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“Black Mass” film, Johnny Depp makeup artistry bring Whitey Bulger to life on screen

Black Mass, the cinematic saga of convicted Boston crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger, who gamed a crooked FBI to obtain information to kill informants and then escape to avoid prosecution for sixteen years, has received mostly rave reviews following its premiere last week at the Venice Film Festival.

Johnny Depp might have been seen as miscast as the notorious Bulger except for the brilliant makeover of the actor’s face, forehead and hair by his longtime makeup artist Joel Harlow, who worked on Depp’s Jack Sparrow character in two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Bugler’s own former criminal attorney Jay Carney described Depp’s transformation and performance as Whitey as “chilling” and “uncanny.” Critics at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado praised Depp’s acting in Black Mass, and it has already put him in contention for top screen awards, along with supporting actor Joel Edgerton, who plays corrupt FBI Special Agent John Connelly.

9-10-15 Black Mass movie poster
Movie poster

Depp told the Hollywood Reporter that Bulger himself declined his request for a one-on-one to help the actor prepare, so Depp had to rely on videos of Bulger and discussions with the mobster’s lawyer Carney. To plot his performance of the vicious Mob man, Depp said he had to “approach him as a human being, in the sense that nobody wakes up in the morning and shaves or brushes their teeth and looks in the mirror and thinks ‘I am evil’ or ‘I am going to do something evil today.’” For Bulger, Depp said, “not only was the violence just a part of the job, let’s say, it was also kind of a language that the people that he associated with and the people that he opposed, understood the same language. It was a language.”

Depp said he needed to ace the physical aspect as well to pull it off, down to the mobster’s blue eyes. “I thought it was very, very important to look as much like Jimmy Bulger as humanly possible. My eyeballs are black as the ace of spades. The blue contacts were hand-painted because they needed to be piercing. They needed to cut right through you.”

Black Mass is based on the 2001 nonfiction book of the same name by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill. It traces Bulger’s years in the 1970s with the Winter Hill gang, the dominate Irish-American Mob of South Boston. In the mid-1970s, Bulger agreed to become an informant for Boston’s FBI office, which was trying to oust the Patriarca Mafia family that for years ran New England’s gambling and other lucrative rackets from its base in Providence, Rhode Island.

Bulger dealt directly with the FBI’s Connelly, a childhood friend in the same area of South Boston who kept Bulger immune from murder, racketeering, bookmaking, loansharking, extortion and other criminal charges essentially in exchange for information about the Patriarca crime family. Connelly also accepted bribes. While Bulger provided tips that some agents later considered useless, Connelly alerted Bulger about FBI investigations and mobsters turned informants. Bulger used Connelly’s information, with the aid of henchman Kevin Weeks (portrayed by in the movie by Jessie Plemons of Breaking Bad) to murder informants and move in on Patriarca rackets. FBI agent John Morris (played by David Harbour), head of organized crime for the Boston office, assisted Connelly and also took payoff money from Bulger.

When Winter Hill boss Howie Winter was arrested with other gang members for race fixing in 1979, Bulger took over. During this time, Bulger’s brother Bill (Benedict Cumberbatch in the film) held the powerful position of leader of the Massachusetts State Senate. Then in late 1994, Connelly told Bulger about an impending secret indictment against him for racketeering. The mobster fled town and remained on the lam – and on the FBI’s most wanted list – until his arrest with his girlfriend, Catherine Greig, in 2011 in Santa Monica, California, where they lived in an apartment.

Bulger stood trial in Boston and a jury found him guilty of thirty-one felony counts, including taking part in nineteen murders as well as extortion and money laundering. He was sentenced to two terms of life in prison plus five years. Greig got eight years for identity fraud and harboring Bulger. Connelly was sentenced to forty years in prison for second-degree murder and was also convicted of bribery, racketeering and falsifying information to the FBI. Morris received immunity for testifying against Connelly, and, later, Bulger.

Black Mass, directed by Scott Cooper, isn’t the first Hollywood movie about Bulger. Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Best Picture Oscar-winning The Departed, starring Jack Nicholson as a Mob boss helped by the FBI, was based in part on Bulger. Documentary director Joe Berlinger (known for the Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three) released the documentary Whitey: United States of America v. James Bulger in 2014 to good reviews. Actors and Boston natives Ben Affleck and Matt Damon also are working on a film based on Bulger’s life.

A trailer of a scene in Black Mass released some months ago might remind fans of the  famous “Funny How?” scene in Scorsese’s 1990 Mob classic Goodfellas, where actor Joe Pesci intimidates Ray Liotta’s real-life character, Henry Hill. In Black Mass, Depp’s Bulger challenges Harbour’s John Morris to reveal the recipe of a steak marinade that Morris said was a “family secret.” When Harbour tells Depp that the recipe was ground garlic and soy, Depp coldly replies:

“You said this was a family secret and you gave it up to me, boom – just like that. You spilled a secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow? Hm?”

Harbour says, “I – I was just sayin’…

“You were just sayin’” Depp said. “Just sayin’ gets people sent away. Just sayin’ got me a nine-year stretch at Alcatraz. So, just sayin’ could get you buried real quick.”

Depp then laughs to another person at the table and referring to Harbour, shouts, “Look at his face!”

Black Mass, which also features Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson and Kevin Bacon, opens in theaters nationwide on September 18.

Jeff Burbank, a longtime journalist, is a content development specialist for The Mob Museum. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.