It was a legal triumph so stunning and unexpected, cable-news commentators across the dial were left gaping in slack-jawed astonishment. Johnny Depp won. Nobody saw that coming.
To be fair, the jury’s verdict was a mixed message. The five men and two women who sat in judgment over Depp’s defamation case against ex-wife Amber Heard — as well as her counter-suit against him — concluded that, given the preponderance of the evidence, both parties in the relationship were nightmares. But one was a bigger nightmare than the other. They awarded Depp just over $10 million in damages from Heard while Heard got just $2 million from Depp. Do the math and Depp walks away with $8 million, plus $350,000 in putative damages (the judge reduced the jury’s suggested $5 million to the statutory cap). Put another way, he gets back the $7 million he paid to Heard in their 2016 divorce settlement, with a million and change as a bonus for his troubles.
Uncork the champagne! Open a bottle of vodka! Just don’t throw it across a room and slice off anybody’s fingertips.
But after all the lurid, sordid and just plain gross testimony televised out of that courtroom in Virginia over the last six weeks — the disturbing cabinet-slamming video, the humiliating pooping-in-the-bed story, the vile c-word-filled text messages, and a whole bunch of even worse stuff — you’ve got to wonder: Was a no-cost divorce really worth it?
Depp seems to think so. “I am, and have been, overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and the colossal support and kindness from around the world,” he posted on Instagram from London (where he’d taken a break after the trial to play a gig with geezer rock god Jeff Beck) shortly after the jury in Fairfax County read its verdict. “The best is yet to come, and a new chapter has finally begun.”
Frankly, though, it’s hard to see how Depp comes out of this mess any better off than he went into it. Seven weeks ago, just before the trial began, he was already a mortally wounded movie star, fired from his biggest role, Jack Sparrow in Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, as well as Warner’s ”Fantastic Beasts” series. His prospects in Hollywood, especially the big-budget studio fare that has kept him on the A list for decades, now seem extremely iffy.
Depp blamed Heard for much of his career trouble, particularly her 2018 Washington Post op-ed, in which she described herself as a victim of sexual violence, prompting Depp’s defamation lawsuit. But today, after winning his case, he’s still a mortally wounded movie star facing an uncertain future in Hollywood.
The consensus in the crisis-management community has been that Depp might have some semblance of a career ahead of him — an indie movie here, an overseas production there — but nothing like the A-list stardom he’s enjoyed for the last three decades. The jury’s verdict did little to move the needle. Whichever way they decided, Disney was never likely to change its mind and suddenly give Depp back his pirate hat and eyepatch. No sane studio would entrust any sort of family-friendly property to the guy at least half responsible for some of the scuzziest tabloid headlines of the century so far.
It was, in a lot of ways, the very definition of a pyrrhic victory. Sure, Depp won, and maybe even cleared his name — always his stated goal — with at least some people. The jury clearly believed virtually everything he uttered and only a sliver of his ex-wife’s testimony. Most important to him — and undoubtedly most crushing to Heard — they concluded that Depp wasn’t a “wife-beater” after all, despite Depp losing his 2018 libel lawsuit against a British tabloid that called him one, which is how this whole twisted legal tango began in the first place.
But to win his case this time, Depp had to drag himself, Heard, his family and much of the rest of the world through jumbo-size troughs of mud. It’s hard to think of another celebrity who has invited this much scrutiny into such a shockingly messy home life. Compared to the Depps, the Kardashians are practically the Windsors. And if we’ve learned anything about Hollywood over the last six weeks — hell, over the last weekend — it’s that the less we know about movie stars’ private lives the better. After all, Tom Cruise just had the best opening of his career and nobody has a clue who he’s dating these days, let alone what sorts of nasty insults they’re texting to friends about each other.
No, Wednesday’s verdict didn’t save anybody’s career. But it likely did destroy one. It’s hard to see how Amber Heard survives. Whatever you may think about her as a person — a scheming liar who got what she deserved or a tragic victim of sexual abuse whose case has been a heartbreaking, infuriating setback for the #MeToo movement — the roasting she’s endured in social media has been beyond sickening. Being a Johnny Depp super-fan is one thing but, honestly, threatening to microwave his estranged ex-wife’s baby is a whole other kettle of psychosis.
Sadly, Heard’s humiliation didn’t stop after the verdict. In fact, in one way, it got worse. Depp’s victory lap on Instagram has so far picked up 16 million likes. Heard’s own apres-verdict post (“The disappointment I feel today is beyond words…”) has so far been liked by only 290,000.