Depp, Johnny: Actor Vs. Star Commodity–Black Mass

black_mass_1_deppAsked to describe the essence of movie stardom, the great Humphrey Bogart once said: “You have to drag your weight at the box-office and be recognized wherever you go.”

I was thinking of Bogart’s definition after watching Johnny Depp’s bravura performance in the impressive crime-gangster Black Mass, Scott Cooper’s superbly engaging, elegantly shot biopic of Bulger, who became an FBI informant and used this position to eradicate criminal competition. The film offers Depp his meatiest role in a long time, and with some luck, his riveting performance could earn him his fourth Oscar nomination.

The pool of “bankable” actors who have the name value to get a movie financed is small. In an age of diminishing star power, Depp is one of a few actors who continues to matter, especially overseas. Like Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, Depp has always been more popular abroad.  Dark Shadows in 2012, Transcendence in 2013 and The Lone Ranger in 2014 were far more commercial internationally than domestically.

black_mass_5_deppWhile most stars capitalize on their physical looks, using them as a setting for their talents, he has refused to be pigeonholed. Arguably one of the most original and eccentric actor of his generation, Depp continues to face the challenge of how to balance the requirements of movie stardom with his more personal needs as an artist–and he is an artist.

Every actor who becomes a superstar endures because he embodies a particular image, a certain lifestyle, an attitude. Like most genuine stars, Depp is charismatic, vivid, and memorable, but, remarkably, he doesn’t represent a type and doesn’t have an established screen image that he carries from film to film. For Depp, roles like Bulger are “very challenging, and that’s important as an actor, to test yourself each time. Take the chance that you may actually fall flat on your face and look like an ass, but that’s what I do for living!”

black_mass_2_cumberbatch_deppShrewdly, Depp took a reduced salary to play Bulger, the notorious Boston crime lord. Talking about his icy blue eyes, receding white hairline, steely look, and voice, he said: “My eyeballs are black as the ace of spades, and the blue contacts were hand-painted because they need to be piercing, they needed to cut through you.” It expresses Depp’s philosophy of radical physical transformation, which he perceives as his obligation “to give audiences something totally new each time.”

Depp has downplayed the criminal conduct of Bulger whom he describes as “a human being of “proud Irish immigrant stock, dedicated to his family, loyal to his friends and neighborhood. He would help a little old lady bring groceries into her home and then minutes later kill somebody coldly.”

black_mass_3_deppDepp knows that the viable movies that justify the high fees he commands ($20 million per film) are Disney’s tent poles.   Indeed, he is returning to the blockbusters that have made him a megastar. Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass has wrapped shooting and will bow in May 2016, and Pirates 5 will hit theaters in July 2017.

Depp continues to be his own instrument: he is like a violinist who can never change violins but likes to play different kinds of music.

In Black Mass, he’s in top form, fulfilling every bit of expectation his fans hold for him–as a an actor and movie star.