Your current correspondent has always been grateful for the continuing existence of Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. All three of us were born in the same year. As time passed and hair became sparse, Depp and Pitt obliged by remaining trim, glamorous and fantastically popular. Almost nobody else born in 1963 continued to gleam so radiantly as Brad and Johnny, but the news that such incandescence was still possible offered some small comfort.
Pitt has had a few issues lately. The divorce from Angelina Jolie is looking messy. A recent GQ photoshoot had something of the midlife crisis about it. But he still seems like a class act.
In contrast, Depp is properly letting us down. A few photographs have shown evidence that middle-age can ravage even princes of the Hollywood uplands. Awful films such as Mordecai and Alice Through the Looking Glass have bombed at the box office. Then there was that humiliating falling-out between Australia and the Depp dogs.
In April 2015, Depp and Amber Heard, momentarily his wife, broke that nation’s biosecurity laws when they flew their Yorkshire terriers into Queensland without placing the beasts in quarantine. The case rumbled on for a year before the couple were issued with a fine and a warning. This was not the worst of it.
Depp and Heard were compelled to apologise and urge others to canine vigilance in a video that set new standards for cringe-inducing insincerity. You just did not see Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton do this sort of thing in the 1970s (as Pitt, Depp and I are old enough to remember). Robert Mitchum spent a spell in jail. But he never had to prostrate himself to the Southern Hemisphere for indulging his smaller pets. The Depp mystique was damaged.
Since then, we have been made aware of much greater catastrophes. In short, it looks as if Mr Depp is going broke. How can this be possible? Joel Mandel, his now-estranged business manager, claims that the star earned $650 million in just 13 years. You'd need to be buying islands by the string to make even a modest dent in that sort of wad. A recent report in the Hollywood Reporter suggested he was doing just that.
There’s more. He famously spent $5 million blasting author Hunter S Thompson’s ashes into space. His staff costs are alleged to run to around $3.6 million a year. The $30,000 he spends on wine every month seems, in comparison, to be just the mildest indulgence. Total monthly bills amounted to around $2 million.
After being confronted with the terrifying reality, Depp agreed to sell a yacht. He was going to sell his chateau in Saint Tropez, but subsequently had second thoughts. (If you fancy a bolthole in the South of France, the property has been listed at $39 million.) Spend half an hour reading this stuff and the figures lose all meaning. One wouldn’t be surprised to hear he spent $33 squillion on having individual baked beans flown to his second home on the planet Saturn.
Depp desperately needs to prove that his face is still a marketable asset. That will be tested this weekend when Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge, the fifth episode in the buccaneer cycle, opens in cinemas throughout the world. It's hard to overestimate the significance of the Pirates films to his brand.
The earlier chapters occupy four positions in the top five of Depp’s highest-grossing films. But do people still want to see Depp – Tommy Cooper accent and Kohl-black eyes – balancing hilariously on a dangling plank as Captain Jack Sparrow?
Behaviour on set
It won't help that stories have begun to bubble up about his behaviour on the set in Australia. That Hollywood Reporter piece groaned with embarrassing anecdotes. "Sources close to the production report tales of excessive drinking, physical fights with Heard and constant lateness on set, which often left hundreds of extras waiting for hours at a time," it said. Heard was granted a restraining order following claims that he had physically abused her. They subsequently divorced.
To add to his misery, Alice Through the Looking Glass, follow-up to the all-conquering Alice in Wonderland, crashed and burned at the box office. Had the original fans all grown up or was Depp now permanently toxic?
Deadline Hollywood offered a depressing assessment of the public's attitude. "CinemaScore reported over the weekend that 35 per cent bought tickets to see Alice 2 because of Depp versus 51 per cent back in 2010," it read. To clarify, of those that did attend both films, many fewer were doing so because of the actor's presence. Maybe they were just sheltering from the rain.
It is only fair to consider Depp’s precipitous rise to stardom and his many happy years at the top of the tree. He was born to a middle-class family in Kentucky, but spent most of his childhood in southern Florida. He played in various bands and, in the mid 1980s, was married for two years to one Lori Anne Allison.
Breakthrough came with a modestly sized role in A Nightmare on Elm Street and, in 1987, a lead part in the TV series 21 Jump Street. He was great in Cry Baby for John Waters. In 1990, he won raves for his turn as a lonely oddball in Tim Burton's still delicious Edward Scissorhands.
The partnership with that director – as fecund as that between Scorsese and De Niro – delivered such fine films as Sweeney Todd and Sleepy Hollow. Both director and star had, arguably, their finest moment with Ed Wood in 1994.
Depp rarely played bullies, brawlers or buffoons. His trademark was a class of gorgeous vulnerability that shortened the gulf between star and viewer. He may be more glamorous than us. But he is often sadder than us. In the first decade or so of his career, Depp made a genuine effort to stick with independent (and independently minded) filmmakers. He appeared in the monochrome western Dead Man for Jim Jarmusch. He was in Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Essentially, Depp was striving to seem countercultural from within the centre of mainstream culture. He and his partner of 12 years, Vanessa Paradis (who supported him during the disputes with Heard) bought a place in France and lived like multi-millionaire bohemians. He has a tattoo reading “Death is certain” on his ankle.
He became friendly with every middle-class teenager’s icon of anarchic rebellion: the now-orbital Hunter S Thompson. Keith Richards is also a pal. He played guitar with Oasis and formed a group with Alice Cooper and Joe Perry. Hang on. This is beginning to sound more middle-aged than anything that happens on the average suburban allotment.
The problem with striving for countercultural kudos as a star is that, beyond a certain point, such an attitude begins to look very much like a pose. Adam Sandler may be an unfashionable presence who has never troubled the arbiters of urban cool. But we are pretty sure he is who he says he is. Depp began to look less comfortable in his hip skin as he passed 50 (not that that is in any way old).
Rot set in
Until the beginning of this decade, however, he remained a significant box-office draw. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was huge. Sweeney Todd did well enough for an adaptation of a forbidding Stephen Sondheim show. The rot began to set in with the strange, ill-defined The Tourist in 2010. Over the succeeding seven years, only Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides broke the run of Depp-headed flops. (Into the Woods, another Sondheim adaptation, took $213 million, but Depp had only a fleeting role.)
The extraordinary barrage of negative publicity does not help. In the past few weeks, it has been alleged that Depp hired an audio engineer to feed him his lines via an earpiece. But Depp has also suffered from the general decline of movie stardom as a factor in box-office success. It’s hard to think of a single film in the 2016 top 10 that was sold on its star.
Was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story flogged on Felicity Jones? Hardly. Did people go to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them because of Eddie Redmayne? Not many, I fear. What works now are familiar franchises that have already proven their drawing power throughout the world.
Mind you, Pirates of the Caribbean is certainly that. The film will probably still be a smash. But Captain Jack, rather than Johnny Depp, should get most of the credit.