Johnny Depp has acted in Cannes many times, with four of his films in Competition: “Dead Man” and “Ed Wood” (both 1995), “The Brave” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998), but has never had so much at stake on the Croisette. As randy, powdered and wigged King Louis XV in the opening night’s out-of-competition selection “Jeanne du Barry,” Depp will begin his latest professional rehabilitation effort.
Depp, who turns 60 in a few weeks, is long past his prime as a movie star and is still reeling from a string of court cases. Depp lost his UK defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard in 2020, but won $10 million in damages in a US court last June. Warner Bros. paid its $16 million fee for the third ‘Fantastic Beasts’ film, but asked him to step down from his role as Grindelwald in the Harry Potter franchise. (Mads Mikkelsen replaced him.) While Depp’s Keith Richards-inspired Jack Sparrow fueled five “Pirates of the Caribbean” films that grossed $4.5 billion worldwide, Disney has yet to greenlight a sixth; the studio had lined up Margot Robbie as the lead, without Depp.
On the other hand, Depp “is still a very significant foreigner,” wrote a Hollywood agent in an email.
“Jeanne du Barry” opens in France following its festival debut; while some feminists have staged protests, Europeans seem less concerned about Depp’s mistakes. “If there’s one person who hasn’t taken an interest in this process, it’s me,” Cannes director Thierry Frémaux said at Monday’s press conference in Cannes. “I don’t know what it is. I am interested in Johnny Depp as an actor. Everyone knew Johnny Depp was going to be in a film in France. He’s quite extraordinary in the film. Ask Maiwenn why he chose him.
Clearly, Maiwenn cast Depp as a supporting character. But the ponytailed star showed up in time for the Cannes red carpet, she signed autographs for eager fans, spoke French to interviewers and posed for an eager phalanx of photographers. The reviews thus far are solid if not great. (Our critic described it as “perfectly functional,” with Depp as a minor note that “gives the French production that extra polish.”) It’s unlikely to find theatrical release in North America.
In America, Depp inspires different feelings. At Tuesday’s pageant judging press conference, judging panel Brie Larson may also have spoken for Hollywood when she was asked about Depp in “Jeanne du Barry.” “We’ll see if I see it,” she said. “And I don’t know how I would feel if I did.”
Depp could get away with just keeping his focus on Europe. He has his own well-funded production company, Infinitum Nihil, in London. “I’m not sure Hollywood has more to offer than Europe at this point in his career,” wrote an independent producer in an email. “He’s not going to make ‘my daughter has been kidnapped’ movies and how many lead vehicles for actors his age are we generating here? It seems like he’s doing pretty much what he wants to do there.
Depp is now set to direct and star in ‘Modi’, a Modigliani biopic starring Al Pacino, with sales firm Goodfellas (fka Wild Bunch) looking for backers in the Cannes market. This isn’t a big-studio film, and at a time when arthouse theaters are being challenged, it’s not one US buyers will be eager to pre-purchase.
Another Modigliani film, ‘Modigilani’ starred Andy Garcia and premiered at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival to poor reviews. Innovation Film Group opened the title in eight theaters in 2005 and grossed $208,507 domestic. Depp’s latest feature film was “Minimata” (Metascore 55), an Andrew Levitas biopic of investigative photographer W. Eugene Smith. MGM dropped the title after its Berlinale 2020 debut and Goldwyn finally released it in 2022; it grossed barely $1 million worldwide.
At least Dior believes in Depp. The fragrance house just signed him to a three-year contract with Dior worth a reported More than $20 million, the biggest ever for a men’s fragrance pact. As sales of the Dior Sauvage fragrance skyrocketed in the wake of his widely publicized trial, Depp’s perfume payday surpassed both Robert Pattinson (Dior Homme) and Brad Pitt (Chanel No. 5).
However, perfume companies are typically not concerned with production insurance. Posing for photos is one thing, but when Depp is involved showing up on set on time can be another. His former agent Tracey Jacobs’ testimony about his misbehavior on the set of Marlon Brando in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” when Depp was often late and needed to be fed his jokes, is been overwhelming.
However, Hollywood may be willing to embrace the talented actor with a penchant for offbeat roles, if he can perform well. I spoke to several producers and executives rooting for Depp’s return as that rare commodity, a bona fide movie star with a huge fan following that he took decades to cultivate. Even so: attention will be paid.
“People are quick to forgive him,” wrote a talent agent in an email. “Like Nic Cage and Robert Downey Jr., they were flawed humans but they are captivating actors. Nic and Downey have earned their redemption and it looks like Johnny is on the way too…he would have a better chance of working in US movies if people could be sure that his bad behavior on sets isn’t going to happen again. And I’m not sure the studios are sure he’s going to be more professional at this point, but they’re probably curious. If he gets a good account of the French film, he’ll help.”
“JD has box office value in the US and on ROW (rest of the world) among both young and adult moviegoers when playing an odd character,” wrote a director’s agent. “It’s when he does something dramatic and real that usually doesn’t feel like he’s cool with him.”
An asset for Depp is his manager at hybrid management company Range Media, AAC veteran Jack Whigham. (He) “really cares about him and is a great representative in general and for JD in particular,” the agent continued.
Another problem is Depp’s appearance. “He would also have a better chance of working in the US if he looked a little better,” the talent agent wrote. “He looks bloated and unhealthy in the few photos I’ve seen of him recently – he doesn’t look like a movie star to me. If he gets in great shape and if he’s professional (punctual, knows his lines, etc.) in the movies he’s working on now, I think Hollywood will cast him again in the lead.
“People have short memories,” wrote one literary agent. “I think it will be the same for Depp, unless he keeps losing control during filming. This was a big black mark against him.
For now, major studios remain off limits. “It will be difficult for a studio to hire him today,” wrote a studio production executive. “But it will definitely happen again if he’s doing a good job and doesn’t go back to imitating Peter O’Toole when he’s working!”
The same executive thinks it makes a difference when Depp works for respected directors like Tim Burton, with whom Depp has collaborated eight times and earned an Academy Award nomination for “Sweeney Todd.” (He also scored nods for the first film ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl,’ and for ‘Finding Neverland.’) Said the executive, ‘(Fa)’ a very good I work with famous directors….! It doesn’t matter the size of the portion!”
However, Depp will have to accept a sizeable pay cut. “He’s a great actor, so I think he’s palatable,” said a studio producer. “The question is what price. My gut says 2-4 (million). And I’m sure streamers would let him co-direct a series.
“JD is a good enough actor to revive a career,” wrote screenwriter Larry Gross. “But because of age he’ll be as a believable character actor rather than a leading man – he could be the kind of compelling eccentric presence that a Christopher Walken or an Ian McKellen or a Jason Robards was in their later years.”
Script consultant Nancy Nigrosh suggests that if Depp finds “a small but pivotal role in something classy (classy = not based on a low-budget comic or genre) that’s perfectly suited to his adult bad boy persona, it could be seen as someone who can really carry their baggage.
Or she could end up like Joan Crawford at the end of her career, Submarine co-founder Josh Braun said by phone. “She starred in ‘Trog,’ she was her last film, one of the worst films ever made,” he said. “No one else would hire her. She was a B-movie queen.
Perhaps most extraordinary here is that after all the court trials, the abuse allegations, the production cost overruns, Depp’s fate remains in his hands. He can make art films in European exile à la Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, or get a lucrative Hollywood streaming deal, or a string of juicy character roles for famous directors. If that doesn’t happen, well, he’ll have no one to blame but himself.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.