Let's Discuss: Johnny Depp And His Career

It’s hard to pinpoint where it all began. Some could argue it’s been building since Johnny Depp, a prominent art house darling transitioned from the heart of indie film to the star of Disney tent poles. After a showbiz career spanning more than 30 years, Depp has recently found himself amid a highly critical media storm.

It all came to a head with the release of “Mortdecai.” A comedy that met with mass critical derision and a box office take that sadly heralded his third straight starring vehicle to disappoint in its opener. The internet has been thrown into a subsequent tizzy, wondering if this truly spells a defining downturn in what was once an impeccable, if offbeat and illustrious career.

Personally, it seems premature to start waving the white flag or blasting distress flares quite yet. When it comes to box office, Depp has never been what one might refer to as a traditional matinee idol. For every “Pirates of the Caribbean,” he has thrown his weight behind a “Rum Diary."

There have been financial successes (“Alice in Wonderland”) and failures (“The Lone Ranger”). His box office performance has been as difficult to predict as the roles he’s chosen. Perhaps that’s due to the marketability of Depp being a tough sell for mainstream audiences, who can’t always be sure which version of him to expect. 

Unlike the Kevin Costner(s) or Ben Affleck(s), he’s never stayed in a consistent persona. Instead of relying upon a rather abstract pallet of either vibrant expressionism (“Benny & Joon”), quieted restraint (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”), or a unique balance between the two (“Edward Scissorhands”, “Arizona Dream”).

His refusal to be labeled has been both his greatest asset and largest hurdle. Throughout his career, he has won over critics by being mercurial, a cinematic ghost capable of morphing into just about anyone. It’s a phenomenon that has been duly appreciated by fans.

[Image by Columbia Pictures]
So what has happened in the matter of a few years time that has provoked some to grow so resentful of one of Hollywood’s most revered actors? The beginning of the sentiment seemed to commence with the 2010 English-language remake “The Tourist” where Depp starred opposite Angelina Jolie, herself a polarizing public figure. Personally speaking, the movie was a dazzling caper with sweeping locales and engaging intrigue, one of the few throwback pictures to get it right.

The spiteful regard for it among critics was baffling. Contrary to popular perception, the box office receipts were admirable. It would go on to gross over $278 million worldwide on a $100 million budget. However, the media certainly didn’t leave one with the impression it was a success.

When it comes to picking projects, Depp has wound up on the wrong end of things. There was the dismal and deservedly slammed “Lone Ranger” and the poorly realized “Transcendence,” both well-publicized box office disasters. One couldn’t have really anticipated the resulting quality of the latter. It was fair to presume “Transcendence” could be a hit.

Its script had appeared on the notorious “Black List” (a lauded compilation of Hollywood’s greatest unproduced scripts); it featured the directorial debut of acclaimed cinematographer Wally Pfister (Christopher Nolan's frequent collaborator) and boasted a respected ensemble. 

There was nothing in the ingredients that would have indicated the disaster to come. Foreseeing how a movie will turn out is next to impossible. Countless variables can set a film in a completely different direction, once the production process is complete. When you consider how “Transcendence” looked on paper, Depp's decision to star in it makes sense.

Two bad movies are certainly not enough to declare a career slumping to ruin though. When you look through Depp’s filmography, you’ll find one risky gamble after another (“Sweeny Todd” anyone?). Some have paid off, and others haven’t. Hitting a few low points is natural. The media’s current reaction might not be attributed to these recent movie missteps alone.

[Image by Universal Pictures]
To go to the source of the animus you have to turn the page back to when Depp first made that transition from indie to mainstream. The opinion of his being a “sell out” is one of the implicit undercurrents that haunt his career.

There are purists, who do not want Depp to star in a movie that will gross a significant profit, simply out of what they perceive to be an artistic principle. To them, his decision to sign a deal with Disney was a huge blow to his artsy credo.

The actor who was once on the perimeter has become a household name, and he has done so without playing by the typical handbook, refusing to strictly cater to either side of the aisle. He has carved out his piece of Hollywood his way, and it’s undoubtedly ruffled a few feathers.

In his quest, Depp has become the one thing that threatens his being a film chameleon; Johnny Depp is also a pop culture icon. The result of which comes with a microscope dire in its severity. Spending most of its time pointing out the faults, rather than celebrating the triumphs.

As for the future, it’s unclear where Johnny Depp should go from here. Returning to a genre film like “Nick of Time” could be the safest direction. Action thrillers and revenge dramas continue to be popular, and their quality is relatively consistent.

As the pundits wonder what it will take to spring Depp out of his so-called “tailspin” the question emerges of whether he is genuinely in one. His career has been a tale of ups and downs. When some consider its current state so lowly, ponder this.

If someone had told the world that the guy wearing exaggerated make-up, donning a black leather suit, and crazy glue hair would go on to be one of the most successful actors of his generation, few would have probably believed it. Having defied expectations before, my bet would be on him doing it again.

[Featured Image by Summit Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures]