Voices: The Johnny Depp resurrection has begun – and it’s not pretty

·6-min read

How can you tell someone is a Johnny Depp fan? Because they will tell you. This snide but often well-aimed joke generally reserved for vegans rings far truer for Depp’s dedicated fanbase. But while vegans might irritate some for harping on about their animal product abstinence, in their defence, they are helping the health of the planet.

Unfortunately, I am not sure the same can be said for Depp’s legion of disciples – many of whom have become infamous for relentlessly harassing anyone who disagrees with them on social media. But the spiteful vitriol spouted by the 59-year-old actor’s online apostles makes them no less profitable to the film industry, and perhaps they hold the key to questions that have surfaced about Depp’s film Jeanne du Barry which opened the Cannes Film Festival this week.

Unsurprisingly, the festival’s decision to roll out the proverbial red carpet for the Pirates of the Caribbean actor has stirred controversy, with Depp’s detractors furious the prestigious film festival has put an alleged domestic abuser at the forefront of the event. Jeanne du Barry, in which Depp plays King Louis XV of France, is his first major movie role since millions around the world tuned in to watch his defamation trial against his former wife Amber Heard last year.

It is not hard to see why people are cross about Depp’s resurrection; just a quick revisit of Depp’s recent history in the limelight makes the decision feel not just perplexing but disturbing. This is a man who verbally abused his then-wife, Heard, in audio recordings. (He told her: “Shut the f*** up … Don’t f***ing pretend to be authoritative with me. You don’t exist.”) Depp is also a man who joked with a mate in text messages about killing Heard. In a message to Paul Bettany in 2013, before Depp and Heard were married, Depp said: “Let’s burn Amber.” He added later: “Let’s drown her before we burn her!!! I will f*** her burnt corpse afterwards to make sure she’s dead.”

And let’s not forget the venomous, highly misogynistic slurs he used to refer to Heard in texts to his ex-agent Christian Carino: “50 cent stripper” and “gold-digging, low-level, dime-a-dozen, mushy, pointless, dangling, overused flappy fish market” being the ones which reside rent free in my mind. “I wouldn’t touch her with a goddam glove. I can only hope that karma kicks in and takes the gift of breath from her,” he added. Or the time that Depp branded Heard a “worthless hooker” and “joked” about how he would “smack the ugly c*** around” in texts to an unnamed individual before he married her.

Many things emerged about Depp during the trial against his ex-wife, but among the bombshell revelations was the fact this is a man who has a way with words. Depp’s words were not just aggressive and disturbing but they were creatively, imaginatively, verbosely so. To recount the origins of Depp’s court case, the actor sued Heard back in March 2019, claiming a column she wrote for The Washington Post about domestic abuse titled “I spoke up against sexual violence – and faced our culture’s wrath. That has to change” was defamatory and requesting $50m (£44m) in damages. Heard submitted a $100m countersuit. Although the article did not include any reference to Depp, his legal team argued that the piece contained a “clear implication that Mr Depp is a domestic abuser”, which they maintain is “categorically and demonstrably false”.

After a six-week trial in Virginia, Heard was ordered to pay Depp $10m in compensatory damages and $5m in punitive damages. The seven-person jury found Heard made “false” statements about the pair’s marriage and acted with “actual malice”. Meanwhile, Heard was awarded $2m, after the jury found that Depp had defamed her via his lawyer. The high-profile battle came after the High Court in London across the Atlantic ruled in 2020 that The Sun had not defamed Depp by referring to him as a “wife beater”. A judge described the statement as “substantially true”, as well as finding 12 of Heard’s 14 abuse accusations were proven to be “substantially true”.

But to return to the decision to have Depp’s film open the Cannes Film Festival – which received a seven-minute standing ovation – it feels a troubling choice. As a journalist with an admittedly poor knowledge of the inner machinations of the film industry, it is hard to know what paved the way for the decision without being a fly on the wall in a glass meeting of movie execs. But I do know that criticism should not only be aimed at Cannes, but at those who cast Depp in Jeanne du Barry.

No doubt those keen to have Depp at the festival will insist he is there because he is an immensely talented actor who had an unjust fall from grace, but one can’t help but wonder if it is an opportunistic attempt to grab some easy, guaranteed PR for the festival. After all, Depp’s controversy has already found itself to be lucrative. The actor just nabbed another $20m contract for being the face of the massively popular Dior fragrance, Sauvage, which describes itself as having “a smooth animal charm”. Perhaps this was inevitable given sales of Dior Sauvage were actually bolstered by the US defamation trial.

Whatever you think about Depp, there is no denying the actor has a gargantuan fanbase, many of whom appear to unconditionally adore him. In their eyes, Johnny can do no wrong. He is immune from criticism and anyone who is perceived to slight him deserves vitriol. This is not a spurious statement but one based on first-hand experience, having myself fallen prey to hundreds of trolling Depp fans on Twitter.

For some, the decision to let Depp open the festival boils down to the perennial philosophical and moral question of whether you can separate the art from the artist. While this is a debate people feel intensely differently about, irrespective of which side you sit on, there is something which feels troubling about Depp soaring back to stardom as if nothing happened.

But it would be naive to think film industry insiders have the memory of goldfishes - make no mistake, they will not have forgotten the deeply disturbing details which surfaced about Depp’s behaviour - perhaps they just don’t care. Or if they do care, this is usurped by a desire to profit from Depp’s throngs of followers.

The term “Depp renaissance” keeps popping into my head, but perhaps this is a misnomer. It implies he disappeared and has now made a comeback, but in reality it feels like he didn’t go anywhere. Yes, Depp was dropped from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, but who knows, perhaps Jack Sparrow will return. Stranger things have happened. “Welcome back” are the two words Depp fans are writing on social media, but this implies he went away.