Johnny Depp's Downward Spiral: From Respected Actor to Cartoonish Flop — Where Did He Go Wrong?
Johnny Depp used to be cool. This may, considering recent events, come as a surprise to some people. He grew from the pretty face of 21 Jump Street into the cheekbone-heavy bad boy Johnny Depp of the 90s and early 00s, all Winona-loving and Hunter S. Thompson-befriending, and he made off-the-wall film choices that displayed serious talent as well as an admirable fearlessness. Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, Ed Wood, Who's Eating Gilbert Grape: he was indie, brilliant and frankly a bit peculiar.
Then he ran off to France, had two kids with Vanessa Paradis, and his public image seemed cemented. He was the bohemian artist with the slightly greasy hair and penchant for adult fantasist films, always willing to take a risk, always ahead of the curve.
And now, in 2014, look what's happened. More specifically, look at the trailer for Mortdecai , the film Depp just did with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ewan Macgregor. It's a detective caper, and features Johnny Depp with a strange outfit (surprise) with odd hair and a fussy accent (surprise again), being exaggeratedly aristocratic at people. And it doesn't look good. In fact, it looks - dare we say it - embarrassing.
Look, actors evolve all the time, and Depp seems rightly to have picked up on the fact that his comedic chops, which have earned him a lot of money in The Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise, are a lucrative earner. And it's neither fair nor realistic to accuse any grown person with children to raise of 'selling out'. But it just seems as if, progressively, Depp's choices have been getting... sadder. Thinner. More reliant on gimmickry than actual acting. And, most tellingly, Contact Music points out that out of Depp's last 12 films, only 4 have been even modest critical successes. He's an A-lister who's now known for making really bad films.
How did it come to this? Let's look at the Depp choices that led down this road - and where it all went wrong.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
If you're going to talk about Johnny Depp's apparent career problems, in one way or another the trail will lead to Tim Burton. His collaboration with Burton on this glossy, creepy remake of the Roald Dahl classic was part of a cinematic partnership that's lasted for decades — but it was this film that began Depp's move from respected independent actor to flop-plagued cartoon.
What do you remember from this film? Chances are it's Depp's hair. And teeth. Both of which were determinedly, strikingly eccentric — for no apparent reason.
It was never going to top Gene Wilder's genially terrifying interpretation of Willy Wonka in the public imagination, but the affected Michael Jackson-esque mannerisms of Depp's portrayal left critics puzzled rather than charmed. "Depp, an actor of considerable gifts, has never been afraid to take a chance," said famous late critic Roger Ebert, "but this time he takes the wrong one."
Sweeney Todd (2007)
Depp earned an Oscar nomination for his collaboration with Burton on this musical, which was critically beloved, but it was a minor flop in the US and showed a few distressing patterns that are now easily recognizable in Depp's filmography.
Find a character whose main attributes are his strange looks and exaggerated accent — check. Collaborate with Tim Burton on a fantasy that doesn't quite work — check. Collect paycheck — check. Perhaps loyalty to Burton has led Depp away from better film choices with other directors, but we can't really blame Burton for all of Depp's problems. Can we?
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Technically speaking, this Terry Gilliam messy fantasy wasn't really Depp's fault. He was brought in at the last minute after Heath Ledger passed away, to play one aspect of the title character. Colin Farrell and Jude Law were roped in too, and neither of them acquitted themselves particularly well either.
The fact that the production was bloated and far more occupied with looks than acting could be explained away by the chaos of Ledger's death and Gilliam's notoriously hard-to-capture stories — but the trouble for Depp was evidently beginning. Cue ominous music.
Pirates of The Caribbean Sequels (2006-2007-2011)
The first Pirates of the Caribbean earned Depp an Oscar nomination — but then the sequels arrived. And kept coming. Now, with the fifth film coming up, Depp's portrayal of the rum-obsessed Captain Jack Sparrow has started to feel like manic-depressive deja vu.
The Pirates franchise with Disney is a huge earner — the last film, On Stranger Tides, was the 13th-highest grossing film of all time — but starring in one depressed Zoe Saldana so much that she nearly quit acting. Not a good sign. This really marks the low water point (apologies for the pun) where Depp's penchant for hiding behind elaborate mannerisms and bizarre accents started to flourish, like a giant strangler vine growing over his face.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Do you mean to tell me that Depp was unrecognizable and gimmicky in a Tim Burton film? Perish the thought. The Alice In Wonderland remake was a mess, visually beautiful but completely overblown, and Depp's creepy appearance with pale eyelashes and orange eyes as the Mad Hatter wasn't much relished either. The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw described his accent as "lurching wildly from lispy BBC English to broad Shrek Scots". Not impressed.
There is a sequel appearing next year, in which Depp will appear again in orange-eyed mode — but 2010 can be viewed as the year where the urge to be a cartoon really took over Depp's career decision-making.
The Tourist (2010)
At last, said critics, a crime caper in which Angelina Jolie tries to find sparks with a serious, non-disguised Johnny Depp! Could he find box office magic while actually looking like himself?
Unfortunately, the answer was no. While Jolie's performance was praised, it seems audiences don't know what to do with Depp when he's in costume, and aren't driven to see him when he's out of it. The film, a costly $50million flop, was so bad that when it was nominated for Golden Globe awards, allegations of bribery surfaced. (Sony, the film's distributor, had treated Hollywood Foreign Press Association voters to a Las Vegas trip. The newspaper that broke the story has since deleted it, but the controversy remains.)
Dark Shadows (2012)
This Burton nightmare bombed at the box office, and it deserved to. The remake of the kitschy 70s TV show didn't so much transition to screen as fall on it with a splat. And Depp, as the kitschiest character of them all - an ancient vampire living with a modern family - was all mannerisms and no actual acting. Again.
The Washington Post called it 'depressing on myriad levels', while also pointing out that Depp's "kabuki-white greasepaint has been troweled on so thickly he resembles less a human character than one of Burton's animated creations". Maybe that's the key to understanding Depp's fall: he's happiest hiding from the camera rather than confronting it. A weird situation for a professional actor.
The Lone Ranger (2013)
This was, well, a mess. A racist, controversy-ridden, poorly promoted mess that one critic called "incredibly ill-conceived". And hiring Depp to play a Native American character was a ghastly choice; it appears that whenever anybody in Hollywood comes up with a heavily made-up character who's meant to steal a few scenes, Depp's now the first name they call. Or was.
Alas, the film was so terrible that Depp, who never enjoys promotion, abandoned the press tour completely. This may have permanently tainted his brand — the thing he's become most famous for, eccentric comic relief, wasn't the best part of a bad film. It was one of the worst.
This ridiculous sci-fi thriller with Kate Mara was pure silliness, and was castigated by critics for its profoundly dumb script, which posed as a criticism of technology while actually not understanding how technology works. Pajiba even called it "offensively stupid".
Its interesting element, from a Depp-evaluating perspective, was that this was a decidedly B-list affair. Minor production company, lesser-known stars, Depp as the only 'big name'. This was the film that really marked Depp's strange position: that big studios aren't willing to risk him carrying a film any more. They only want him as the eccentric leading light of a big-name ensemble. And that's not an A-lister's typical position, or indeed an A-list position at all.
The Rum Diary (2011)
While it's now notorious as the film where he met now-fiancee Amber Heard, this attempt to recapture the manic energy of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas by revisiting another work by the author Hunter S. Thompson made no impact on audiences.
It also, frankly, looked a bit suspicious. Actor who in his heyday captured critical glory by playing one of the most famous journalists of the century plays the same man, again, 20 years later? It looked like a vanity-project attempt to recapture his gonzo magic, a play to prove he could still carry a semi-serious film on his own, with a sexy blonde aiding and abetting — and it seriously didn't work.
Into The Woods (2014)
This upcoming film version of the successful stage play has plenty of star power — including Meryl Streep — and Depp appears as The Wolf in the trailer, heavily covered in fur, only a single paw visible behind a tree. He's gone back, tail between his legs, to being the most heavily disguised element of a big all-star cast.
This might actually be the furthest Depp has ever taken his trademark lack of vanity. His attraction to deeply unrecognisable characters might have been caused by being pigeonholed as 'pretty' so early in his career — but it may once again hamper his ability to do any actual acting, underneath all the fuzz and whiskers.
And now we have Mortdecai, where Depp is apparently playing an upper-class Mister Bean, a character whose contribution to humour is a bleached-blonde moustache and saying "Duh" to a hotel concierge. Depp long ago gave up dealing in subtle characters, but this is perhaps the less subtle we've ever seen him. Yep, that screen grab is a picture of him honking an invisible breast. Wherefore art thou, Edward Scissorhands?
There might be hope. Black Mass, a biopic of famous gangster Whitey Bulger, will be released in 2015, and appears to be Depp's big play for critical respect and some Academy recognition. He's transformed into an iconic 'real' person, complete with faux baldness and an accent, and may be hoping to follow in the footsteps of Jamie Fox and Nicole Kidman for a biographical Oscar win. But it's now possible that Depp's gone too far down the road of cartoonish flops to be taken seriously as a heavyweight actor — ever again.