Commentary: Will Hollywood still want Johnny Depp or Amber Heard movies after this frenzied trial?
After a six-week defamation trial between the former movie star couple, the online vitriol shines a light on how we see domestic violence, fan culture and Hollywood, says CNA's senior journalist Genevieve Loh.
SINGAPORE: It’s been ten long days since a jury ruled on Jun 1 that actress Amber Heard had defamed ex-husband Johnny Depp by calling herself a domestic abuse victim.
Much has been written about how there are no winners here. It is hard to claim any sort of victory for either actor after a public airing in graphic detail of their spectacularly dysfunctional relationship.
Throughout the six weeks, millions tuned into the livestream of the trial in the United States. Millions more have seen viral memes, clips and compilations from trial footage, often in support of Depp.
YouTube videos invited us to watch the funniest or most shocking moments of the trial. TikTok clips captured reactions, even some re-enactments of scenes described in testimony. TikTok content tagged #justiceforjohnnydepp has amassed more than 20 billion views so far.
Such was the vitriol directed at Heard that one of her attorneys asserted that she believes the jury was influenced by the social media circus that “demonised” Heard. “These people were giving her death threats," said Elaine Bredehoft. "They threatened to microwave her baby.”
Did the onslaught of social media vitriol really influence the jury? Did the court of public opinion help Depp win? Lawyers for Heard said she planned to appeal the verdict.
But the former couple’s legal drama aside, what comes next for everyone else?
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SURVIVORS AND FURIOUS FANS
One thing observers agree on is that this fiasco has sent a dangerous signal that those subject to domestic abuse must be “perfect victim” if they are to be believed. They must be irreproachable in every way, never fumble in recounting their memory of events, never standing up against their abuser to avoid appearing to have provoked retaliation.
But one silver lining seems to be that it might have empowered male domestic violence survivors to speak up. In a recording, Heard seemed to taunt Depp: “Tell them, ‘I, Johnny Depp, I’m a victim, too, of domestic violence’ … and see if people believe or side with you.” On the stand, Depp told the world: “Yes, I am.”
The hope is that the trial has shone a light on how domestic violence can happen to anyone, and that hard conversations about helping victims should continue.
The trial has also reminded us just how extreme and potentially dangerous fan culture can be. The parasocial relationship, that one-sided emotional bond we develop with celebrities within reach over the Internet, drove Depp fans to defend him furiously. They continue to churn out mocking memes and videos painting Heard to be a liar and a harlot.
We should be able to agree that as much as we dislike certain celebrities, regardless of whether we believe Heard to be the abuser or victim, there is never a good reason to threaten to microwave someone’s baby nor celebrate such calls to violence.
WILL HOLLYWOOD STILL WANT JOHNNY DEPP OR AMBER HEARD MOVIES?
Another question is what impact this will have on Depp and Heard’s careers. Heard’s op-ed was published in December 2018, months after Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was arrested on charges of rape and sexual abuse.
The actor was subsequently asked to leave his role as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts films within the Harry Potter cinematic universe.
A knee-jerk reaction in the notorious “cancel culture” or a calculated financial hedge by the film production company? No one can say for sure if he will be considered for big-budget franchises like the Pirates of the Caribbean or Fantastic Beasts once again.
Depp might be seen as simply too much baggage that studios would not want to risk controversy by association. His addictions, shortcomings and flaws were never secret, but they take a different proportion when splayed out in pictures, testimony and audio recordings for the world to see and hear.
As for Heard, more than four million people reportedly signed a petition to remove her from the Aquaman sequel. Some reports indicate that Warner Bros has indeed done so, but new reports from test screenings this week suggested that Heard will continue in the role.
Even so, could Heard’s career bounce back from all this? Beyond Aquaman, will she be cast in future movies? Even if she becomes somewhat of a Hollywood pariah, she would not be the first to make a slow but somewhat steady comeback, if the paths of other actors are an indication.
Actors like Robert Downey Jr and Winona Ryder were sidelined after run-ins with the law, but made triumphant returns such as in Marvel firm Iron Man and Netflix hit series Stranger Things respectively. Mel Gibson famously was ostracised in Hollywood for an anti-Semitic rant and faded into obscurity until he directed the well-received Hacksaw Ridge 10 years later.
But it may be hard to watch a Heard film for now and not recall the countless memes of her supposedly fake crying on the stand.
Johnny Depp may be forever Jack Sparrow to many but he may not even be thinking about a return to the big screen right now. He was seen jamming with rock guitarist Jeff Beck in England while awaiting the verdict and has since announced their new collaborative album to come. Depp has also reached 10 million followers within 24 hours of his first video posting on TikTok.
Ultimately, it will be a question of whether enough fans will turn up in cinemas to watch a Depp or Heard film after this exhausting and polarising trial. Or if the actors decide to forge a different path to fame altogether.
Genevieve Loh is a senior journalist at CNA.