It was boozy, it was fey, and it totally freaked out producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who was expecting something much more mainstream. (With lots of “aarrrs” and “ayes” and “shivver me timbers” no doubt, spoken as if Sparrow meant them.) Thank god re-shooting would have been too expensive, or else the footage would have been thrown out and Pirates would have had a cookie cutter feel to it. I don’t mean to belittle Gore Verbinski’s role in this, but even the director acknowledges that Depp came up with Sparrow’s characterization all by himself.

It’s not that this is an Oscar-winning performance by the actor. He’s already given us plenty of those, and earned the immense respect of the movie industry along the way. In recent years, he’s even garnered Academy nods as well as the growing realization that the 43-year-old is long overdue for a Best Actor Oscar. It’s more that he elevated so-so material — for crissakes, this movie was nothing more in the beginning than a promotional tool to increase attendance for one of Disneyland’s duller rides — into a box office romp that audiences found utterly irresistible.

He’s now that rare trifecta combination that thrills studios: a sexy hearthrob as seen by teenage girls, a cool dude by young guys, and an accomplished thesp by adults. Also helping his career is that someone as objectively beautiful as he is still can be chameleon-enough to lose himself in his roles. Just look at what he did with the two Eds: Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. (And let’s not forget the recent Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where he was hilariously channelling Anna Wintour.) Tom Cruise, and his backsliding career, would kill for that capability because Cruise can’t ever stop being Cruise, no matter if he’s the glamorous leading man or the disfigured coma guy in Vanilla Sky. Because of that, even though they’re physically on opposite ends of the scale, it’s very common to hear Depp called the Marlon Brando of his generation. (It was inevitable they would act together; unfortunately, it was in Don Juan DeMarco when Brando was long past his expiration date and fed his lines through an earpiece.)

That Depp, who came to stardom in the worst possible way as the eye candy in that lame TV series 21 Jump Street, would have an interesting career was cemented when he went to work for John Waters in Cry-Baby. Then, after achieving some great reviews for his acting choices and terrible reviews for his life choices, Depp’s bankability appeared on the brink first when his Arizona Dreams, a nightmare of a production, was almost scuttled, then, again, when an ill-considered attempt to turn him into just another Hollywood leading man in Nick of Time and Donnie Brasco backfired at the box office. Today, looking through his catalogue of performances, it’s hard to find any other actor of his generation who’s played such an amazing array of characters. A lot of credit is due to his longtime agent Tracey Jacobs. (Since Depp is unpoachable, that ka-ching, ka-ching sound you’re hearing in Beverly Hills is United Talent Agency calculating her end-of-year bonus, which deservedly should be astronomical.) Anyway, all this is by way of stating that, in my opinion, Johnny Depp is the biggest movie star working in Hollywood today. I’m not basing this accolade solely on today’s box office, because one blockbuster movie does not make a career, or on the fact there’ll be a Pirates 3, or Depp saying he’s eager to do Pirates 4. Rather, I’m combining it with his sheer talent. Because there’s no other actor about whom you’re wondering movie-wise, “What the heck is he gonna to do next?”