Exploring Johnny Depp’s Fall From Gonzo Grace

Exploring Johnny Depp's Fall From Gonzo Grace

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.   

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Comments

Renee

Depp is just following in his hero Brando’s footsteps. They become caricatures of themselves in their later films. Sad but morbidly fascinating.

pazanowski

Best movies with Depp are: The one with lizard. And 21 JUMP STREET.
One animated and second cameo.

john

See ..This Mov.ie online at T H E A T E R 1 5 . C 0 M.

Shavonne

Ahh, yes he is a failure because he stars in some Hollywood tentpoles. He finally can buy his own island and has lost all of his acting credibility. I don't see that same comment made about say, Angelina Jolie or Reese Witherspoon or Sandra Bullock who have all made some serious schlock. Get off your high horse, the man can still act. At least he e isn't making the never ending 1920s or 1940s or 1950s period piece hunting for an Oscar nom like Leonardo di Caprio.

Buscemi

Depp's decline began with one simple decision: making a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean (a film that was directed by neither Burton or Verbinski). The film was totally unnecessary (since At World's End had a concrete ending) and though it made money, it tarnished the brand name as well as Depp's name. Since then, everything has gone wrong.

As for The Lone Ranger's box office failure, it can charted towards four things:
1. It was too expensive (the film should have cost around $80-100 million).
2. Armie Hammer isn't a star (pairing with Depp reminded me of the decision to cast Matthew Modine in Cutthroat Island after every A-lister turned it down).
3. Disney put too much into it due to their slate cutting in recent years (back when Dick Cook was around, it would have been a minor project for the studio).
4. The Lone Ranger is simply unadaptable. The property already failed as a film once before and the target audience is either dead or near death. So why try fighting a battle you can't win?

j70

A few issues with this article.
1. The Tourist is in the black.
2. Depp's production company didn't finance The Rum Diary. Film Engine and GK Films (yes, they finance Depp's development but there is a distinct difference)
3. Apart from salary renegotiations, Depp pulled out of Bulger bio because he had issues with the sales company, who used his name to pre-sale at Berlin without a finalised deal.

Andrew S

It's not the audience's fault! He should have taken a long break sometime around Chocolat – but he opted to do crappy role after role with Tim Burton and Gore Verbinski. It's his own fault that he's become a joke and he really should stop acting for a good long while after this one – wait he's doing another Pirate's movie!

Bellezebub

I would argue that all of this is actually the audience's fault. As the article claims, his attempts to reach out and not be Sparrow for all of his films have amounted to nothing. The Libertine was an awesome film, ditto for Finding Neverland. But of course those aren't really films to which parents can take their sniveling, overfed spawn (finding Neverland would require waaaaaay too much imagination and focus for the average American brat. Plus they have accents. They're practically talking a foreign language). What else would he do but recreate his most successful character? TBH Burton himself has gone off the boil, so maybe some time away from that relationship would do them both some good. I would like to see Depp stop doing cartoons as well, but perhaps that's unfair when his whole career, save for The Brave, has had an element of the cartoonish about it. It's one of the things I like about him-but it's been over-played. I think that all of the criticism that he's facing is because we expect more from him; I mean, no one criticizes Rogan for playing the exact same part in every goddamn movie that he does. But cut him a break.

Milena

No doubt about it; he's the "Ham, What Am".

Tom

Depp?!…he stink's!

Pedro

I find these articles always interesting, in the sense they are cyclical in the need to tarnish the concept of actors who become very popular. I'm certain that the backlash to Daniel Day Lewis' career would begin also, should he be more prolific (articles pointing out how he's so method that he has lost his "cool" are bound to happen). Johnny Depp can be accused of being overly productive and quite possibly burning his image a bit too much, with a lot of films coming out every year. That being said, he's still the same actor he always was, tackling characters that are different and giving his interpretation of those characters in films of uneven quality. Generalizing and summarizing someone's career as a "fall from grace" in a 10 year range would be like saying Jack Nicholson had no career after "Batman" (and that was his commercial peak). This article makes it's point highlighting specific pieces of work from an actor who, for the better and the worse, has carved a career that is unique and quite successful.

Jake

I'd say Depp's role in "Sweeney Todd" was both a stretch (what with the singing) and firmly in his wheelhouse, but I thought he was interesting in "Public Enemies." Depp's finest work of the last 5 years or so, however, is "Rango," a vastly underrated movie. As dispiriting as this strain of argument ("x was so great, then he sold out") can be, I really feel as if it's spot on with Depp. I think a director other than Burton or Verbinski needs to come around and really kick his ass into gear.

-

I can't be the only one who thinks he's overrated. He's one of these actors like Leonardo DiCaprio who a lot of people constantly say is 'the best actor alive', when they don't hold a candle to people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, etc.
I mean, he is good, but fucking hell.

Moonpatrol

This is a terrible article in that it doesn't talk about what went wrong in the new movie. Is it because he is inserting his Pirates character into the lone Ranger? Has he run out of new creative energy? He is an interesting guy for sure and claims he has a really weird job called acting. How many of us could wear a crow on their head and show up to work like that?

Gina B

What about Ed Wood? Great film and great acting. At his finest. He'll be fine.

Tegan

His last chance for respectability was teaming up with Wes Anderson for Grand Budapest Hotel and he ruined that. Second rate, musician and idiosyncratic actor with a bit of charm and good looks. I'm sure he doesn't care though, since he never watches his films. The man wanted to be a musician and fell into acting. For him it's just a job so of course he goes for the money. Blame Nicholas Coppola who's films are also commercial bile

Marisa Damele

Johny Depp is on top of the list of best actors. He can disguise and become the character in the most realistic way. He is awesome. Who could have been The Scissors Man, Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Hat Man in Alice in Wonderland, Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribean, the cold murderer in Sweeny Todd, etc, etc. Nobody like him. He changes his looks, his voice, the emotion on his eyes. I am going to watch Lone Ranger, although I don't like the story, just to watch Depp perform. Whoever gives him bad comments doesn't know anything about acting.

yousef

"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."

well i didn't know that an indies like the libertine and the rum diary were excepted to be a major success but what about charlie and the chocolate factory,alice in wonderland,public enemies,finding neverland,sweeney todd,corpse bide,rango??? they were all financial,critical and box office success.

ricky

"you can be sure that a major factor swaying Academy voters was the $654 million global haul of "The Curse of the Black Pearl"

now this is nonesense. if they nominated him because of the $$ he make for hollywood then why didn't they nominate him for alice which make a billion dollar? and what about the other awards cermonies who nominated him ? Golden globe,bafta,critics choice awards,sag(win) did they nominated him because of that too? btw most of your points are vailed

Jennifer Knight

Apparently Johnny is coming to terms with his own significance. Moloch is alive and well in Hollywood. Hell, for that matter, Hollywood is alive and well in Moloch. PS – the writer in this case is most likely an idiot.

Eustace

, "you can be sure that a major factor swaying Academy voters was the $654 million global haul of "The Curse of the Black Pearl"

I agree with most of the article but this line is ridiculous. If you think money made affects nominations then you know nothing about the Oscar voters.

Olivia

I absolutely love Johnny but you've got to understand about him is that he's like a drifter he'll settle somewhere for a while then keep moving thats what his acting career is like aswell. He picks roles he can relate to on a personal level, nothing about the money. I love how versatile he is, and still believe (will always believe) he's the greatest actor in Hollywood. Hardly any actors can do what Johnny does and change SO quickly.

He hasn't go worse if not he's matured and got a lot better, his career isn't the most important thing right now he's focusing on family etc. I respect the hell out of that man! <3<3<3

Lisa

I tend to agree with the writer of this article. I miss the old Depp. I enjoyed his movies in the 90's but honestly the only one I can think of that I enjoyed in the 2000's is "Finding Neverland".

johnny

Trying to be versatile hasn't been in fact good for Depp's career, as of lately. The way he accepts awkward roles and then "disappears" into them as always been one of his most beloved characteristics. However, as many of you noticed, in the last few years this doesn't seem to be working so well (and by this I mean his recent turns in "Alice" or "Dark Shadows"). Continuing with the Pirates franchise doesn't seem like a good option for him…. maybe work with better (and different…. someone who's not Tim Burton or Verbinski) may be a good change. Also, you apparently forgot (or you didn't like) his amazing turn in "Sweeney Tood", which I still think it's his last best performance.

Avi

"Sweeney Todd", "Public Enemies" and "Rango" are great movies! As much you do want to prove your point, you can't forget these movies.
I want to see his work in "Transcendence" even if in the surface his character isn't that complex (isn't a character driven movie) the plot is GREAT!!
Also I saw an interview about "Black Mass" and he said he's desperate to do the movie and work with Barry Levinson. And it seems that he believes the issues with this project are because "the time". Like his agenda isn't working with the times of the movie…i'm not sure if he talks often with his management team!

Suvo Pyne

Although it pains me to admit, but truth lies in this article. Depp needs to work with someone else than Verbinski, Marshall and Burton. Burton is good, no doubt. But, both Depp and Burton need to work with someone else now. The creativity is stopped from Burton's side, because he always makes a film with Depp in his mind.
As for, I believe he's one of the finest actor, and still has things to offer. Let's pin our hope on Transcendence

Dave Barak

Depp is a great actor, possibly the most versatile of today, but he's throwing that talent away and it doesn't seem like he cares. He may possibly end up in a figurative actors' Skid Row, drunk on cash.

Ignacio

hey! Michael Mann's Public Enemies was good too. But, I have to agree 100% with this article, though, Johnny Deep has NOTHING to offer since a long time ago.

Henry

Rango, Sweeney Todd and The Rum Diary. that is all

P

Depp is wonderful in every which way! That he's spent a great deal of time over the past several years making family-oriented films geared primarily towards younger demographics should come as no surprise as he has young kids. And while I too prefer "Blow" to "The Lone Ranger", I'm sure that Mr. Depp will fall back into the fold at some point and applaud him for capitalizing on the "super business"-side of film while managing to have so much fun with it.

P

Depp is wonderful in every which way! That he's spent a great deal of time over the past several years making family-oriented films geared primarily towards younger demographics should come as no surprise as he has young kids. And while I too prefer "Blow" to "The Lone Ranger", I'm sure that Mr. Depp will fall back into the fold at some point and applaud him for capitalizing on the business in the meantime while also managing to have so much fun with it.

Duddi

The commercialism has made him what he is today !!! – The man was so unique that it's hard to believe that the same man is doing this terrible stuff nowadays. What made him unique were his choices and the list of directors he has worked with ("The old Burton", Jarmusch, Polanski, Gilliam vs. Verbinski, Marshall and especially this new Burton, who after Sweeney Todd in "2007"… has been chasing butterflies with projects like Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland with a Johnny boy in front of camera, that has never backed out and has alwayss been up for the next puffed pay-checque… And yet another P. of the C. (nr. 5) is on the way… He should've followed Pitt's and Caprio's path instead of this commercial path… A commercial movie after some time is OK, but a whole line of it, pffff give us a break already.

vp19

Deep has reached the point where his very presence distorts a movie…"The Mad Hatter In Wonderland," anyone?

No

"Grumble, grimace, quip, jump, joke, stand tall, repeat." This sounds much like Brando's 1960 period until the Godfather and Last Tango.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

HORHAY LOUISE BORHAZE

WhatEVER! Depp is free to do as he pleases. His brilliant Tati-like performance in Verbinski's RANGO outshone any indie or Oscar-bait performance that year.

Truth Powell

I never bought into the Johnny Depp hype. Pirates of the Carribean and all the sequels are some of the worst movies made in the past 10 years. When I heard of The Lone Ranger I thought he was going to play the title character. As soon as I found out he was going to be Tonto I knew it was going to be some BS. How do these ideas get past studio execs that have to sign off on millions? Do they even like movies???? Note to the world at large: Ex-grunge and gothic girls are not tastemakers.

keira

Depp is DEAD. Duh.

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