Remember when Johnny Depp was cool? Take your time.
Perhaps you haven’t seen true Depp coolness since 2001’s George Jung biopic “Blow,” which saw the actor strut through an airport to the tune of Ram Jam’s “Black Betty.” Or maybe your last dose of genuine Depp mystique came from 2003’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico,” in which the third-billed (!) player stole the spotlight as a blinded CIA agent, who used a young boy as his seeing-eye shooter (“Send him to fucking Broadway,” went the still-rebellious star’s most memorable line).
But odds are the last time Depp charmed you with his powerhouse, offbeat allure was at the close of that very same year, when his rollicking, frolicking turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first “Pirates” film had him swimming in the uncharted waters of awards-season politics. At the time, Depp seemed to be at the core of a holy trinity, which united populist filmgoers, Depp’s semi-cult fanbase, and the uppity members of the Academy, who, in giving Depp his first-ever Oscar nod for his leading “Pirates” role, not only showed an unlikely embrace of a major Hollywood blockbuster, but extended an olive branch to a man who’d long been a free-thinking industry outlier.
Ten years later, that triumphant, please-all convergence feels less like a career peak for Depp than the inaugural nail in his credibility’s coffin. It has been followed, in large part, by a monotonous string of redundant roles in marketable tent poles, nearly all of them a franchise kick-off, blockbuster sequel, or reboot of an established brand. The parade of mega-budget fare, which has serially featured Depp’s go-to directors like Tim Burton, Rob Marshall, and Gore Verbinski, has shown the actor descend from androgynously handsome chameleon to punchline-happy self-parody.
Directed by Verbinski in his fifth Depp collaboration, this week’s “The Lone Ranger” may just mark this decade-long cycle’s nadir, with Depp—as a Native American in whiteface, to boot — doing such a mechanical riff on his Jack Sparrow schtick that saying he chews the scenery would be hyperbolic praise. Regrettably, watching the movie comes with quite a sting, as not long ago, Depp seemed like everyone’s favorite near-the-fringes actor to love.
The aughts may mark the decade in which Depp rose to global hitmaker, but the nineties hold his real cache of gems. That’s where you’ll find his more tactile, evocative and homespun Tim Burton unions, like “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” and even “Sleepy Hollow,” which, for all its failings, remains a gorgeous production with an untethered Depp as finicky Ichabod Crane. It’s where you’ll find John Waters’s “Cry-Baby,” John Badham’s underrated “Nick of Time,” the beloved and unassuming “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and Terry Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” a mad curio of a drug flick if ever there was one, with Depp taking on his first Hunter S. Thompson text.
Fittingly, the nineties also house Jim Jarmusch’s black-and-white, quasi-elliptical western “Dead Man,” which is, in virtually every way, the antithesis to “The Lone Ranger,” made for roughly four percent of the new film’s $250-million budget, and, as was noted yesterday by Jake Cole at Film.com, depicts Native Americans in an exceedingly better light, with less catering to white guilt and more shrewd, knowing winks.
Looking back, although Jack Sparrow is the one big character of Depp’s new era that he originated, and didn’t revive from known, pre-packaged material (there was no Jack Sparrow in the theme-park ride on which “Pirates” is based), even his fate-changing 2003 ascent seems to come down to one thing: Money. However indelible Depp’s initial “Pirates” performance was, and however glowing the reviews, you can be sure that a major factor swaying Academy voters was the $654 million global haul of “The Curse of the Black Pearl.”
Prestige came in the afterglow of Depp’s Oscar citation, including another Best Actor nod the following year for the snoozy “Finding Neverland,” but what also came was the start of a gross and boundless influx of dough, predominantly thanks to the wholesome folks at Disney. According to a Vanity Fair article published in the fall of 2011, at which point Depp was the highest-paid actor on earth, an epic gross-profit-sharing deal Depp brokered with the studio netted him roughly $300 million of the “Pirates” franchise’s $3.7 billion global take, a total just shy of the actor’s current net worth of $350 million. The coddling puff piece also quotes Depp as saying that the “stupid money” is “ultimately for the kids” he had with ex Vanessa Paradis, a sentiment that seems as vulgar as it does disingenuous, since the next 10 Depp generations could sit on their thumbs if the “Pirates” series died tomorrow.
Next: Could Depp reclaim his power?
Which, of course, it won’t. “Pirates 5” is already in the works, with “Kon-Tiki” directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg at the helm (because, ya know, they can make films at sea), and Depp, says the rumor mill, collecting something in the $100 million range for carrying on the character. But, really, there have already been a bounty of unofficial “Pirates” sequels sprinkled throughout the last 10 years, as Sparrow spawned a character template to which Depp and the studios have rigidly adhered. Whatever auteur qualities a director like Burton used to have, he’s sold out as much as his once-freaky man muse, repeatedly coaching him in the same formulaic, Sparrow-like mode, with grotesques like Willy Wonka (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), The Mad Hatter (“Alice in Wonderland,” which is also sequel-bound), and Barnabas Collins (“Dark Shadows”) reiterating the same over-the-top humor that was once mere subtext in Depp’s work.
One of the more intriguing things about Depp’s otherwise un-intriguing career is that he currently seems to stand as a link between Hollywood’s decline of star-driven vehicles and its dependence on brand recognition. As most recently evidenced by the overall flop of A-Lister Will Smith’s “After Earth,” the model of banking a blockbuster on a major celeb is no longer Tinseltown’s modus operandi, and pushing known products, as we learned from high-earners like “The Avengers” and “Man of Steel,” is the new way to play.
This was highlighted by producer Linda Obst, who, in a recent chat with New York magazine’s David Edelstein, noted that the industry’s obsession with text familiarity comes down to foreign markets like China, which are currently providing 80 percent of industry profits, and want to see more of the American icons they already know and love.
Among these American icons? Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, and — thanks to a few high-seas adventures — Johnny Depp. This explains why “Dark Shadows,” a film that performed rather poorly in the U.S., wound up second behind “The Avengers” in international sales, and why “The Lone Ranger,” whose titular character isn’t even played by Depp, is poised to perform well overseas too. Chinese viewers may not know or care about a resurrected sixties vampire soap opera, or a decades-old cowboys-and-Indians tale that’s unequivocally American, but they know Depp’s face, and they’ll shell out the cash for his brand.Depp may contend that the “stupid money” he’s basking in is “just for the kids,” a catch-all excuse he could use to cover any future skepticism about his earnings, but when unsavory headlines surface, like his recent exit from the Whitey Bulger mob movie “Black Mass,” it’s near-impossible not to raise an eyebrow. Depp reportedly walked because he won’t accept any less than $20 million a picture, a figure that would have comprised a third of the “Black Mass” budget (early word is that Joel Edgerton has stepped in as a replacement).
The worst of it all is that, lately, it seems that even if Depp wanted to, he couldn’t go back to the kind of actor he was. Most of his films from the past 10 years that have strayed from the Sparrow formula, from “The Libertine” to “The Tourist,” have been financial, critical, and audience failures. And even the Hunter S. Thompson-derived passion project “The Rum Diary,” funded by Depp’s highfalutin production company Infinitum Nihil (which, with its implications of “infinity” and “nihilism,” carries grim connotations about what’s to come), yielded one of Depp’s poorest showings on every front.
It’s deeply unsettling to think that, beneath all those daring nineties projects with true film artists, what was brewing in a seemingly incorruptible and exploratory performer was an ego the size of a pirate ship. If you make it to “The Lone Ranger,” keep your eye on Depp, and watch how fully he’s gotten his paycheck-pocketing routine down to a science. Grumble, grimace, quip, jump, joke, stand tall, repeat. Depp’s no longer just part of the Hollywood machine, he’s become a Hollywood machine.