Well, at the moment there's only speculation as to which character the chameleonic actor will play in the planned sequel to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which already has a Nov. 16, 2018, release date, but the addition of Depp to J.K. Rowling's universe makes sense no matter what...
Six months ago, yes. What a no-brainer get. But this isn't six months ago. Instead, we find ourselves at the crossroads sooner than we thought we would.
The as-yet untitled Fantastic Beasts sequel hardly the first project announced for Depp since Amber Heard raised abuse allegations against the Golden Globe winner when she filed for divorce at the end of May. He's already attached to a true-crime story about the murders of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur, an update of the monster classic The Invisible Man and the villainous-victim role in a remake of Murder on the Orient Express, among other things.
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.
So it's not that anyone was thinking Depp wasn't going to work again, or would even have trouble finding work. But we might have been thinking that the release of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the first teaser for which did not feature Captain Jack Sparrow, would be the real test as to whether Heard's unsettling accusations actually did knock Depp from his perch as the generally worshiped movie star that he's been for the past 20 years.
The film's release date of May 26, 2017, will mark exactly a year after Depp issued a most telling statement about the breakup of his marriage.
Alice Through the Looking Glass tanked at the box office, but though it was released literally days after Heard filed for a restraining order (since lifted, as their divorce proceedings have since been settled), it's unwise to blame that too much on his private life. Depp's been in tons of bombs, and though Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland earned over $1 billion, it didn't get great reviews and this may have just been one of those instances in which the studio over-shot—plenty of sequels have met similar fates recently.
And judging by the knee-jerk support lavished on Depp on social media, he didn't seem to lose too many fans in those early days.
But the spotlight on Depp only grew more unflattering as the settlement negotiations dragged on, with the actor ultimately agreeing to donate $7 million to two charities of Heard's choice and signing on to an opaque statement that acknowledged the "intensely passionate and at times volatile" nature of their relationship. "Volatile" being the loaded word.
And while it's been easy to forget about the Depp drama in light of more recent celebrity split news, particularly the ongoing FBI investigation into Brad Pitt's treatment of his kids in the wake of Angelina Jolie filing for divorce, the reaction to Depp's Fantastic Beasts casting brought it all rushing back.
winona ryder's career was ruined for yrs just for shoplifting but johnny depp can be abusive & immediately get cast in a big film franchise— wokus pocus (@opaIlynch) November 2, 2016
I know it's old news, but nothing makes me want to see the second Fantastic Beasts movie LESS than hearing that Johnny Depp is in it - J— Heather & Jessica (@fuggirls) November 2, 2016
remember when megan fox didn't like michael bay so her career got ruined, and johnny depp abused his wife so got a huge 5 film franchise?— Anna Menta (@annalikestweets) November 2, 2016
Johnny Depp playing Grindelwald? Dumbledore's teen crush who slowly becomes an evil wizard? It should be easy for him to get in character!— @midnight (@midnight) November 2, 2016
Thanks @jk_rowling for casting Johnny Depp + giving him the fame needed to help us forget the domestic abuse trial. I'm sure he's grateful.— Really Very Rachael (@ReallyVeryRach) November 2, 2016
I'm livid about the Johnny Depp casting. It's revealed that you attacked and abused your wife and then you get this? No. Absolutely not.— Rosianna Halse Rojas (@papertimelady) November 2, 2016
Joining in on letting @jk_rowling know how disappointed I am that Johnny Depp will be appearing in the fantastic beasts series.— Sarah Snitch (@SarahSnitch) November 2, 2016
Haven't seen a single positive tweet about Johnny Depp's casting in FANTASTIC BEASTS. This can't be the kind of PR that WB was hoping for...— Jeff Sneider (@TheInSneider) November 2, 2016
The negative feedback also showed that those who see Depp in a certain light thanks to Heard's allegations are no longer being drowned out by the hotheads who trashed Amber as a gold digger and a sketchy liar in May. Whether that contingent is of a career-altering magnitude remains to be seen. (And the next Pirates still isn't a perfect test, because it's the fifth movie in a franchise that's already running on creative fumes, so there could be less interest regardless.)
Fantastic Beasts is certainly no indie operation, so Warner Bros. must not be too concerned about Depp derailing the franchise—even if they were already stuck with him because of a rumored cameo he has in the first film, the Harry Potter outfit has changed actors between movies before when necessary. They could've let him go. And J.K. Rowling doesn't exactly strike us as someone who doesn't care about women's issues or personal character, especially when it comes to the heart of her Hogwarts empire.
So we're left wondering, and not for the first time this year, either: What is the right move here, for audiences? Is acknowledging a moral quandary but then compartmentalizing and watching anyway the same thing as ignoring? Is separating the real person from the work a viable option? Is it all right in certain cases but not in others? Do we have to internalize every star's screw-up or is it OK to shrug it off if our emotions don't comply, even if we know that caring a lot would probably be the more socially acceptable response?
Should an accusation be treated the same as unequivocal proof? And if there's proof, are all sins created equal? Is to forgive actually divine—and if so, then when?
In January, months before anyone had to think twice about having a thing for Johnny Depp, a film called The Birth of a Nation (purposely named after D.W. Griffith's pioneering yet horribly racist 1915 epic) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to a thundering standing ovation. The violent, no-punches-pulled telling of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner was almost immediately heralded as the sort of essential film that would own the 2017 Oscars, acting as a salve for the wounds laid bare by the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
Ryan Kobane/Sundance Institute
Instead, the film would open in theaters on Oct. 7 cloaked in moral uncertainty because over the summer it was widely reported that the film's director, writer and star, Nate Parker, had been charged with rape 15 years ago and his accuser committed suicide in 2012. Parker was acquitted on all counts, while his college roommate Jean McGianni Celestin—who has a writing credit on The Birth of a Nation—was convicted of sexual assault but got the conviction overturned on grounds of ineffective counsel. The victim was still willing to testify at a retrial, but other witnesses had scattered so prosecutors opted not to retry the case.
But though Parker was found not guilty, his involvement as a whole—as well as what was widely perceived to be his lack of the caliber of contrition required to appease his doubters, if that was even possible—immediately put his film in the most precarious of positions. How should people separate the film and the filmmaker while watching—and should the film even be seen at all? Was it so important that people should put...what, exactly, behind them? He was found innocent, but because of the often complicated nature of rape cases and the difficulty of proving sexual assault at trial, is it impossible to believe in that verdict?
Gabrielle Union, one of the film's stars and a past victim of sexual assault, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which she admitted that she too remained plagued by confusion. She felt the movie was worth seeing (and plenty of others have shared that opinion, it wasn't a promotional interjection), but she acknowledged the possibly irreconcilable feelings that would accompany almost anyone into the theater.
Union's piece was applauded by most but still criticized by some, those who accused her of shilling for the film, of self-righteously inserting her voice into the conversation. But we'll just roll our eyes at Union's critics, because if anyone deserved a platform to shed light on the issues troubling anyone interested in seeing The Birth of a Nation, it's this actress.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Ironically, the film's Oscar prospects have dimmed considerably thanks to what dims most Oscar prospects—reviews. The critical reception was ultimately tepid, despite the emotional effect the movie has on audiences (as evidenced by the reception it got in Toronto, at the height of the discussion about Parker, the man, vs. Parker, the director).
While early reviews after Sundance were largely glowing, all of the reviews published in October upon the film's release obviously had to grapple with the Parker controversy—so, once again, tried as the best critics might have to spell out where real life was meeting art for them on the screen, it's impossible to know if its Rotten Tomatoes score would've been any higher if Parker had not become a controversial figure.
"The Birth of a Nation" is a movie with distinct and distinctive virtues, thematic and aesthetic, which emerge from Parker's impassioned and extended reflection on Nat Turner's life and on the monstrous institution of slavery in the United State," wrote The New Yorker's Richard Brody. "It also is a seriously damaged and inadequate movie, and its defects reveal traits of character—arrogance, vanity, and self-importance—that exert an unfortunately strong influence on Parker's directorial choices."
"An artist's conduct alone, no matter how deplorable, doesn't prevent him from making art that has significant merits," Brody added. "But a work of art is made by a person, and in this case by the same person who has gone on the road and spoken, inadequately and irresponsibly, of the event in his past."
The film has earned about $15.2 million at the box office, and turnout at an Academy screening last month was deemed disappointing. The same Academy that awarded Roman Polanski the Best Director Oscar in 2003 for The Pianist, 26 years after he fled the U.S. after admitting to sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl—an unresolved issue that has kept him from returning to the United States to this day.
Rob Kim/Getty Images for Amazon
That same Academy has heaped a fair amount of love on Woody Allen, despite allegations that he molested his daughter Dylan Farrow, over the years. Cate Blanchett won Best Actress for Blue Jasmine not long after Dylan revived her decades-old claims about her father in The New York Times. Allen has vehemently denied the accusations, and while he hasn't been nominated for any Oscars since the flames of controversy were fanned more recently, huge stars continue to clamor to work with him.
Memories are long, yet short and malleable, at the same time.
Echoes of the Birth of a Nation reviews are to be found this week in the reviews of Hacksaw Ridge, Mel Gibson's first big-screen directorial effort since 2006's Apocalypto, which opened just months after a DUI arrest revealed a grotesque side of the onetime Sexiest Man Alive. The LA Times' Justin Chang called Hacksaw Ridge "somehow both deeply dishonest and crushingly sincere"—a conclusion as potentially laden with double meaning as is verbally possible.
The based-on-a-true-story film about a pacifist doctor, played by Andrew Garfield, who joins the Army during World War II but refuses to bear arms, got a nine-minute, 48-second standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival in September (Gibson offered that exact time on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last night).
Cue the Gibson mentions in the conversation already being had about Parker, as well as the overall questions about whether the Braveheart star had been popularly shunned enough for his anti-Semitic screed that came while he was "on a bunch of double tequilas," which as then followed by him being caught on tape spewing racial slurs while ranting at Olga Grigorieva, the mother of his eighth child.
Gibson hadn't been entirely without high-profile support, nor was he that absent from the scene, but now that he's back on the promo circuit for a film he's obviously very proud of, his past transgressions are once again very much a topic of conversation.
Asked what the moment was when he felt that people would accept his apology and things were going to be OK, Gibson told Colbert, "just when I apologized, I think. You know, of course you take a hiding [meant in the whipping sense], and that's OK...You take the shots, you try not to yell too much, you try to be manful about it. Don't react too much. But it's interesting, it's a moment in time.
"It's a pity one has to be defined with the label from, you know, having a nervous breakdown in the back of a police car on a bunch of double tequilas, but that's what it is. Now, this is not...that moment shouldn't define the rest of my life."
"No person is their worst moment," Colbert agreed.
"The other thing too is," Gibson added, "there's no action that ever supports that label they put on me, so..." He tossed up his hands. "It's just not who I am."
That sounds reasonable, but it's also coming from the man himself and tell that to the countless people who were offended and disgusted by the things he said, under the influence or not. And yet... what Colbert said is reasonable as well. But couldn't a moment be bad enough that it makes a person less deserving of a certain level of adulation?
Not to say Gibson's offense was irredeemable, making him deserving of pariah status forever. We watch and listen to a lot of stuff that isn't necessarily made by great husbands or wives, or good parents, or perfect citizens, or even nice people. If we saw all artists at their worst moments, the list of potential candidates to wash our hands of would be even longer than it is now. Moreover, if we didn't continue to have an affinity for certain actors, or at least not mind them, despite their screw-ups, then we probably never really liked them that much in the first place.
Just as Gabrielle Union concluded, there is no easy answer to the question of how to approach Nate Parker's film in light of what we know about Nate Parker. And don't know about him. Apparently his acquittal in a court of law isn't enough to convince some people that he isn't a creep who never learned the error of his ways.
Especially since 2016 has been fraught with political tensions stemming from the treatment of women and the hard realization that deep-rooted misogyny may be even more of a problem somehow than we already thought, we just won't know until Parker's next creative endeavor whether the cloud of suspicion and distaste has settled in for a longer stretch. And we may never know whether that's fair or not.
Johnny Depp, meanwhile, was never charged with a crime with regard to his wife and, like Gibson, we've seen evidence and heard allegations that substance abuse has played a role in his more volatile behavior. And now that he and Amber Heard have settled their divorce, the book is fairly closed on what actually occurred between them.
He hasn't gone into hiding, but rather has been performing with the Hollywood Vampires and, earlier this week, it was announced he had left longtime agency UTA and joined CAA—kind of a coup, kind of a question mark, considering the new baggage that needs unpacking. But it means Depp and his team are thinking about his next step, which already includes a handful of films and at some point will include a return to talk shows, if not necessarily a prime-time, tell-all interview.
The moral sounding board on Twitter will always be there, as will his defenders, but we'll know eventually whether public opinion has turned enough to have a commercial effect on Depp's career. And if it doesn't, that doesn't mean we aren't asking ourselves the tough questions. It just means we're as OK as we always have been with leaving them unanswered.