It feels portentous now watching Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands, seeing the peculiar tenderness he brought to a role that turned him from ’80s heart-throb into ’90s indie icon (and earned him his first major awards nomination – a Golden Globe for best actor). In Scissorhands (1990), Depp plays a fragile loner whose strangeness makes him captivating, yet ultimately isolates him. It was a part for which Depp seemed destined (although, weirdly, Tim Burton wanted Tom Cruise to play it), propelling him to other roles as eccentric outsiders that came to define him. In What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993), Ed Wood (1994) and Donnie Brasco (1997), he was sealed in the public imagination as a wounded hero, personifying the ’90s grunge backlash against ’80s pop. For biographer Michael Blitz, Depp encapsulated an era: ‘The curious by-product of conflicting forces in American popular culture and, to a lesser extent, European pop culture.’
On screen Depp played misunderstood outsiders, amplified off-screen by his wild-child image. His reputation for heavy drinking and rumoured drug-taking later saw him confess to Rolling Stone, ‘I spent years poisoning myself. I was very, very good at it.’ His dysfunction seemed bound to his relationships. He was engaged to Winona Ryder within five months of meeting her, having ‘Winona forever’ tattooed on his bicep, later amended to ‘Wino forever’. He dated supermodel Kate Moss – being arrested for vandalising a hotel room they were staying in, causing £8,000 worth of damage. He only seemed to find some stability when he met (in 1998) long-time partner Vanessa Paradis, who wrote love letters to him in French Elle. They had two children, Lily-Rose, now 22, and Jack, 19.
Actor Greg Ellis, who has known Depp since their children attended the same preschool and kindergarten in LA, describes him as ‘humble, down-to-earth, funny, generous, a wonderful dad’. In 2003, as Lieutenant Theodore Groves, Ellis appeared with Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. It was Depp’s first outing as Captain Jack Sparrow, who he based on Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood. ‘Jack Sparrow is a piece of cinematic history,’ says Ellis. ‘To play an effeminate, drunk, bejewelled pirate was risky – but it worked.’ It turned Depp into the mega-star of a blockbuster brand. Pirates earnt Depp his first Oscar nomination and – over five instalments – a reported $300 million. By 2010, when Depp commanded $55 million for Alice in Wonderland, he was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors.
Yet now, just over a decade later, the 58-year-old’s career seems to have crashed. Amid a bitter divorce, allegations of abuse from his ex-wife Amber Heard and a devastatingly public libel trial that labelled him a ‘wife beater’, he has been dropped from film projects. With his latest movie Minamata, a biopic of photographer Eugene Smith, being released on 13 August with a fizzle, it’s unclear if this is Depp’s comeback or swan song.
Some might suggest that Depp’s career had long been on the downturn. He’d had flops with The Tourist (2010), Dark Shadows (2012) and The Lone Ranger (2013). For some fans, the actor’s downfall began in 2009 when he met Amber Heard – 23 years his junior – on the set of The Rum Diary. Within three years, Depp and Paradis had split. By 2015 Depp and Heard wed. Just 15 months later they filed for divorce amid stories of a tumultuous and toxic relationship, with Heard accusing Depp of domestic abuse and obtaining a temporary restraining order against him.
Depp fans refused to believe the allegations; his team denied them. Pointedly, a joint statement released in 2016 when Depp and Heard reached a $7 million divorce settlement read: ‘Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love… There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.’
It was a message confused by reports that Heard would donate a chunk of her settlement to a domestic violence charity, and the subsequent op-ed she wrote for The Washington Post about domestic abuse. In it she described how she’d ‘felt the full force of our culture’s wrath for women who speak out’. (An article over which Depp is now bringing a $50 million libel suit.)
But the pivotal moment came when a 2018 column published in The Sun questioned Depp’s casting in Fantastic Beasts, calling him a ‘wife beater’. For Depp, a line had been crossed. ‘When your son is coming home in tears because he’s been bullied about never-ending news stories about his father’s alleged “violent” behaviour, I think a parent, particularly a father, gets to a point where you’ve had enough and say, “I have to take a stand now,”’ says Greg Ellis. ‘Depp has two kids, they look at social media, they’re aware of the outrageous things that are written. I think for his kids’ sake, for their futures, so he could look them in the eye and say, “I tried,” he felt he had to take a stand and say enough was enough.’
Depp brought a defamation case against The Sun. It was a move international media law specialist Mark Stephens, of firm Howard Kennedy, describes as ‘self-immolation’. He explains such libel cases are ‘extremely rare’ because they carry such huge reputational risk: ‘Even if you win on legal merit you lose the reputational war.’
Defamation cases attract what is known as the Streisand Effect: named after singer Barbara Streisand’s attempt to suppress photographs of her Malibu home, which only publicised them further. ‘Bringing this case meant attracting the attention of every single journalist worldwide – you’re going to ignite an explosion,’ says Gary Farrow, one of Britain’s best-known entertainment publicists, whose clients have included Sir Elton John. ‘Footage of you at court is going to be all over every TV station and is going to be forever associated with you.’
‘In his best interest would have been to swallow his pride and put his head down,’ adds leading talent manager Jonathan Shalit OBE (who discovered Charlotte Church). ‘Depp has never been charged or convicted of a criminal offence, so when The Sun wrote [that Depp was a ‘wife beater’] some would have believed it and some wouldn’t have believed it.’
Until Depp brought his libel case, it was a he-said, she-said. Now Depp effectively challenged The Sun to prove he was a wife beater in court.
‘He could have apologised, said he was going to rehab and everyone would have forgiven him,’ says Mark Stephens, ‘but instead he mounted this full-throated attack. Nobody is a winner in a situation where a break-up of a relationship is picked over by top QCs in public.’
Crime journalist Nick Wallis live-tweeted the trial. He called it a ‘Hollywood opera’ played out in the middle of lockdown, amid London’s desolate streets, with the stage the otherwise empty Royal Courts of Justice. ‘It was a very surreal experience, and I’ve covered a lot of trials,’ Wallis says. ‘Having this Hollywood circus, two Hollywood stars, their flunkies and the press at the High Court is unusual but it’s even weirder when it’s the only show in town – it’s almost as if you’re on a film set yourself.’
Wallis’s tweets reached 100 million views, his ‘mentions pinging like a fruit machine’; fans gathered outside court holding placards reading ‘Justice For Johnny’, others dressed as Edward Scissorhands.
The trial ran across five courts – two for lawyers, two public courts, and one press court where international journalists sat stunned as ‘within about 10 seconds these amazing revelations were spilling out’, Wallis says. Revelations about Depp’s drug abuse; his detox on his island in the Bahamas; rows on a private jet flying from Boston to LA, where Depp allegedly kicked Heard and called her a whore; and in a rented mansion in Australia, where Heard flew to join Depp, there filming Pirates of the Caribbean – she claimed he trashed the house with smeared food and broken glass, and by writing with blood on the walls, causing $150,000 damage. ‘It was extraordinary,’ Wallis says.
Depp arrived at court in a silver people carrier, with collar-length hair and a mini-goatee. He changed his outfit every day. He wore aviator sunglasses and pulled his bandana over his face ‘like an outlaw’, Wallis says. ‘He looked really good!’
Heard arrived at court with her sister Whitney, her girlfriend Bianca Butti, Australian barrister Jennifer Robinson and American attorney Elaine Bredehoft. Newspapers labelled them her ‘girl squad’. Wallis found Heard ‘incredibly sharp and poised. Often quicker than the barristers in finding references and recounting what she had or hasn’t said.’
Depp was ‘lucid’, ‘entertaining’, ‘his charisma and level of articulacy was impressive’. He was ‘scrupulously polite’, calling the barrister ‘Ma’am’ and judge ‘Sir’, before correcting himself ‘M’Lord… protocol’.
‘He was very respectful of the court process and everyone in it. He was a courteous southern gentleman,’ says Wallis. Indeed, Depp has previously described himself as a southern gentleman and ‘played that card for all it was worth during the time he was in court. If he was acting then it felt like a role he’s been playing for 20 years.’
‘He’s a brilliant actor,’ says Depp’s biographer Blitz, ‘some say that he is nearly always acting, whether on or off screen.’
Once, Wallis clocked Depp in a corridor, sweeping towards court with his entourage, coffee in hand. As Depp walked towards the courtroom door an usher held it open for him. ‘And Depp handed his coffee to his bouncer and put his hands together in a prayer, like a bow, to the usher and swept into court. It was this beautiful little Hollywood vignette of a star behaving both graciously and to the manner born,’ Wallis says.
The trial lasted 16 days, during which Heard accused Depp of attacking her on at least 14 occasions, between 2013 and 2016, under the influence of drink or drugs. Heard’s team alleged Depp hit Heard, headbutted and slapped her, threw things at her, tore her clothes and grabbed her hair. They claimed in one row he hit her ‘so hard that blood from her lip ended up on the wall’. In another he ‘slammed her against the countertop and strangled her’ in an attack that left her ‘scared for her life’.
The evidence included photographs of Heard’s injuries and texts Depp had allegedly sent actor Paul Bettany describing drowning Heard and burning her, writing, ‘I will f—k her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.’
During the case Depp revealed his abuse of alcohol, marijuana, MDMA, magic mushrooms and cocaine and dire financial mismanagement, which had cost him $650 million. Although this wouldn’t have shocked fans who’d have read about his famous high spending: his $10 million yacht, the $55 million French chateau, the $5 million he paid to shoot his friend Hunter S Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon and the Rolling Stone interview where Depp joked it was ‘insulting to say that I spent $30,000 on wine… because it was far more’.
Depp’s team meanwhile mounted a defence that Stephens says left lawyers ‘incredulous’. They presented the grand theory that Heard was a ‘gold digger’ perpetrating an opportunistic ‘hoax’. They released photographs of Depp with a black eye after Heard allegedly punched him, and accused her of throwing glass bottles at him which severed his finger; of having affairs with James Franco and Elon Musk and defecating in their bed – leading him to brand her ‘Amber Turd’ (all of which she denied).
Depp’s former partners Winona Ryder and Vanessa Paradis submitted witness statements stating he was never violent towards them.
Depp lost. Perhaps he considers it a pyrrhic victory to have had his day in court, although it cost him an estimated £5 million and an initial payment of £700,000 towards The Sun’s legal costs. In a 129-page judgment, Mr Justice Nicol dismissed Depp’s ‘hoax’ theory, finding The Sun’s story ‘substantially true’, stating that: ‘The great majority of alleged assaults of Ms Heard by Mr Depp have been proved to the civil standard’ and ‘I accept her evidence of the nature of the assaults he committed against her. They must have been terrifying.’ The legal case’s conclusion was just the start.
As legal experts speculated over whether Depp would face criminal repercussions for his admissions of abuse and drug use, the fallout for his career was immediate. Days after the verdict, Depp revealed he’d been ‘asked to resign by Warner Bros’ from Fantastic Beasts. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that even before the libel trial Disney had distanced itself from Depp, declining to commit to future appearances of Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates films, and suggested Depp was being sidelined from a prestige Harry Houdini TV project.
Meanwhile, however, Dior kept Depp as the face of its Sauvage fragrance; while loyal fans continued to fight vociferously for his name under the hashtag #justiceforjohnny-depp. Depp, it seemed, had become a cultural totem in a wider gender war going on.
Heard and Depp’s fight came amid a growing backlash against Hollywood misogyny, and a rising awareness of male abuse fuelled by movements like Time’s Up and MeToo. Some legal experts found Depp’s court tactics out of step with such movements. Stephens was disturbed by the way Depp’s defence was ‘run around aggressive tropes about women’.
‘It was a character assassination of Heard,’ Stephens says, noting the similarities to how rape victims were once re-victimised on the stand. ‘If the accusation is that he’s a wife beater, what does it matter if she’s a gold digger? Or if she put a turd in the bed?’
Stephens was concerned by hashtags used to abuse Heard, who ‘had to be escorted into court every day because of the fans outside, whereas Johnny was walking up the front steps being adulated’.
After the libel verdict, domestic violence charity Refuge issued a statement praising the ‘important ruling… which we hope sends a very powerful message’. Describing how domestic abusers often used power to control and silence victims, they said: ‘We stand in solidarity with Amber Heard who has shown immense bravery in speaking up and speaking out.’
Depp’s supporters saw things very differently. Greg Ellis describes Depp’s case as ‘a conflation of cancel culture, the rush to judgment and mobbing on social media – and a particularly pernicious branch of the legal system, the family court, that doesn’t offer presumption of innocence’. Ellis, to whose recently released book The Respondent: Exposing the Cartel of Family Law Depp wrote the introduction, believes Depp’s ‘reputation savaging’ began in the family court in 2016, when Heard accused him of domestic violence. Ellis calls this the ‘silver bullet playbook of high-conflict divorce – it’s become the go-to strategy for spouses and the attorneys because it’s the easiest way to destroy your opponent and win the game before conflict in the courtroom has even begun.’
However, Depp’s loss in London was merely round one. In April 2022, Depp brings an even more substantial case – the $50 million defamation suit over Heard’s Washington Post column, which Depp claims damaged his reputation. The case looks set to be just as salacious, with evidence from celebrities reportedly including Keira Knightley, Elon Musk and Angelina Jolie. Meanwhile, Heard is counter-suing Depp, following his allegation she lied about spousal abuse. Where will this revenge spiral end?
Perhaps not in court. The legal outcome for Depp won’t necessarily correlate with the conclusions of the court of public opinion. Neither Woody Allen nor Kevin Spacey have been convicted of a crime but both have seen their careers impinged by accusations of sexual misconduct. Singer Chris Brown, who apologised after being convicted of assaulting Rihanna, has continued his career. Others, like Weinstein and Cosby, seem beyond redemption.
‘I don’t think you can put Depp and Weinstein in the same sentence,’ Shalit argues. ‘Weinstein was charged with a series of horrific criminal offences for which he was found guilty. As unpalatable as his private life seems, individual film-makers and studios will take their own view as to whether Depp will be box-office gold again.’
Ellis is optimistic. He ‘absolutely’ thinks Depp should be able to return to Pirates of the Caribbean as Captain Jack Sparrow. ‘Given Depp was a large part of making that million-dollar franchise it’d be nice if Disney didn’t desert him.’
Farrow – who met Depp on numerous occasions and found him ‘charming’ – says: ‘The best policy is to be honest, to come out and say, “I did have problems at the time, it doesn’t excuse what I did but I want to make amends.”’
Would an apology be enough to launder Depp’s reputation? So far, he doesn’t seem inclined to make one. ‘I intend to prove that the allegations against me are false,’ Depp wrote on Instagram – just before his lawyers lost their appeal against the London libel case.
Some men, notably Depp’s idols and friends, Hunter S Thompson and Keith Richards, have built careers on unapologetically wild reputations. Perhaps this is the mould in which Depp sees himself. ‘Depp is and almost always has been a heavy drinker, smoker, drug-user and excess-seeker,’ says Blitz, noting Depp’s characters ‘are deeply flawed, often profoundly damaged and/or tortured souls… That his roles reflect his life, and vice versa, is not likely to come as much of a surprise to his fans.’
British PR expert Mark Borkowski notes Depp has ‘a phenomenally loyal and very active fan base calling for justice for him’. Although Depp’s ‘hell-raiser pirate boy image might be anachronistic’, he believes with the right ‘hot director’ Depp could find ‘a challenging, dark script that allows him to prove to people why he is such an enigmatic, compelling personality on-screen. You let the work do the talking by proving Depp can still have an impact and that, commercially, he’s moved on. I think there’s going to be an interesting next period of his life. Don’t write any obituaries for Depp yet.’
On Instagram, Depp insists, ‘My life and career will not be defined by this moment in time.’ His refusal to apologise appeals to his fans – tilting at windmills in a quixotic war gives him credence. Writing about how his ‘resolve remains strong’, Depp has positioned himself as a wounded hero in a dark fairy tale. A misunderstood man who wants to be loved – but, like one of his most famous characters, can only reach out with weapons. Whether this is a story that will win the public over only time will tell.