What Johnny Depp Has Become

7 minute read

The aging process is kind to no one, and that includes Johnny Depp.

On Tuesday, Depp was here in Cannes to walk the red carpet for the festival’s opening night film, Maïwenn’s misunderstood-mistress extravaganza Jeanne du Barry, in which Depp plays King Louis XV, whose devotion to his favorite extramarital squeeze brought scandal upon Versailles. When it was announced that a Depp film would be opening the festival, murmurs of “Sacre bleu!” were heard far beyond the kingdom, though perhaps not so much in France: the festival itself has opened its arms wide to Depp, who hasn’t exactly been untouched by controversy in the past few years, given his involvement in two high-profile defamation suits connected with allegations that he physically abused his former wife, Amber Heard. (The jury ruled that Heard defamed Depp on three counts and awarded him $15 million in damages; Depp was found guilty of one of three charges in Heard’s countersuit and she was awarded $2 million in compensatory damages.)

The allegations, and the details of the subsequent messy trials, are horrifying enough by themselves. The trollish Depp fans who took to social media to harass Heard and the women who stood up for her made the situation uglier. You’d have to have been cryogenically frozen through most of 2022 to have missed any of it. Yet at the festival’s opening press conference on Monday—this is its 76th edition—Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux defended the festival’s choice to kick off with the film. “If there’s one person in this world who didn’t find the least interest in this very publicized trial, it’s me,” he said. “I don’t care what it’s about. I also care about Johnny Depp as an actor.”

Fremaux’s ostrich-head-in-the-sand act is disingenuous. But his last two statements entwine opposing ideas that bear thinking about. Is it possible to care about acts Depp may have committed, and to care about what happens to women when they come forward with allegations of domestic violence? And also to care about Johnny Depp as an actor—as a performer who, at certain points of his career, if no longer, was capable of bringing us the kind of joy that we go to the movies for in the first place?

Though Depp still has legions of hardcore fans who will not give up the Black Pearl for love or money—quite a few of them showed up in Cannes on Tuesday night to cheer him on—many of us who used to love him can’t look at him exactly as we did in the 1990s. The Depp of Donnie Brasco, of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, of Ed Wood and Dead Man, was magnificent to behold, an actor of microshaded subtlety and unforced charm. Even his roles in the earlier Tim Burton movies—as a somber, stammering Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, or a winsome artificial boy in Edward Scissorhands—showed layers of depth within their expressionist stylization. His translucent silent-movie-star skin, his eyes capable of shifting emotional colors within the space of a heartbeat: to watch him was to sink into the deepest pleasures an actor can give us.

Then Depp began to hide—or allow himself to be hidden—in the bedraggled pirate ruffles and rock-star eyeliner of the dismal Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and the “Look at me!” multi-toned pancake of Tim Burton’s exhaustingly eccentric characters. His lost-boy naivete began to come off as schtick. In the Pirates movies, his googly-eyed mannerisms drove audiences wild. Why bother with acting when gimmickry will do the trick?

According to the current rules of how we’re supposed to view male artists accused of unspeakable behavior, it should be easier to despise Depp as a human being now that it’s become so hard to defend him as an actor. Righteous anger is the easiest fix for complex, possibly conflicting feelings. Even defending the artistry of a great or once-great filmmaker or actor—it could be Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, or Bernardo Bertolucci—who has either committed or been accused of committing a heinous act is enough to get you branded a traitor. Essayist Claire Dederer has just written a whole book about how we should feel about what she calls “monstrous men.” It’s normal to feel troubled or conflicted about artists we love, or once loved, but we’ve somehow been conditioned to believe that even conflicted feelings are bad. God forbid we hold two or more ideas in our heads at once.

I no longer have much invested in who the actor Johnny Depp is today, and I have serious doubts about what he must be like as a human being. But watching him both in Jeanne du Barry and on the red carpet—and reading the reports coming through this morning about how moved he was to have received such a warm welcome in Cannes—only made me miserable. Jeanne du Barry is gleamingly, tastefully handsome, as well as sometimes thunderously dumb, but it’s not unwatchable. Maïwenn herself plays the Countess du Barry, though in only a few scenes does she wear the typical 18th century beehive of powdered hair; mostly, her locks flow anachronistically wild and free, like Stephanie Seymour’s in the ‘90s. She plays Jeanne as the Fun Gal of Versailles—wearing big clown stripes! donning breeches and ruffles and tromping around on horseback! kissing the king behind a napkin at formal dinners! And she “owns” a Black child, given to her by her paramour the king, but don’t hold that against her—she’s really, really nice to him.

As the ruler who ostensibly adores her, Depp—in some scenes his cheeks and lips monstrously rouged, almost in a garish Edward Scissorhands approximation—merely looks like a guy who has no idea how he landed in Versailles. His lines, delivered in French, have a waxy stiffness. His eyes look beady and glazed, as if all his eyelashes had been burned off. This is Depp’s most high-profile film in years, but it’s less a comeback than a tepid lurching into a very small spotlight.

The photos and footage of Depp on the red carpet don’t make the story any happier. He looked to be pleased by the attention, but there was also something tentative about him, as if he’d lost his grip on this particular reality—the false reality of a crowd’s adoration at a place like Cannes—and was very slowly getting it back.

Reclaiming that false reality is likely to do Depp more harm than good. A 2018 Rolling Stone profile by Stephen Rodrick, written in the aftermath of the Depp-Heard breakup, showed the actor spending much of his time locked away in a mansion fortress, guzzling expensive wine (reportedly more than $30,000 worth each month), and nursing the depths of his melancholy. Depp is an adult; he’s about to turn 60. He has made his own decisions and created his own problems. But I don’t think anyone who truly cares about acting and actors should feel happy about what he’s become. To see him looking as if all the life has been sucked out of him—not to mention the creeping jowlishness, the deepening frown lines, and other physical indignities that come with getting older—is akin to watching a bird fall from the sky, though birds, unlike men, don’t bring about their own downfall. Depp is a nest of tragedies, an extraordinarily gifted man who has most likely hurt others, as well as himself. He’s his own worst enemy, and no matter how loudly the crowd cheers for you, there’s no glamour or valor in that.

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