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Career Watch: The Commodification of Johnny Depp

Thompson on Hollywood By Sophia Savage | Thompson on Hollywood May 14, 2012 at 4:12PM

Johnny Depp's career has been set on cruise control for years, and it's worked splendidly. He's Hollywood's highest-paid actor along with Will Smith, received not one but two Golden Globe nominations in 2011 (for two of his worst films) and is happy getting paid stupid amounts of money even though he agrees it's ridiculous and does not find it stimulating.
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Depp in "Benny & Joon"
Depp in "Benny & Joon"

Johnny Depp's career has been set on cruise control for years, and it's worked splendidly. He's Hollywood's highest-paid actor along with Will Smith, received not one but two Golden Globe nominations in 2011 (for two of his worst films) and is happy getting paid stupid amounts of money even though he agrees it's ridiculous and does not find it stimulating.

He's got plenty of upcoming projects, including Rob Marshall's remake of "The Thin Man," a fifth "Pirates" film and "The Lone Ranger" with "Pirates" and "Rango" director Gore Verbinski. But Depp's "Dark Shadows," his eighth film with Tim Burton, opened soft to mixed reviews (although Manohla Dargis and Anthony Lane were kind). It serves as a reminder that -- as the LAT's 24 Frames suggests -- America may be falling out of love with Depp. For many, the Johnny Depp we love has long been relegated to DVD and VHS.

What went wrong?

SIGNATURE QUOTE: "No, no, I got thrown out of school for that." - to Joon, as Sam, after his Buster-Keaton-in-the-park scene in "Benny & Joon."

THE START: The horror classic "Nightmare on Elm Street" (1984) and the original TV series "21 Jump Street" (1987-1990) preceded Depp dropping out of high school to become a rock musician. His first wife, the sister of one of his bandmates, introduced him to Nicolas Cage, who encouraged Depp to pursue an acting career.

BIGGEST ASSET: One of a kind and globally beloved.

Depp with Al Pacino in "Donnie Brasco"
Depp with Al Pacino in "Donnie Brasco"
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: The early-nineties foursome of "Edward Scissorhands" (1990), "Benny & Joon" (1993), "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" (1993) and "Ed Wood" (1994) are still Depp's most creative works, where his originality and charm was still being discovered and explored. Of "Benny & Joon," NYT's Janet Maslin gushed that "Mr. Depp may look nothing like Buster Keaton, but there are times when he genuinely seems to become the Great Stone Face, bringing Keaton's mannerisms sweetly and magically to life." Todd McCarthy stated in his "Gilbert Grape" review: "Depp manages to command center screen with a greatly affable, appealing characterization."

Once his stardom was established, he kept things interesting in "Don Juan DeMarco" (1994), "Donnie Brasco" (1997), "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" (1998), "Chocolat" (2000), "Blow" (2001) and "Finding Neverland" (2004). The 2000s continued with the advent of the "Pirates" franchise, Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" (2009), which showed a different side of Depp as John Dillinger, but it was far from revelatory, and the increasing commercialism of Burton's films - "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005).

"Edward" kicked off his breakout career with Tim Burton; Emanuel Levy's review of the film reminisces that the "lovely fairytale began the long, fruitful collaboration with the endlessly versatile Johnny Depp." Their collaborations have earned approximately $813 million and $1.8 billion at the domestic and worldwide box offices, respectively (not including "Dark Shadows"). The four "Pirates of the Caribbean" films have earned $1.3 billion domestic and $3.7 billion worldwide [BoxOfficeMojo].

Depp was in the 2012 Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-paid actor between June 2009 - June 2010 with $75 million. In 2003 and 2009 he was named People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive. Depp has garnered three Oscar nominations, for "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," "Finding Neverland" and "Sweeney Todd." He has been nominated for ten Golden Globes, winning once for "Sweeney Todd." He was nominated twice in 2011 for "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Tourist."

MISFIRES: 2010's "The Tourist" serves as a great example of Depp chasing a huge paycheck for increasingly lacklustre work. With the help of powerhouse Angelina Jolie, "The Tourist" went on to make $278 million worldwide, despite terrible reviews.

Stephen Sondheim's gothic musical "Sweeney Todd" (2007) wasn't a hit, earning only $152 million worldwide, but at least Depp and Burton weren't going through the motions like zombies - the film had life and edge, and Depp had to learn to sing.

"Alice in Wonderland" (2010) - while it made over a billion dollars thanks to premium 3-D prices - was a slap in the face to the novel's purists and a fine example of commerce over content. Depp's Mad Hatter was a makeup stunt. He's starting to rely on over-made-up over-the-top cartoonish performances. As this "Dark Shadows" review states, "[the film's] only meaningful relationship is between Depp and his audience. He's a persona now, no longer an actor" (the same could be said of Jack Sparrow in "Pirates," which got old after #1). Depp's collaborations with Burton have grown uninspired; lifeless and dull instead of dark and delightful. "Dark Shadows" is a career low for everyone involved. As the New York Observer said after "Alice in Wonderland"; "It might be time for Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to start thinking about seeing other people."

Small passion projects aren't the solution: As Paul Kemp in "The Rum Diary" (2011), based on Depp's beloved Hunter S. Thompson novel, Depp hardly charmed anyone; reviews declared the film "limp," "plodding," "muted" and "disappointing."

Depp in "Dark Shadows"
Depp in "Dark Shadows"

Animation works. As an animated chameleon-cowboy in "Rango" (2011) the creative spark was lit and it earned $245 million worldwide. Gore Verbinski, the director behind the first three "Pirates" films and "Rango" is also directing the live-action "The Lone Ranger," with Depp as Tonto (across from Armie Hammer). It would be wishful thinking to presume that "Ranger," with its bloated budget, is intending to be anything other than a mainstream franchise cash cow.

BIGGEST PROBLEM: He sold out.

CAREER ADVICE: Johnny, if you're going to take the stupid money, at least pretend you're enjoying it.

Relive Depp's career in trailers below:

This article is related to: Career Watch, Johnny Depp, Johnny Depp, Features, Box Office, Tim Burton, Tim Burton, Dark Shadows, The Rum Diary, Alice in Wonderland


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.