Johnny Depp’s case against Amber Heard is hinged on an argument that couldn’t be further from the truth – even if his fans don’t want to hear it.
Kate Moss’s cameo in the nasty defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard reminded us all of one thing: that, back when he and Moss dated, Depp used to be one of the world’s biggest movie stars.
Those resurfaced photos of luminous, sharply cheek-boned uber-couple Moss and Depp were taken just as he was about to peak, working with filmmaking giants, gracing the covers of huge magazines and pumping the box office.
He was clearly Tim Burton’s favourite (Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland, Edward Scissorhands, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and more). He took creative risks with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or played the romantic lead in Chocolat while with indie darling Jim Jarmusch, he did some of his best work in trippy western Dead Man.
His talents crossed genres and he was just as dashing and persuasive in horrors From Hell and The Ninth Gate as he was in crime thrillers Donnie Brasco and Blow.
With Pirates of the Caribbean, he built an entire franchise off the back of his charisma and playfulness on camera, transforming a Disneyland ride into a blockbuster behemoth. He was even nominated for an Oscar as the hard-drinking Jack Sparrow.
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It was a peak that lasted many, many years – but if there’s one massive myth at the heart of the Depp-Heard case it’s that Depp’s career was still in those halcyon days.
The actor is suing his ex-wife for $US50 million in lost earnings, arguing that her 2018 Washington Post op-ed, in which she accused him of domestic abuse, cost him several plum roles and, in effect, his career.
Here’s a truth his ardent fans won’t hear, but hopefully the jury will. By the time Heard’s piece was published, Depp’s career had long been in decline.
The turning point was 2013 when The Lone Ranger bombed. The idea sounded OK on paper: it was Depp and his Pirates director Gore Verbinski and was basically a swashbuckling adventure on land.
But it didn’t make back even its enormous $US250 million production budget, let alone marketing costs, and plans for a sequel were quickly scrapped.
It put Depp’s career on notice – his appeal alone wasn’t enough to sell a movie. In the decade since, his moderate successes including Black Mass haven’t outweighed the flops such as Mortdecai. More often than not, Depp was booking smaller movies from little studios, helmed by lesser-known filmmakers.
Only his most diehard fans have heard of them – The Professor, City of Lies or Minamata.
Where his movies did make big money, he wasn’t the headline but part of a wider ensemble.
Depp’s defenders point to a trio of box office successes just before Heard’s 2018 abuse accusations – Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Lies, Murder on the Orient Express and Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.
There’s a big difference between those hits and his earlier career films – people didn’t go see them because of Depp, audiences flocked because of their familiarity with the titles. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald wasn’t a “Johnny Depp movie”, it was a “Harry Potter movie”. Depp just happened to be in it.
And Pirates of the Caribbean was by then bigger than Depp’s brand – the beast he helped create overtook his starpower.
This isn’t just true about Depp. The past decade has seen enormous growth in the attraction of intellectual property thanks to the dominance of Marvel, Harry Potter, Fast & Furious, Transformers and its ilk, and the corresponding decline of the movie star.
Except for rare instances – Top Gun: Maverick is one of them – moviegoers aren’t driven by who’s billed at the top of the poster. That movie star model is being moved to streaming where the barrier to entry is much lower and requires little effort to sample a new Chris Pratt offering, no matter what the story is.
And unlike Robert Downey Jr, Dwayne Johnson, Tom Cruise or Charlize Theron, Depp is also saddled with a difficult reputation.
He’s renowned for being late to set, which doesn’t just waste everyone else’s time but also costs productions eons of money, and then when he does show up, he hasn’t done the most rudimentary aspects of his job such as learning his lines.
His predilection for drugs and alcohol made him too much of a liability for big studios such as Universal, Warner Bros. and the family-friendly Disney.
Disney executive Tina Newman testified that the decision to not proceed with a Depp-led Pirates of the Caribbean 6 had nothing to do with Heard’s op-ed, while his former agent Tracey Jacobs said there were multiple complaints from every movie he’s ever worked on, stemming from his “fundamental anger issues”.
Jacobs said his unprofessional behaviour became more prominent in the past 10 years, and she had to fly out to Australia twice during the production of the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean to sort out complaints about his work ethic.
“Word got around, it made people reluctant to use him toward the end,” she testified.
Whatever is decided by the jury in the Depp-Heard trial, even if he succeeds in the case, Depp the movie star is done. He’s been done for many, many years.
Originally published as Fundamental myth at centre of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard case