This weekend should have been a smashing success for Johnny Depp. Transcendence, the first major release with Depp top-lining in 2014, had an all-star cast, with Morgan Freeman, Kate Mara, and Paul Bettany, a Prometheus-worthy, intriguing sci-fi premise, and what’s more, for at least a portion of the movie, you could actually get a glimpse of Depp’s movie star looks, with those chiseled cheekbones and pouty lips on full display. The studio seemed to hedge its bets on Depp’s marketability—using only his face on the poster.
But Transcendence, despite having all these things going for it, has bombed at the box office and with critics alike. At press time, it’s got a dismal 20 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and only earned a combined $12.4 million at the box office.
Claudia Puig of USA Today wrote of Depp’s performance: “Ordinarily a gifted actor who fully invests himself in diverse roles, Depp is uncharacteristically listless, as if he realized too late that what he'd signed on to was hardly worth the effort.”
Add this dismal turnout to his last big budget movie, 2013’s The Lone Ranger, another epic flop that grossed just $89 million in the U.S., failing to recoup a $215 million budget, and 2012’s flop Dark Shadows, another collaboration with director Tim Burton, and Depp’s looking less bankable by the minute.
That’s a far fall from Depp’s career height, just three years ago, with the release of the fourth installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, On Stranger Tides. The entire series has earned a combined $1.2 billion in America at the box office, as well as grabbing Depp numerous critical accolades and awards for his portrayal of the pirate Captain Jack Sparrow, a humorous mash-up of Keith Richards and everyone’s drunk gay uncle, including a Best Actor Oscar nomination for the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl.
But Depp’s long been one of Hollywood’s most reluctant stars. His early role as Officer Tom Hanson on the TV series 21 Jump Street cemented Depp as a heartthrob—a function he wanted nothing to do with. The critically lauded Platoon had just come out and Depp was white-hot; he initially signed the six-year contract, convinced the show wouldn’t last a year. Four years later, he was stuck in career limbo, resorting to weird gambits designed to getting himself fired—vandalizing his own pretty mug on a billboard in Hollywood and trashing his own trailer before his lawyers were able to get him out of the deal.
He told the Mirror in 2012, “I tried to be fired because I felt I was in a prison creatively. I was stuck in a box. I’m not ‘blockbuster boy.’ They created this image, this monster and they were selling it to the world. I’m an actor. I don’t even watch [the films] most of the time. People will say a movie bombed at the box office but I couldn’t care less.”
Very early in his career, he reportedly eschewed classic leading man roles—Lestat in Interview with the Vampire; Jack in Speed, Tristan in Legends of the Fall, which went to Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, and Brad Pitt, respectively. Instead, he picked parts that didn’t revolve around his good looks. The weirder the better: He starred in Edward Scissorhands, Cry-Baby, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Ed Wood, and chose parts—like that of Raoul Duke, aka Hunter S. Thompson, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—in which he transformed himself into the most physically unglamorous specimen possible.
His agent at the time, Tracey Jacobs, was quoted in Premiere Magazine saying: “Johnny made a choice when he came out of the television series to take a left turn as opposed to the right. If I had to quote something Johnny would or has said to describe him it would be, ‘I have taken the road less traveled and that has made all the difference.’”
Despite the fact that he worked hard to distance himself from the pretty boy image, he was twice picked as People’s Sexiest Man Alive, in 2003 and 2009.
And if he hated Hollywood, his disdain for America itself was even more palpable. He met French singer Vanessa Paradis in 1998 and decamped to a rural village in France’s Côte d’Azur in a form of self-imposed exile. When he gave interviews to the press, he was often quoted talking about his native country with derision.
“America is dumb, it’s like a dumb puppy that has big teeth that can bite and hurt you, aggressive,” he told the German news magazine Stern in 2003. “My daughter is four, my boy is one. I’d like them to see America as a toy, a broken toy. Investigate it a little, check it out, get this feeling and then get out.” He later said the magazine had taken him out of context.
For, a while, it seemed as if Americans were able to turn the other cheek—after the Pirates movies, he played Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie in Finding Neverland, for which he was also nominated for Best Actor.
Harvey Weinstein told People in 2004, “He is the most versatile actor in the industry. He is a leading man, a character actor, and he has the courage of his convictions.”
But with Transcendence it seems as if the American public may have finally tired of his too-cool-for-Hollywood—or America, for that matter—shtick.
What’s more, Depp’s personal life seems to be in upheaval. At 50, he’s newly engaged to Amber Heard, 27, his costar in another flop, The Rum Diary, having split from Paradis, 41, the mother of his two children. Even though a public figure’s personal life shouldn’t rub off on what people think of him professionally, there’s perhaps some distaste from his biggest fans—women—stemming from him ditching his longtime partner for a younger, hotter actress, 23 years younger than him, who was in a long-term relationship with a woman prior to hooking up with Depp.
In a reversal of stereotypical May-December romance coverage, though, at least one press outlet sneered at the matchup: the U.K. paper The Express ribbed the older man in the pairing with a story headlined “A blond Johnny Depp shows his age as he dines out with Amber Heard.”
While Depp might not be called on by the studios to headline blockbusters in the coming years—save the upcoming 2016 Pirates release—it probably doesn’t matter one whit to him. As one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood for much of the past decade, landing on Forbes’ list in 2012 at a reported $30 million after a purported high of a $75 million in 2010, Depp has what few Hollywood actors don’t have: “f*ck you money.” If he never makes another hit, he can still take that to the bank.