Johnny Depp and Amber Heard clearly did not have the healthiest of marriages, but in Tinseltown, who really does?
Over the years we’ve seen multiple iconic Hollywood couples divorce in very public manners – think Brad Pitt who got with Mr and Mrs Smith co-star Angelina Jolie the second he called it quits with Friends’ Jennifer Aniston, or Katy Perry who had an entire documentary of her struggling to cope with her divorce with comedian Russel Brand whilst on her yearlong California Dreams tour. Hollywood’s history is filled with marriage and divorces, multiple times, and even those who marry, divorce, and marry each other again.
But even by Hollywood’s standard, Depp and Heard’s four-year divorce case is an ugly back and forth filled with violence and abuse.
The couple met in 2009 on the set of The Rum Diary, got together while filming and got married in 2015 in a private ceremony but Heard filed for a divorce a year later, accusing Depp of domestic abuse, usually while under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Depp denied the charges and a police investigation found no evidence of such. The divorce finally went through in 2017 and Heard accepted a US$7 million settlement as part of their divorce, of which she donated to charity. What seemed like an ending, was actually the beginning of the worst to come.
In 2017, Depp was cast in J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts – a spin-off Harry Potter movie franchise of which the Pirates of The Caribbean actor played the role of dark wizard Grinderwald. The backlash was immediate, and with reason.
Hollywood has historically provided a platform for problematic male celebrities, even when their dark secrets are being put under a spotlight. Chris Brown still has a successful career despite assaulting Rihanna, while Woody Allen still remains a celebrated director-actor despite having a string of sexual assault allegations, including that of his own adopted daughter. It seems that no matter the crimes male celebrities have perpetuated, there will always be a spot reserved for them in the next big flick, the Billboard charts or the director’s seat.
Fantastic Beasts director David Yates and author Rowling defended Depp swiftly, pointing out that the police investigation and the joint letter Heard and Depp put out describing their relationship as “intensely passionate and at times volatile” were proof enough that Depp was innocent of any wrong-doing.
After the first movie, in which he only had a small cameo, Depp went on to do a sequel that placed more emphasis on his character Grindelwald. Shortly after the sequel’s premiere, Heard published an opinion piece on The Washington Post speaking out against domestic violence and advocated for the #MeTooMovement.
In the same year, British newspaper The Sun published an article calling Depp a ‘wife-beater’ and in response, Depp launched a libel claim against the newspaper. But after a gruelling two years, Depp lost the case.
In English courts, the burden of proof lies on the accused journalist who has to prove that they weren’t operating in bad faith and that their reporting was accurate. With The Sun accurately reporting Heard’s allegations with proof, Depp failed to satisfy the British court. The loss caused a blow to Depp’s public image and could have made Warner uneasy and nervous about continuing to employ him for the upcoming third installation of Fantastic Beasts. Of course, as you would’ve already heard, Depp was removed from the film, prompting many to ask – “What about Amber Heard?”
So what about Amber Heard? Well, in the last few years, the case between Heard and Depp has revealed to be a complex and muddy one. Whilst the public believe Heard, the female lead in Aquaman, to be a victim of domestic violence, we cannot ignore new evidence that suggests she was a perpetrator too.
Part of the most recent evidence of the Heard and Depp case are a collection of taped conversations the couple made in 2015, as they tried to talk through their marriage problems. The biggest revelation though is that Heard is heard (ahem) confessing to physically assaulting Depp on several accounts including throwing pots, pans and vases at the 57-year-old actor.
In the leaked recording, Depp too admits that they each inflicted physical abuse on the other. He also admitted to pushing Heard, and Heard confirmed that she hit Depp, even warning him: “I can’t promise you I won’t get physical again.”
After Daily Mail published the recordings, some Twitter users began circulating the hashtag #JusticeForJohnnyDepp to bring much-needed attention to the fact that men can be victims of violence too. The taped confessions coupled with Depp’s exit from Fantastic Beasts were enough for fans to push for Heard’s removal from the upcoming sequel, Aquaman 2. A petition – which currently has over 1.4 million signatures – was made calling on Warner to remove her from the film, as they did for Depp too.
To onlookers, this whole thing might seem like a whirlwind of conflicting accusations. Naturally, people are compelled to take sides that are informed by their own perspectives and biases, but it’s critical to resist minimising, demonising or disregarding either of these accounts.
Taking Heard and Depp’s case for example, it is evident that we, as an audience, are inclined to cling to the idea of “the perfect victim” and “the monster abuser”. In a case where both individuals are toxic and abusive, it is a struggle to accept that both Heard and Depp are perpetrators as well as victims of abuse. It is necessary that we accept that in some cases, the binary does not exist as it will allow us to better understand and address the dynamics of interpersonal violence.
Society has yet to accept that women can be perpetrators. Whilst it is true that women are at higher risk of domestic violence – a whopping 1 in 3 women to be exact, society’s inability to clearly recognise the difference between self defence from instigating violence in males due to the gendered norms and stereotypes that we hold makes it hard for male victims to come forward.
The audio does reveal that Depp is likely to be a victim of domestic violence and to ignore the evidence is ignorant. Admitting that he was a victim, does not negate that Heard was a victim too. And if Warner, the same studio behind Fantastic Beasts and Aquaman, can ask Depp to excuse himself, retire or leave the role – should they do the same for Heard too?
It seems equitable that the two step step down – for the sake of their own healing too – but it is much trickier than that. A studio can’t typically break contracts with an actor unless criminal charges have been filed against them.
Whilst the public opinion may have found Heard guilty of being abusive towards her former husband, the American criminal court has not. Of course, this is unlike Depp’s fate where his case in the British court failed, effectively making his removal an easy decision. In fact, director Yates has set his eyes on Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen to replace Depp as Grindelwald for Fantastic Beasts 3.
Unless Depp files a civil suit against Heard and proves to the satisfaction of an American court that she lied about him abusing her or that she distorted his acts of self-defence as abuse, it is likely that Heard will remain as Jason Momoa’s co-star in Aquaman 2.
Depp and Heard may have both found themselves in an ugly divorce, but the two people are not relational to one another. It is clear that the angry mobs crying for Heard to be removed, may not necessarily come from the intention of wanting to hold her accountable. Rather, the message is usually ‘an eye for an eye’ or in support of Depp because they see the situation in a binary of ‘bad woman’ vs ‘ill-treated man’. To forcefully demand Heard’s removal largely ignores her experience as a victim.
One should also sit back and reflect if Depp would still have been asked to leave Fantastic Beasts if he had won the case against The Sun. With the way Hollywood functions, the chances are close to zero.
As such, should Warner choose to remove Heard from her role as Queen Mera, it should be because they deem her unfit for the role, as they have deemed Depp unfit to serve as Grindelwald.
Hollywood is in need of change and it is the onus of studios, producers, actors, directors, singers, models and people in power in the big glamorous industry to encourage change and enact change.
And if change in Hollywood seems like a ways away, it is up to us as everyday people to be heard. Our power lies in deciding if Fantastic Beasts and/or Aquaman 2 are films to boycott because whilst “Why isn’t Warner firing Amber Heard as they did Johnny Depp?” is a simple question to ask, it’s not one that can be simply answered.