Is Johnny Depp mad? Why on earth did he start legal action that could end in the destruction of his professional life? Unless the appeal his legal team promises succeeds, this may be the last we see of Depp. He’ll be an abusive pariah, and Hollywood studios will never offer him another part. Surely, this must have occurred to him when he initiated his high-stakes action against The Sun, up till recently the bestselling newspaper in the UK. What was going through Depp’s mind? And what next for an actor paid reputedly $90 million for one film alone as recently as 2018?
Since his divorce from fellow actor Amber Heard in August 2016 — Heard filed for divorce and a restraining order after a domestic incident — Depp has repeatedly tried to silence his former wife. But she has been unrepentant. She told The Sun about her life with Depp and provided details of his sexual and physical abuse. In an opinion column, the newspaper described him as a wife-beater who terrified Heard. It was another hurtful jibe, according to Depp, who claimed his public image had transmuted from “Cinderella to Quasimodo in 0.6 seconds”, and that he had lost his career-defining role of Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise as a result.
The Me Too Movement: Changing the Rules of the Game
On November 2, Britain’s high court rejected Depp’s claim for compensation after arguably the most widely followed libel trials of the century so far. The trial, which ended in July, had everything a newspaper like The Sun could have possibly wished for and which may yet provide raw material for a movie: warring celebrities, domestic violence, years-long rumors, gossip and half-truths, and the obligatory stories of drug abuse (snorting cocaine through a tampon applicator was an especially memorable detail). It was nasty, classless and tacky in the extreme. A perfect celeb story. At a time when cinemas were closed, it provided a real-life version of those he said/she said dramas.
Three years ago, the decision against Depp would have been damaging but not terminal. Now, in a world of #MeToo, it is ruinous. No Hollywood studio will risk casting Depp for fear of being accused of rewarding a wife-beater. Depp’s legal team described it as a “perverse and bewildering decision,” though the grounds for appeal are not immediately recognizable. If his lawyers can’t overturn the result, Depp will be cast into the wilderness. He is a wealthy man. But, at 57, Depp was probably not expecting an early retirement when he embarked on his legal action.
He may not have considered that today’s #MeToo culture is unforgiving: Men with power and influence can no longer use those resources to exculpate themselves and resume their careers, often with the reputations not only intact but enhanced. Since October 2017, when disclosures about Harvey Weinstein’s crimes over the course of nearly three decades circulated around the world, there has been a seismic shift in sexual politics. So, I return to my earlier question: Was Depp mad in initiating the action?
His gamble was astonishing. Depp must have known that the decision would either liberate him from sordid hearsay or condemn him. Perhaps he had no choice. After all, in #MeToo culture, even a whiff of domestic abuse can be destructive, and Depp might have sensed Hollywood’s major studios were avoiding him. Perhaps his marketability was already suffering, and he believed an all-or-nothing “Hail Mary” was his only chance. His logic was presumably that doing nothing would effectively validate Heard’s version of events.
So, a cost-benefit calculation probably told him that the risk of taking legal action, while enormous, had to be taken. Inertia would have left him in a kind of limbo, and the plum Hollywood roles would have continued to escape him. In effect, he is in no worse position than he was when the case started. All the same, Depp must know how sexual misconduct is no longer pardonable and that the verdict is probably professionally terminal.
Some prominent men accused of impropriety of some kind toward women have challenged accusers and attempted to return to professional life. These include Woody Allen, James Franco, dancer Marcelo Gomes, comedian Louis C.K. and radio host Garrison Keillor. Some others, like Morgan Freeman and Sylvester Stallone, have managed to navigate a safe passage, though without convincing everyone of their innocence. But the vast majority of accused men have been consigned to oblivion. There are hundreds of them. Will Depp join them?
A Little Different
Scandal is the nitroglycerine of the entertainment industry, a highly volatile explosive that can blow a celebrity onto the A-list or wipe them off the map. While it’s been the latter for most transgressive male celebs in recent years, Depp could yet prove the exception. He is, after all, exceptionally popular, and while the judges didn’t believe his testimony, millions probably did. In practically every post-Weinstein case, women have been victims, usually pressured by a powerful man into a code of silence, sometimes for years. Cast against the gender politics of the recent decades, their narratives have been largely plausible and preclude much contestation. But Depp’s case is a little different.
Bear in mind Depp sued the publishers of The Sun, not Heard. It seemed unusual, perhaps perverse, that her allegations were publicized and scrutinized in a case in which she was neither claimant or defendant, only a witness. There was no undisputable evidence of Depp’s physical abuse and, perhaps crucially, there was a claim that Heard, far from being a victim, was actually a victimizer. Depp’s former personal assistant Stephen Deuters told the court that Heard subjected Depp to “years of abuse.” This was an unusual insight. While it’s not unheard of, women’s abuse of men is infrequent enough to make people think twice. Why would a man lie about this? Doesn’t it undermine traditional expectations of manhood? Isn’t he embarrassed about it?
The public’s default position on male abuse is to assume guilt. I’m not sure what the response to Heard will be. But I’ll offer some joined-up guesswork: I don’t think people will accept this verdict uncritically. Depp is no angel, but Heard met him in 2009, married him in 2015 and presumably knew him well. If they had a tumultuous relationship, she had enough time to decide whether or not she wanted it to continue. Remember, they didn’t divorce until 2016. Depp had previously been in relationships with Winona Ryder (1989 to 1993), Kate Moss (1994 to 1998) and Vanessa Paradis (1998 to 2012) and, while these too might have had their hot-tempered moments, they were not known to be abusive.
Everything points to descent to obscurity and the end of Depp’s showbusiness career. I suspect this won’t be the case. He won’t emerge unbruised and will have to find some way of rehabilitating his reputation. Johnny Depp could become the first of the #MeToo delinquents to salvage his career.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Kardashian Kulture.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.