Newsmaker: Johnny Depp takes a nosedive with The Lone Ranger

The charismatic Hollywood actor, best known for his role in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, is facing tough questions over his career after the dismal performance of his latest big-budget film, writes Colin Randall.

Johnny Depp. Illustration by Kagan Mcleod
Powered by automated translation

There may be moments when Johnny Depp wishes that he could forget the barbed trappings of Hollywood and retreat to France and the Provençal market town where he knew much happiness.

If such times do occur, now is likely to be one of them.

Depp's new film, a big-screen remake of the corny old western radio and television series, The Lone Ranger, is a box-office flop. Pundits are starting to ask whether his powers to woo cinemagoers are on the wane.

Depp's life has undergone further turbulence - heavily publicised romantic trouble and the approach of next month's Californian court hearing to consider a woman's claim for punitive damages from him after she accused his bodyguards of manhandling her at a pop concert.

How the actor must yearn for the tranquillity and simple charm of Le Plan-de-la-Tour, a village of fewer than 3,000 souls set among vineyards 17 kilometres from the bustle, glitz and paparazzi of Saint-Tropez.

Depp, who typically spent several months of each year at the 15-hectare estate with his partner Vanessa Paradis and their two children, once summed up life there as "like being in heaven".

France had given him not only a marvellous family but also "an equilibrium which I had lacked enormously", he told the French magazine VSD in 2010.

In Le Plan-de-la-Tour, he could tend his garden, mix with locals broadly unimpressed by big-shot newcomers and even join them for a game of pétanque. This traditional, southern French pastime, played with hollow metal balls on the grass, is contested earnestly by aficionados, but remains unhurried and leisurely enough to offer an ideal antidote to the challenges of modern life.

Critical and public reaction to The Lone Ranger, in which he plays the Texas lawman's Native American guide Tonto, presents such a challenge.

But even the French idyll is slipping into Depp's past after his expensive break-up last summer with Paradis, an award-winning French actress and singer, ended months of unconvincing denial.

As for the film, the US website says it suffered a dismal start and will struggle to top takings of $100 million (Dh367m). The figure stops seeming respectable once it is remembered that the movie, directed by Gore Verbinski, with whom Depp previously enjoyed a run of box office winners, had a production budget of twice as much. The Lone Ranger is already being written off as a failure likely to cost Disney dearly.

Box Office Mojo felt it could identify the flaw: "When Pirates [of the Caribbean] opened, Johnny Depp's portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow seemed fresh and exciting; after a decade of playing similarly wacky characters, his portrayal of Tonto in The Lone Ranger just felt like more of the same."

Despite that critic's wearied tone, Depp can take some comfort in the praise of others for his role, seen by some as the saving grace of the production. And he may care less what critics think than is supposed, having insisted in the past that finding a role interesting means more to him than its bankability. "I always felt like, you know, money is all it's about," he told the website, voicing frustration with the business face of Hollywood. "Well, hopefully, it [money] will come at some point. But if it doesn't, that's all right."

Self-deprecation is a strong part of his armour. When the interviewer pointed out that he had "done a lot of really inventive roles", he replied: "You're saying I'm a weirdo?"

But vultures are circling. The United States film trade press is asking whether his involvement any longer provides the magnetic factor that ensures a film, even a blockbuster, makes money. And that question has been posed in other parts of the world, too.

"A blot on Johnny Depp's sparkling resume, or a sign that the end is nigh?" asked Karl Quinn, national film editor for Australia's Fairfax Media, in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Quinn observed, from a closer look at the track record of one of US cinema's top actors, that nearly half the box office revenue generated by him is attributable to the Pirates of the Caribbean series.

According to the International Movie Database (, the four Pirates films - Verbinski directed the first three - have grossed $1.28 billion. Other estimates put its moneyspinning qualities even higher, reporting that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, the second in the series, alone made more than $1bn (Dh3.67bn).

Depp, who turned 50 in June, was born John Christopher Depp II, the youngest of four children of a civil engineer and waitress.

He has talked of his belief that he has some Native American blood, which he links to a great-grandmother "who grew up Cherokee or maybe Creek Indian". This has not yet been verified, arousing some scepticism among Native American groups, and a rival theory, from, that his eighth great-grandmother was actually the first African-American woman to sue for freedom from slavery and win.

After an unsettled early childhood, Depp and his family moved to Florida. His parents divorced when he was 15 and he led a troubled life as a teenager, inflicting knife wounds of which scars are still visible. He smoked from the age of 12, was sexually active at 13 and experimented with drugs at 14.

Dropping out of high school, he began playing in a rock band that relocated to Los Angeles to try its luck. There, he met his first wife, Lori Anne Allison, a make-up artist; the marriage lasted only two years but brought him the introductions that launched his acting career.

Early roles progressively raised his profile, as the boyfriend of the heroine of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and as a Vietnamese-speaking private in the Oliver Stone film Platoon. And by the late 1980s, he had an adoring teenage following from his part in a television police series, 21 Jump Street.

In an impressive filmography, he has accepted a bewildering, almost chaotic range of roles. With diversity and enterprise has come acknowledgement of a rare talent.

There have been three Oscar nominations as Best Actor, for the first of the Pirates movies, The Curse of the Black Pearl, for Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and then for Marc Foster's Finding Neverland. Though Academy trophies have eluded him, he did win Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards respectively for his parts in the first two of those films.

Among those "really inventive roles" of an interview's assessment, Depp portrayed the writer Hunter S Thompson, though the character was renamed, in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a film version of the cult writer's autobiographical novel. He also became friendly with Thompson, as he did with Burton, with whom he teamed up for the films Edward Scissorhands and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

And the remarkable success of the Pirates series owes much to Depp's idiosyncratic portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow; he says his model was Keith Richards, the dishevelled half of the Jagger-Richards driving force behind the Rolling Stones.

Depp may not be a weirdo. Yet he is clearly drawn to, or influenced by, unconventional individuals; he is, moreover, one on his own account. Among a dozen or more tattoos, a relic of his boyhood self-harm, are several denoting significant parts of his life. His mother and children's names are there, as was "Winona Forever" on his right biceps, added during a romance with his Edward Scissorhands co-star, Winona Ryder, but changed to "Wino Forever" after their split.

Despite the outwardly philosophical outlook, Depp may find current setbacks hard to bear, having enjoyed such handsome recognition in a tough business. And given his taste for high-profile relationships - he also spent four years with the British supermodel Kate Moss - it is possible that domestic drama is even more disconcerting than professional disappointment.

It was Paradis who gave Depp his love of France and French family life. She was credited with having steered him away from a lifestyle of womanising, excessive smoking and alcohol, though she was even-handed - or protective - enough to say: "I didn't tame Johnny Depp. We tamed each other."

In any event, the actor clearly appreciated the stability that French domesticity gave him. On CNN's Larry King Live in 2011, he admitted that meeting Paradis was the event that changed his life for the better.

Their 14 years together produced a daughter, Lily-Rose Melody, now 14, and a son, John "Jack" Christopher, 10. On the same show, acknowledging that religion "is not my specialty", he said: "I have faith in my kids."

Depp has shown himself to be a generous man and fatherhood was the inspiration for his grandest act of philanthropy. In 2007, Lily-Rose spent months in London's renowned children's hospital, Great Ormond Street, recovering from a serious E. coli infection.

In gratitude, he gave about US$2m (Dh7.3m) to the hospital. That was a significant but hardly ruinous gesture for a super-rich man, but he also donated four hours of his time, dressed in his Captain Sparrow costume, and reading stories to young patients.

But if Depp is looking for a happy next chapter in his own story, he may rest his sights on a trusted source: the scheduled release two years from now of the fifth instalment of Pirates of the Caribbean.

The Biog

June 9, 1963 Born John Christopher Depp II in Owensboro, Kentucky, US, to John Christopher and Betty Sue Depp

1983 Marries Lori Anne Allison; she introduces him to film contacts

1984 Appears in the horror movie A Nightmare on Elm Street

1987 Starring role in the Fox television series, 21 Jump Street

1990 Title role in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands

1998 Begins 14-year relationship with Vanessa Paradis, mother of their two children

2003 Stars as Captain Jack Sparrow, a shambolic buccaneer in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first in a series of which the fifth movie is due in 2015

2012 Parts from Paradis

2013 Latest release, The Lone Ranger, is a flop

Follow us

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.