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Career Watch: The Commodification of Johnny Depp

Features
by Sophia Savage
May 14, 2012 4:12 PM
7 Comments
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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"
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"

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:

7 Comments

  • cadavra | May 21, 2012 5:34 PMReply

    Depp played The Mad Hatter, not the March Hare. Wacky make-up, but no VFX.

  • rgm | May 15, 2012 3:41 PMReply

    At this critical nadir -- the low ratings for Dark Shadows -- both Depp and Burton appear to need the aid an organized, plot-savvy director???? Dark Shadows should, and could have been much better. Depp's talent has been covering Burton's many directorial shortcomings for too long.

  • Shirley | May 15, 2012 12:49 PMReply

    Johnny will always be of my Favorite Actors along with Deniro .. His Entire Career has been a series of Good Film /Bad Film experiences. I loved Gilbert Grape, Benny & Joon, Sleeply Hollow, Scissorhands, Public Enemies, all of the Pirates films and will be first in line for his next one... His Body of work is amazing.. I am glad he's finally getting the recognition he desires and doing Big Budget films like Pitt, Clooney, & Di Caprio.

  • Helluva | May 14, 2012 8:15 PMReply

    Just wondering how "Sleepy Hollow" didn't make your list of career highlights. One of his (and Burton's) best imo...

  • Paul | May 14, 2012 6:54 PMReply

    I'd like to see Mr. Depp take on some grittier roles like Donnie Brasco again.

  • DUDDI | May 14, 2012 5:31 PMReply

    Well, i really liked the article,Johnny boy, instead of being somewhere where his associates stand, dudes like Pitt or Leo , Pitt being at the highest peak at his carrier (especialy since 2006 - with a start of Babel and following with great movies ...till The Tree of Life and Moneyball = and Leo with his Marty colaberation, even thou he should stay away from real life characters), Johnny has become a real commercial dude offering his name where ever it can be sold, instead of pursuing good stuff - as far back as i remember his last highly satisfying project was back on 2007 - Sweeney Todd: The Damon Barber of Fleet Street", Public Enemies was good and the others err........ So Johnny you already made too much money start being a underdog for a while !!!

  • sergio | May 14, 2012 4:55 PMReply

    He's long worn out that mascara wearing weirdo routine. You've seen it once, you've seen it 468 times already. I wish he would go back and do another film like From Hell. Maybe one of my favorite Depp movies. It was a flop when it came out but it's developed a real solid following since then and I think the best film the Hughes brothers have ever made

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