Can Johnny Depp Get Past His Own Baggage?

"The Crimes of Grindewald" star has been called a public relations liability.

November 14, 2018 5:00 am
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 05: Johnny Depp writes autographs as he attends the 'Richard Says Goodbye' premiere during the 14th Zurich Film Festival at Festival Centre on October 05, 2018 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Getty Images)
ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 05: Johnny Depp writes autographs as he attends the 'Richard Says Goodbye' premiere during the 14th Zurich Film Festival at Festival Centre on October 05, 2018 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Getty Images)
Getty Images

Why is Johnny Depp still working?

I don’t mean why is he still dragging himself off the couch, fortifying himself with Visine and eyeliner, and sashaying in front of the cameras, again — as he’s done for the hotly awaited sequel “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” out Friday.

The man’s got bills to pay. I get that. But why are people still hiring him?

Yes, his last “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie made nearly $800 million worldwide, but that meant it was the second-lowest grosser in the franchise; the one before had made over a billion.  (Disney executives, by the way, have already announced they’re rebooting the series — without the actor.)

Yes, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” made over $800 million, globally – far below the last “Harry Potter” episode’s $1.3 billion, but still fine for a spinoff.  But Depp only had a cameo in that one. Does anyone expect the followup “The Crimes of Grindelwald,” in which he co-stars, to do any better?

Meanwhile. “City of Lies” – in which Depp stars as a detective investigating the Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls murder cases — was pulled from its announced September opening. No new release date was set. And any progress on his promised re-do of “The Invisible Man”? Hard to see.

Add to this a raw Rolling Stone profile of the actor as a spendthrift drunk. A range of lawsuits – from fights with former business managers to an assault charge from a crew member on “City of Lies.” Plus a myriad of ugly stories of abuse surrounding his marriage, and eventual split from Amber Heard.

Suddenly you realize why a recent Variety story flat-out called the actor “a P.R. liability.”

Depp no longer adds value to projects. He subtracts it.

“His baggage is a huge concern,” said one box-office analyst. “Part of the reason to hire an A-list actor is so they can hit the talk- show circuit and travel around the world promoting a film. That might not be possible now.”

Of course, Depp – who’s heatedly denied the domestic-violence accusations — still has his defenders. The “Grindelwald” team has already rallied ’round, saying Depp had been completely professional on the set. And on her website, J.K. Rowling said “based on our understanding” of the Heard/Depp dispute, the filmmakers were still “genuinely happy” to have Depp on board.

And Depp certainly still has his fans – dedicated admirers who’ve stuck with him since the original “21 Jump Street” days, and love his sly style. Who patiently wait, knowing that given a good part, and a strong director, he can deliver. As he did in a small role in the “Murder on the Orient Express” remake. As he did playing the lead in “Public Enemies.”

But “Public Enemies” was almost 10 years ago. And what’s he done since?

Well, there was “Black Mass,” a wrong-headed bio of the now-late gangster Whitey Bulger. “The Rum Diary,” another sloppy salute, this time to gonzo Hunter S. Thompson. Two putrid movies for Kevin Smith, “Tusk” and “Yoga Hosers.” The execrable farce “Mortdecai.”

And those were the passion projects.

The films Depp presumably did for money were even worse. Or maybe you forgot – lucky you! – “Lone Ranger,” where he wandered around with a bird on his head. Or “Transcendence,” that trippy sci-fi flop.  Or that spy-movie snooze, “The Tourist.”

The long list of disappointments makes it even sadder to remember when he was starting out, doing oddball delights like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” and solid ones like “Donnie Brasco.” When he was working with clever, challenging directors like Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch and John Waters.

With Tim Burton, too, although in the end that may have been the beginning of the problem.

A cartoonist at heart, Burton loved it when Depp went weird. But the controlled eccentricity of Depp’s “Edward Scissorhands” performance soon gave way to the over-the-top absurdity of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Dark Shadows” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

And while Depp clowned for the kiddies onscreen, his life off-set grew darker. The Rolling Stone story pictured a kind of hash-fueled Howard Hughes, keeping Count Dracula hours, wandering a nearly empty mansion and bristling when he was accused of spending $30,000 a month on wine.

“It’s insulting to say that I spent $30,000 on wine,” he said. “Because it was far more.”

Depp is 55 now, and unless he’s eager to copy Mickey Rourke’s career trajectory, he’s going to have to make a change soon. And, looking back at a few of his other `80s-era, bad-boy contemporaries, there are a couple of ways he could go.

He could commit to his eccentricities, like Nicolas Cage, but dial down the public craziness and dial up the work, pumping out the kind of video-on-demand thrillers that not only pay the bills, but occasionally give an unpredictable talent the sort of role he can soar with.

He could go straight, like Robert Downey Jr. – leaving the crazy excesses behind, turning his back on all the oddball indie movies he used to do, and committing to another, safer franchise, something that didn’t depend on shtick and slapstick and campy clowning.

But he’s going to have to make a choice – before it’s made for him.

Johnny Depp has played a lot of interesting characters in his career. It’s way past time he found a new one to play in real life.

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