Hollywood assumptions overturned by Johnny Depp's court defeat

Stakes were high not just for the actor but for an industry that spent decades investing in him

“Depp seems to have spent the past 10 years lurching about, teams of people chasing behind him”


The curtain has fallen on the London act of the courtroom drama starring Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – with a final twist that has surprised many in the industry. The widely-held assumption across Hollywood had been that Depp would not have mounted the case were he not convinced of victory. Simply by instigating proceedings, the theory ran that Depp was boosting a stock that was in decline.

“He had no choice but to defend himself,” says Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Variety. “He was correct in his assessment of the potential damage that the phrase ‘wife-beater’ would have done to his future.”

What Depp does now that the phrase is legally deemed acceptable to describe the actor is unclear. Certainly any plan beyond just filing for libel will have been “shaky”, Gaydos thinks.

“Depp seems to have spent the past 10 years lurching about, teams of people chasing behind him,” says Gaydos.

Yet there had remained an expectation – even a hope – within both Depp’s circle and the industry to which he has been so central that the high court proceeding would serve to remind the world of the cliches surrounding Depp’s appeal: as an artistic bad boy prone to madcap excesses and lapses of self-control.

Meanwhile, the more humbling images the trial brought to light – Depp collapsed over ice-cream, missing a bit of his finger, finding faeces in his bed – potentially lent a new, pitiable aspect. Says one veteran entertainment publicist: “Thirty years ago, he’d have hated to be seen as a humiliated victim. Pushing 60, it sort of serves him.” Brand expansion is not an exact science.

Now 57, Depp is an increasingly rare commodity for an industry facing substantial challenges: a franchise movie star also reckoned to be a talented actor. Now too old for leading man roles, and with his involvement in both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Fantastic Beasts series coming to a close, Depp requires credible choices to establish himself as a veteran player worthy of the Oscar that has so far eluded him.

Small-scale vanity projects have largely failed to woo crowds or critics. For Thomson, Depp has not “been attached to a worthwhile film in a decade”. Yet film-makers remain eager to collaborate; he currently has 25 projects in pre-production.

The stakes were therefore considerable not just for the man but for a beleaguered business that has spent decades investing in him.

“Nobody talks about him as the CEO of a billion dollar corporation called Johnny Depp,” says Gaydos. “A corporation predicated on the charm and sexiness and talent and appeal of a person who becomes like a member of the family.”

When returns on Depp delivered, they did so in style: the five Pirates films made more than $4.5bn and the series was the first to spawn two installments that both grossed over $1bn.

Yet indulgence of Depp’s flaws had hitherto seemed to expose the reality of a post-#MeToo landscape. Press reporting of the trial accorded as much finger-pointing to Heard as Depp.

“A lot of the coverage reminded me of an earlier time,” says Gaydos. “Heard was blamed for a lot of the abuse. There was so much skepticism around her story and this sense she brought it on herself as a strong-willed, attractive woman.”

That sentiment is echoed by Mariana Dahan, who runs World Identity Network, an NGO foundation championing the rights of undocumented migrants for which Heard has acted as an ambassador.

“Power flows downward,” she said, “which is why the outcome of the lawsuit Depp filed against her is so important – and will send a message to women around the world about the extent their voices matter.

“For the vast majority of women, Amber is an ambassador on women’s rights; standing with survivors as male-dominated cultural institutions discredit those who speak out against accused abusers.”

Her testimony – and the eventual verdict – reflect especially badly on the high-profile stars who failed to come out in support for Heard at the time, thinks Dahan.

“Women should stand up for each other, especially other survivors of abuse. But there were no brownie points in endorsing someone like Amber, and I think people are now more cautious about how doing so could hurt their careers.

“Women like Vanessa Paradis and Winona Ryder [Depp’s exes, who said he had never been violent towards them] ought to have more compassion for what Amber went through. They lacked solidarity.”

The future prospects for Heard now seem far brighter than before the trial.

“She never really got traction as a major, quality actress,” says Gaydos. “She does not have a Jennifer Lawrence career; she doesn’t even have a Kate Hudson career.”

Now 34, the actor currently has just one officially listed upcoming project – a thriller set in the underworld of European modeling – and her supporting role in DC franchise Aquaman has not yet been complemented by a meaty lead.

But Dahan thinks Heard may use the victory to pivot more permanently into the world of advocacy. Heard frequently carried out her duties entirely at her own expense, once flying from Los Angeles to New York, then – as the city was gridlocked – walking miles through town on high heels to speak at an event.

“I was blown away by her commitment,” says Dahan. “Male counterparts have asked for $200,000 to speak at such things. I was like: ‘My God, we are a charity!’ But Amber did it for free.”

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