Saturday, January 7, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "Black Mass" (2015)

Johnny Depp
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

Black Mass (2015)
Directed By: Scott Cooper
Written By: Mark Mallouk Jez Butterworth (Screenplay), Dick Lehr & Gerard O'Neill (Book)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson
Genre: Biography, Crime, Drama
Running Time: 123 minutes
Summary: The true story of Whitey Bulger, the brother of a state senator and the most infamous violent criminal in the history of South Boston, who became an FBI informant to take down a Mafia family invading his turf.

The Movie

Everybody loves a great comeback story. It's what the Oscar season is sometimes built on. In the case of cinema, a comeback story is usually when a veteran who has made middling work returns with something that is so vibrant and successful that they are welcomed back to their former glory. 2016's Oscar race looks to be having this story with Mel Gibson and Hacksaw Ridge: a film that not only restores his box office success, but has slowly been trickling through awards season while racking up an endless supply of nominations. There's something exciting, almost nostalgic, about being reminded of someone's value. It makes them seem more sympathetic and able to be forgiven.

In 2015, that story was no truer than for Johnny Depp and Black Mass. Going into the film, Depp has an uphill battle critically. 2008 was the last point which he had received an Oscar nomination (Best Actor - Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street), and it could be argued that it was his last point of popularity as the character actor whose make-up wearing disguises had won over the box office with billions upon billions of dollars. It's a strange story to think that he ever stopped achieving this given his impressive, almost unstoppable run in the first decade of the 21st century. Then again, he fit into the genre film well so easily that it's a miracle he became a household name.

Then there's everything else that followed that last Oscar nomination. It wasn't immediate, but it became impossible to ignore with each passing year. Films like The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, Mortdecai, and Tusk were all universally panned box office failures that got him labeled with the moniker "box office poison." To some extent, it dampened the appeal of Black Mass as being more than another period drama for the actor - albeit with less silly make-up. With that said, his comeback story was going to be the prestigious one, Oscar number four. He was playing famed gangster Whitey Bulger and the trailers were menacing. But, could he pull it off? Not even he really wanted to.

- The Campaign -

The story begins like every other one. Director Scott Cooper sought out to make a film about famed gangster Whitey Bulger. Since he was still alive, he tried to contact his lawyer for personal accounts of the events that would be depicted in Black Mass. That didn't happen, though his fascination with everyone having different accounts of the same story remained interesting to him. Meanwhile, he signed on Johnny Depp, who was going to become Bulger slowly but surely. He was nervous about being accurate to the man's demeanor, so he studied his moves carefully, trying to become as menacing and quiet as the man actually was.

The transformation story is key for any good Oscar campaign, though it wasn't as focused on as the novelty that was becoming live action Depp performances. He wasn't playing a cartoon character, or one thrown into a world of heavy computer designs. He was merely playing a real person in a real drama. The nostalgia of having the Depp who cared back was enough to get people excited that he was going to be the comeback king of the year. Maybe this would lead him back to making the charismatic dramas that gained him respect in the first place. Early reviews from critics praised his performance, and he quickly became an Oscar front runner.

While not a total decry of the voting system, Depp's Oscar campaign did hit a bit of a snag when he spoke out against receiving a nomination. He claimed that he didn't want to win the award. It wasn't because of the honor it would bestow upon his career, but that he didn't want to get up and make a speech. Speaking as the actor is largely antisocial and doesn't watch his own work anyways, this logic makes sense. Before pundits called him out entirely, he managed to slip in one little compliment: a nomination would be nice.

Films released in September usually end up being ignored entirely for awards, and Black Mass wasn't doing too well around Golden Globes time. While Depp would receive some, he would inevitably lose momentum as films like Spotlight and The Revenant overwhelmed the conversation. While the box office was excellent, earning a rather healthy $99 million on a $53 million budget, the reviews weren't as kind. The early buzz died along with the film despite being initially noticed for having a very strong acting ensemble. The film was practically out of the race. It didn't help that this was around the time that Depp was having an international incident involving taking his dog illegally to Australia. Everything about the real life of Depp overshadowed the movie.

- The Payoff -

It's safe to say that Depp's comeback story was for naught. In the immediate sense, this was clear in that he didn't receive an Oscar nomination. Instead former What's Eating Gilbert Grape? co-star Leonardo DiCaprio received a Best Actor nomination and won for The Revenant. It was clearly going to be his year to win, as many praised DiCaprio's physical transformation and selfless skills of putting him foolishly in harm's way for the sake of cinema. Everyone else in the category was a thankless runner-up, and by then Depp wasn't even being thought of as a runner-up to the runner-up. He was long gone.

In the long end of the story, Depp would continue to have a career, though one that lacked the reverence that people were hoping he would receive. In 2016, he starred in four films including another box office bomb in Alice Through the Looking Glass. He also started off the year with the unfortunate alternative to an Oscar: a Razzie nomination for Mortdecai. His career has hit so much of a snag that loyal fans to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series groaned when they discovered that he would be the main villain in the spin-off series Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. While 2017 promises another surefire hit in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, there's little to suggest that he has gained any status as an actual box office draw.

There are comeback stories of all kinds, and Depp's is one of failure. While he is still enough of a household name to do whatever he wants, the box office moniker hasn't exactly disappeared either. He still gets associated with critically panned movies, in part because of his performances. There's little to suggest that he will pull through and gain a fourth Oscar nomination. It's not because he doesn't want one, but because he just seems to be putting his investments in the wrong projects. There's still hope that he will surprise us all, but considering how everyone responded to him being cast in Fantastic Beasts, it is likely going to be a negative surprise.

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