As Johnny Depp Takes Cannes, Hollywood Says It’s Ready for His Comeback

Johnny Depp has played 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 he’s never had this much at stake on the Croisette. As the randy King Louis XV, powdered and wigged in the opening-night Out of Competition selection “Jeanne du Barry,” Depp will begin his latest effort at career rehab.

Depp, who will be 60 in a few weeks, is well past his movie-star prime and remains in recovery from a string of court cases. Depp lost his “wife-beater” U.K. libel case against ex-wife Amber Heard in 2020, but last June he won $10 million in compensatory damages in a U.S. court. Warner Bros. paid his $16 million fee for the third “Fantastic Beasts” film, but asked him to resign from playing the role of Grindelwald in the Harry Potter franchise. (Mads Mikkelsen replaced him.) While Depp’s Keith Richards-inspired Jack Sparrow fueled five “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies that grossed $4.5 billion worldwide, Disney has yet to greenlight a sixth; the studio had lined up Margot Robbie to star, without Depp.

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On the other hand, Depp “is still very meaningful foreign,” wrote one Hollywood agent in an email.

“Jeanne du Barry” opens in France after its festival debut; while some feminists have mounted protests, Europeans seem less concerned with Depp’s lapses. “If there’s one person who didn’t take interest in this trial, it’s me,” Cannes director Thierry Frémaux said at the Cannes Monday press conference. “I don’t know what it’s about. I’m 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 Maïwenn why she cast him.”

Clearly, Maïwenn cast Depp in a supporting character role. But the pony-tailed star turned up on time for the Cannes red carpet, signed autographs for excited fans, spoke French to interviewers, and posed for an eager phalanx of photographers. Reviews so far are solid if unexceptional. (Our critic described it as “perfectly serviceable,” with Depp as a minor note who “affords the French production an additional bit of luster.”) It’s unlikely to find theatrical distribution in North America.

Jeanne du Barry
“Jeanne du Barry”Courtesy Cannes Film Festival

In America, Depp inspires different feelings. At Tuesday’s Competition Jury press conference, jury member Brie Larson may as well have been speaking 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’ll feel about it if I do.”

Depp could do just fine by keeping his focus on Europe. He has his own well-funded production company, Infinitum Nihil, in London. “I’m not sure at this point in his career Hollywood has more to offer him than Europe,” wrote one indie producer in an email. “He’s not going to do ‘my daughter’s been kidnapped’ movies and how many starring vehicles for actors his age are we generating over here? He seems to be doing pretty much what he wants to do there.”

Depp is now set to direct and star in “Modi,” a Modigliani biopic co-starring Al Pacino, with sales company Goodfellas (FKA Wild Bunch) seeking backers in the Cannes market. This isn’t a movie for major studios and, at a time when art-house cinemas are challenged, it’s not one that U.S. buyers will be eager to prebuy.

Another Modigliani movie, “Modigilani,” starred Andy Garcia and premiered at the 2004 Toronto International Film Festival to terrible reviews. Innovation Film Group opened the title in eight theaters in 2005 and it grossed $208,507 domestic. Depp’s last feature was “Minimata” (Metascore 55), 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 barely grossed $1 million worldwide.

Johnny Depp in Minimata
Johnny Depp in “Minimata”Saban

At least Dior believes in Depp. The fragrance house just signed him to a three-year Dior deal valued at a reported $20 million-plus, the biggest ever for a men’s fragrance pact. Because sales of the Dior Sauvage fragrance skyrocketed in the wake of his widely hyped trial, Depp’s scented payday outstripped both Robert Pattinson (Dior Homme) and Brad Pitt (Chanel No. 5).

However, perfume companies generally aren’t troubled by production insurance. Posing for photos is one thing, but when Depp is involved, showing up on set on time can be quite another. Trial testimony from his former agent Tracey Jacobs about his Marlon Brando-scale set misbehavior on “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” when Depp was often late and needed to be fed his lines, was damning.

Still, Hollywood may be willing to embrace the talented actor with a penchant for offbeat roles — if he can behave. I spoke to multiple producers and executives rooting for Depp’s return as that rare commodity, a bona fide movie star with an enormous fan following that took decades to cultivate. Even so: Attention will be paid.

“People are ready to forgive him,” wrote one talent agent in an email. “Like Nic Cage and Robert Downey Jr., they have been flawed human beings but are endearing actors. Nic and Downey earned their redemption and it looks like Johnny is in the process of doing that, too… He would have a better chance of working in U.S. films if people can feel for certain that his bad behavior on sets isn’t going to happen again. And I’m not sure studios are sure that he’s going to be more professional at this point but they’re probably curious. If he gets a good report from the French film, that will help.”

“JD has U.S. as well as ROW [the rest of the world] box office value among young moviegoers and adults alike when he plays an odd character,” wrote one director’s agent. “It’s when he does something dramatic and real that it usually seems not his strong suit.”

One asset for Depp is his manager at hybrid management company Range Media, CAA veteran Jack Whigham. [He] “truly cares about him and is a great rep in general and for JD specifically,” the agent continued.

Another issue is Depp’s appearance. “He also would have a better chance of working in the U.S. if he looked a little better,” wrote the talent agent. “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 (on time, knows his lines, etc.) on the films he works on now, I think Hollywood will cast him in leads again.”

“People have short memories,” wrote one literary agent. “Think it will be same for Depp — unless he continues to be out of control during shooting. That has been a major black mark against him.”

For now, major studios remain off limits. “It will be hard for a studio to hire him today,” wrote one studio production executive. “But it definitely will happen again if he is doing good work and not going back to imitating Peter O’Toole when he works!”

FINDING NEVERLAND, Johnny Depp, 2004, (c) Miramax/courtesy Everett Collection
“Finding Neverland” ©Miramax/Courtesy Everett Collection

The same executive thinks it makes a difference when Depp works for respected filmmakers like Tim Burton, with whom Depp collaborated eight times and earned an Oscar nomination for “Sweeney Todd.” (He also scored nods for the first “Pirates of the Caribbean film, “The Curse of the Black Pearl,” and for “Finding Neverland.”) Said the exec, “[He does] “consistently great work with noted directors…..! It doesn’t matter the size of the part!”

Depp will have to accept a sizable pay cut, though. “He is a great actor so I think he is hirable,” said one studio producer. “The question is what price. My gut says 2-4 [million]. And I am sure the streamers would let him co-lead a series.”

“JD is a good enough actor to resuscitate a career,” wrote screenwriter Larry Gross. “But due to age it will be as a credible character actor rather than as a leading man — he could be the kind of compelling eccentric presence that a Christopher Walken or an Ian McKellen or a Jason Robards have been in their later years.”

Script consultant Nancy Nigrosh suggests that if Depp finds “a small but crucial role in something classy (classy = not based on a comic book or low-rent genre) that is perfectly tailored to his grown-up bad-boy persona, he could be seen as someone who can truly carry his own baggage.”

Or, he could wind up like Joan Crawford at the end of her career, said Submarine co-founder Josh Braun on the phone. “She starred in ‘Trog,’ it was her last movie, one of the worst movies ever made,” he said. “No one else would hire her. She was a B-movie queen.”

What’s perhaps most extraordinary here is after all the court trials, accusations of abuse, production-cost overruns, Depp’s fate remains in his own hands. He can make art films in European exile a la Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, or land a lucrative Hollywood streaming deal, or a string of juicy character roles for name directors. If that doesn’t happen — well, he’ll have no one to blame but himself.

Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.

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