This week, the New York Post reported allegations of aggressive on-set behaviour by actor Johnny Depp. According to reports, Depp, who is currently filming LAbyrinth, took over directing a scene, which included two of his friends he had cast in minor parts. When a location manager informed director Brad Furman that the scene had to wrap due to an expired permit, Furman was alleged to have said ‘Tell that to Johnny Depp!’ When the manager did so, Depp, who had allegedly been ‘smoking and drinking all day on set’, started screaming at the man, right in his face. He then apparently tried to punch the manager in the ribs, then offered him $100,000 if he punched Depp in the face.
Depp’s team have denied this report, but admit it, when you read it, your first thought was, ‘Yeah, I believe that.’
This is not the first reports we’ve read about Depp’s alleged bad behaviour, both on and off sets. To even describe it as ‘bad behaviour’, like he’s a petulant toddler who doesn’t know any better, feels like we’re letting him off the hook. During the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, stories swirled of Depp’s repeated lateness, which sent the already massive budget for the project into overdrive. The still ongoing lawsuit against his former managers included the revelation that Depp had given up on learning his lines and instead had an assistant feed him his script through an earpiece. That suit also revealed the extent of his obscene spending habits, such as a 5 figures a month tab on wine. None of this shocked us. We’d already seen the image of Amber Heard’s bruised face, and the video of him knocking back alcohol as he verbally abuses her and smashes things in a blatant act of intimidation.
Depp’s decline has been documented extensively, not just in terms of his personal life but his professional one too. Box office flops have become a new norm for the previously bankable icon of both quirky indie cinema and glossy Disney blockbusters. Jack Sparrow, which had once been a revelatory performance and game-changer in Hollywood, has been milked dry, with Depp growing ever more unconcerned with his work in each passing installment of the Pirates franchise. No amount of silly hats or bad dye jobs or questionable accents can hide how utterly disinterested Depp looks in these films for which he is paid millions of dollars. This isn’t just bad acting: It’s a bad business investment.
We know the allegations. We’ve seen the evidence. We know he’s not worth it anymore, if he ever was. We believe Amber Heard.
So, why has nothing changed? Why is Johnny Depp still one of the biggest stars on the planet?
It’s been a year since our own Courtney wrote a piece entitled ‘Johnny Depp Will Be Fine. They Always Are.’ In the interim 11 months, Depp has been through further lawsuits regarding his finances, and the problem of his public image has only gotten worse. Attempts to ease fan concerns and fix this PR nightmare have sunk without a trace, as legal troubles increase and the discourse surrounding abusive men reaches its most amplified status. We’ve had this discussion before, and yet the willing blindness of the industry to the obvious issue at hand means we’ll probably have to keep having it for the time being.
When the story from the LAbyrinth set broke, my mind immediately flew to the statement J.K. Rowling gave regarding his involvement in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In what was generally a muddled and confusing statement that seemed to have been written in a hurry by harried lawyers, Rowling said that ‘The film-makers & I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.’ As you can imagine, this was a heart-breaking moment for many Harry Potter fans, to see a woman they so admired, one who championed women’s rights, giving such a mealy-mouthed response to something so troubling. For it to happen in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein allegations and the fiery birth of the #MeToo movement was merely a salt rub on an already raw wound.
What Depp did with Jack Sparrow was undoubtedly a big deal. He took a stock Errol Flynn type and imbued it with such eccentricities and decidedly unmarketable qualities, to the point where Disney were worried he was ruining the film. That performance changed a lot of expectations surrounding both Depp and what blockbuster cinema could do, and it was key in making that first film a stratospheric success. Depp’s talent has never been in doubt, but his effort has. When was the last time you saw a Johnny Depp movie and thought, ‘Wow, there’s an actor putting his heart and soul into a project’? He has been coasting off his earlier laurels for quite some time now, and the diminishing returns only make us further question how he gets away with it.
The further we dissect the Depp problem, the more structurally unsound the many defences surrounding him become. His international appeal is oft-trumpeted, particularly related to the Pirates franchise and its Chinese box office numbers. Yet that much-lauded clout could not help Dead Men Tell No Tales, which made over $700m but didn’t crack the top 10 highest grossing films of 2017. Given the rumours of that film’s budget, which at one point was alleged to be around $320m (a number that would make it one of the most expensive films ever made), it seems questionable that the film could even be called a success. So much of that film’s cost was allegedly down to Depp’s refusal to play by the rules.
Whatever you once thought of Depp - and I was a fan, like so many - he has long since become a liability, and it’s downright tragic to watch. The acting isn’t what it once was, the box office returns are waning, and no amount of peppy late-night talk show segments can conceal the elephant in the room (not that Depp is a dazzling presence on such promotional tours, and most of the time he looks embarrassed to be there).
An entire system was complicit in making Depp what he is today. He was given opportunity after opportunity to blow money and sink projects because producers hoped the Jack Sparrow lightning would strike twice. They welcomed him into new fewer than three major franchises and made him the indelible backbone of each, even as it was clear that neither audiences nor Depp himself wanted him to be there. Publicists and talk show hosts and journalists will play the softball game and pretend Amber Heard doesn’t exist because nobody wants to rock the boat. Toxic masculinity and the degradation of women will continue for as long as Depp is held upright on his pedestal.
In the Page Six piece, director Furman refuted the claims made about Depp’s bad behaviour, insisting the incident was overblown. In his statement, he said, ‘He always treats the crew and people around him with the utmost respect. Movies can be stressful, and non-events often become exaggerated.’ There are always excuses to be made, and each one reminds us of how large the collateral damage is: He’s just had a bad day, he just likes a drink, that story of his nasty behaviour is overblown, his ex-wife is a gold-digging liar.
The sad part is that I already knew the answer to my question when I wrote it. He’ll get away with it for the rest of his career, or at least until he does something so publicly vile that the industry must be embarrassed into change. Then again, a domestic abuse scandal didn’t stop him, so why would anything else? Everyone in Hollywood is, to quote J.K. Rowling, genuinely happy to have him there.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)