The Hollywood limelight is both alluring and rewarding. Under its glare the nameless can be propelled to stardom in an instant; it seductively whispers a promise of fame and fortune to those willing to try. It is easy to see why so many do, and equally why the majority fail in their quest. Stardom requires unique talent, the certain je ne sais quoi that casting directors value so highly. It isn’t surprising then to find an actor like Johnny Depp as one of the world’s pre-eminent film stars. With an inimitable style developed over a 30-year career, Depp has weathered this spotlight, garnering critical acclaim for his roles and accruing a box office gross of over $3bn, in part due to his iconic portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
So why has Depp fallen somewhat out of favour in recent years? One possible explanation is that his quality of work has declined of late, 2011 being the last time a piece of his acting work in a lead role received critical acclaim, for the animated film Rango. If his next outing in the action comedy Mortdecai is any indication, this trend is set to continue.
As the eponymous hero, Depp travels the globe as an art dealer to recover a stolen painting containing the code to a lost bank account, meeting angry Russians, MI5 and an international terrorist along the way. In its inception, Mortdecai very much follows its spiritual ancestors in the genre; the global race against time and ensuing ‘comedic’ hijinks are reminiscent of Austin Powers or, more appropriately, the Pink Panther film series. Yet in its execution Mortdecai falls utterly short in capturing the wit, charm and originality of Blake Edwards’ works, and the character comes across as merely a diluted combination of Peter Sellers’ Inspector Jacques Clouseau and Mike Myer’s Austin Powers. The film, quite rightly panned by critics, must as a result mark a low point in Depp’s career.
But it isn’t Depp’s fault he has fallen victim to poor choices any more than it is the fault of a director who chooses to collaborate with the same cinematographer or writer. A great working relationship produces a great film, yet if it is constrained by studio budgets or considerations for a target audience based on takings at the box office, its efficacy diminishes. Depp himself is a great example of this.Some of his most popular work has come from projects with his long-time friend and collaborator, Tim Burton, yet Burton’s macabre, gothic style has often placed constraints on Depp’s characterisations, resulting in a series of somewhat forgettable ‘oddballs’ that undermine both of their talents. Equally, it is precisely their consistency which has made executives and audiences alike comfortable with them – it is easy to predict box office gross if a film contains familiar motifs with a familiar cast.
Controversy, on the other hand is entirely unpredictable, yet it is also something to be expected in Hollywood, a world of intense scrutiny. Depp’s suspiciously slurred, profanity-laden speech at the Hollywood Film awards in November 2014 is an example, yet in the context of Hollywood’s history of scandals it barely registers on the scale. It became news simply because the cameras, as always, were on him. The desire to humanise our film heroes, while unconscious, is heavily engrained in our psyche. In our effort to identify with our idols, we must paradoxically bring them to our level. The criticism of a star like Depp not only serves this purpose, but also demonstrates the fickle nature of Hollywood; controversy fosters attention, just not the right kind in the eyes of the publicists. All that is proven is that Johnny Depp is just as prone to peaks and troughs as any other person.
It speaks to the tragedy of the modern film industry that this kind of criticism exists. In Depp, like those of similar capabilities in all areas, Hollywood sees a unique talent capable of bringing fresh, strange ideas to the silver screen, yet fear of that same ‘unknown quality’ stifles the creative process, engendering typecasting and, perhaps more dangerously, banality.