In a recent article for The A.V. Club, writer Jesse Hassenger argues that the Johnny Depp backlash is “nonsense,” because for the past decade, since he’s been a big movie star with a brand like Pirates of the Caribbean as his focal point, he’s had the same ratio of hits to duds.
Which is a fair point. However, the Johnny Depp backlash isn’t mostly a product of his acting work, even though it’s increasingly evident that his film choices are a boring mix of old properties “reimagined” with middling directors (The Lone Ranger) and overly secretive sci-fi duds (the current Transcendence), with the occasional indie film adding some year-old, bought-on-discount-at-the-Christmas-Tree-Shop level of spice (The Rum Diary). It’s a sideways approach to being a movie star, and it doesn’t yield much in the way of interesting work. He’s kept the middle, workaday directors of Hollywood employed, and he’s been allergic to working with visionaries beyond his amorata Tim Burton and the overrated Michael Mann.
And all this mediocrity would be fine if Depp could, at the least, keep a handle on his love life. In his “living in France and a secret private island days,” he had his cool. Not doing press because you’re abroad and away makes you interesting. There are layers. But once he divorced his partner of 14 years, Vanessa Paradis (a French woman: super cool!), he started to seem a little bit faded. He took up with a girl half his age, his Rum Diary costar and current fiancée, Amber Heard, who was probably learning to read around the time Johnny was changing his “Winona Forever” tattoo to “Wino Forever.” Heard had previously come out as a lesbian when she was dating photographer Tasya van Ree in 2010. It’s a story as old as the hills, but the idea that Depp pulled his very young costar with sheer charisma just didn’t make the same sense. And his public tour of True Love Forever with Heard has been kind of lame. The manner in which she’s paraded around feels like, “Hey world, Depp’s still got it, right? Look at this babe.”
In fact, there’s a slight air of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes about the thing. Depp has been very public in squiring Heard around. He bought her roses for her birthday. They went to a rare-books store in New York. It feels rather performative. Here is a clip of Depp mumbling about wearing the engagement ring he got for Heard:
Honestly, part of the reason that Depp’s cool was unassailable in his ’90s heyday was that he was so beautiful, worked with geniuses like John Waters, and didn’t talk much (although when he did it was about Hunter S. Thompson). He was always kind of the ingenue in his cohort of movie stars: Nicolas Cage, Robert Downey Jr., and Brad Pitt are all his peers. Today, Downey and Pitt are working frequently and sometimes getting Oscar acknowledgment for producing the best film of the year. Cage, the lone Best Actor Oscar winner, has his own brand of deluded genius, and he’s at the very least interesting in the many, many films that he makes. (He smoked Heard, actually, off the screen in Drive Angry 3-D.)
Depp’s choices are bland, his performances aren’t great, and he’s trying to use a new romance as a way to get us back on his page instead of throwing himself into some passion project. He probably should be writing letters to a Wes Anderson type on a daily basis, begging for a role. Even perma-modelizer Leonardo DiCaprio can get away with dating beautiful blond 26-year-olds, since he seems like he wants to be a good actor and to work with genius directors like Martin Scorsese.
Was it easier to be cool in the ’90s? You could mumble and be gorgeous and make interesting decisions since more weird films were being made. Today, Johnny Depp is the onetime dreamboat who liked that Kerouac shit — all grown up, a father now, arguably a man, but still mumbling and still trying to be edgy like a boy. It’s not the stuff that gives anybody a movie star mystique. Perhaps it’s easier to remember the Depp he used to be, the cover boy who liked to perform in stories about weirdos and outcasts; instead of this mumbling pirate nightmare who still wants to make it with a girl half his age.