Johnny Depp managed a comeback – can Amber Heard do the same?

Amber Heard - Tom Brenner
Amber Heard – Tom Brenner

The first time I saw the term “post-truth” in print, I assumed the LA Times writer was being ironic. God help us, I remember thinking, if ever we find ourselves living in a “post-truth era”.

Watching Johnny Depp and Amber Heard’s defamation trial seven years later, there could be no doubt: this was our new world. Not only were these two characters the personification of “post-truth” – basically the triumph of feeling over fact – but to judge by the social media commentary, a vast swathe of the 500 million who tuned into YouTube every day from across the globe were also being led by feeling over fact.

And despite all the damaging details that emerged against Depp, the overwhelming feeling was that Amber Laura Heard of Austin, Texas, was the villain: a “lying”, “fame-hungry”, “money-grabber”, intent on destroying “our Johnny”.

Johnny Depp at this month's Cannes Film Festival - Stephane Cardinale/Corbis
Johnny Depp at this month’s Cannes Film Festival – Stephane Cardinale/Corbis

Depp may have lost his libel case with The Sun – who claimed he was a wife beater – less than two years prior, but on 13 July 2022 a Virginia judge ruled against the 37-year-old Aquaman actress, finding that an op-ed she had written for the Washington Post in which she accused the actor of domestic abuse was indeed defamatory, and ordered Depp to be paid $10.35 million in damages.

One year on, the 59-year-old actor is in Cannes, getting seven-minute standing ovations for his new period piece, Jeanne du Barry – in which he plays King Louis XV – being greeted by chants of “We love Johnny!” from his fans on the Croisette and attending glitzy Christian Dior dinners, having recently signed a $20 million three-year deal with the fashion and fragrance brand to continue to be the face of Dior Sauvage.

There are even suggestions that Depp will be starring in the sixth Pirates of the Caribbean film despite being unceremoniously dropped by Disney post-trial, after producer Jerry Bruckheimer said he would “love to see him in the movie”. It’s not clear how much Depp would get paid for rejoining the billion-dollar franchise, but it’s been rumoured it could be around $300 million. Not bad for someone who declared those legal battles had cost him “nothing less than everything”.

Amber Heard pictured earlier this month in Madrid, where she now lives - Europa Press
Amber Heard pictured earlier this month in Madrid, where she now lives – Europa Press

No such rehabilitation for Heard, however, who has largely disappeared from view. Earlier this month it was revealed that the actress had quietly relocated to Spain some time ago, where she has been raising her daughter Oonagh – whom she had in 2021 with the help of a surrogate – “away from all the noise”.

Yet one can’t help but think that a friend quoted earlier this month was being disingenuous when they said: “I don’t think she is in any hurry to return to work or to Hollywood, but she will probably come back when the time is right for the right project.” After all, the real question is surely whether there will ever be a time when Hollywood will take Heard back – and whether she too will be allowed to rehabilitate herself.

“In the end isn’t Hollywood always playing the numbers game?” asks Bafta-nominated director Emma Cooper, whose three-part documentary, Depp vs Heard – an in-depth look at last year’s trial – will air on Channel 4 this weekend. “It looks to me like Amber’s taking time out because she’s genuinely fearful of the reaction she might get if and when she comes back.”

If there’s one thing Cooper’s series makes chillingly clear, it’s that however revolting and dysfunctional this A-list couple were, we, the ordinary public, were more so – “we all have a troll within us”. In one scene in the documentary from outside the courthouse, one jubilant-sounding media commentator notes that “there are no Amber Heard fans. It’s all Johnny Depp fans!” And as Heard details her harrowing sexual assault claims, trial viewers are shown casually putting on their make-up, with one (woman) cooing: “I want to give him a hug!” Around that time, we’re told that “Amber Heard is a psychopath” started trending on Twitter.

When she announced her documentary on Twitter a few weeks ago, Cooper was herself subjected to what she describes as ‘a pile-on’ - John Phillips/BAFTA
When she announced her documentary on Twitter a few weeks ago, Cooper was herself subjected to what she describes as ‘a pile-on’ – John Phillips/BAFTA

Author Nick Wallis, however, is optimistic about Heard’s chances of making a successful comeback. Wallis was the only journalist to have attended both trials in person – first in London and then in Fairfax, Virginia – and last week published a book, Depp v Heard: The Unreal Story. “You’ve got to remember that the only person in that couple who still has a big Hollywood movie coming out is Amber Heard.” Because in December, Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom will be released – the trailer was first shown at CinemaCon in April and viewers were surprised to learn that Heard will still appear in the sequel despite the petition (signed by 4.6 million Depp fans) to remove her scenes. “So how big a role she still has in that and how much publicity she does around it is going to be crucial in terms of how her career moves forward from here. She was the female lead in the first, don’t forget, and that was a billion-dollar grossing movie.”

He’s right to point out that “Johnny Depp’s entire public persona is based on his success in Hollywood and yet even he’s not back in Hollywood yet.” Heard, however, “is a resilient woman,” Wallis believes. “She went through a lot in her childhood [having allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of her “violent”, “alcoholic” father] and she clearly went through a hell of a lot in that relationship.”

Depp supporters wait for the actor to arrive outside the High Court in London - AP
Depp supporters wait for the actor to arrive outside the High Court in London – AP

A groundswell of support for the actress has also materialised since the verdict, with political activist Gloria Steinem coming out in her favour via an open letter condemning Heard’s “public shaming” last November. The actress is also still listed as an ambassador for the American Civil Liberties Union. “So she may have partially retired from public life at the moment,” says Wallis, “but if she wants it, she can either go and grab Hollywood again or she can reposition herself as an actress/activist and start appearing in the kind of small European films that get very well received. I think that part of Heard’s retreat has been about strategising: planning what will come next.”

While Cooper declares herself “agnostic” in the whole Johnny vs Amber debate, she is still astonished by how hard it was for her “to find stuff that was pro-Amber, purely in the interest of balance. I had to really search for it.” When she announced her documentary on Twitter a few weeks ago, Cooper was herself subjected to what she describes as “a pile-on”. “Even though there was no information on there at all about the project, everyone decided that it must be a pro-Amber polemic, and how fascinating is that, one year on?”

As someone who specialises in shining a light on tragic twists of fate, alliances gone sour and long-silenced voices, Cooper’s previous project had been Netflix’s The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes. Does she see any similarities between Marilyn and Heard? “It’s an age-old story, isn’t it?” she sighs. “Women in Hollywood who think they can manage the machine, and the machine will always win. They don’t stand a chance.”

Heard and Depp at the premiere of The Rum Diary in London, 2011 - Dave Hogan/Getty
Heard and Depp at the premiere of The Rum Diary in London, 2011 – Dave Hogan/Getty

Although Cooper assumes “the reaction to Heard will subside over time”, both she and Wallis agree that the reality of the actress’s current financial situation will be challenging. “She has had to sell her California home,” says Wallis. Heard is said to have made $500,000 (£402k) profit by selling the $1.05 million (£820,000) house. “Plus, she was obviously spending money hand over fist on lawyers and although overall, in terms of damages, she has only been forced to fork out a million dollars, she is not earning the residuals and the big bucks that he was. Certainly, all her endorsement deals have died off. So although she won’t be destitute and starving, she’s living modestly at the moment and until – and if – she comes back into the big time, I don’t think we’re going to see her living the life of an A-lister.”

For Cooper, what’s more important than either Depp or Heard “is that we examine our own behaviours and obsessions around people we don’t know, that have nothing to do with us. It’s not nice to see anyone be piled on.” A major part of her documentary is about “examining truth within ourselves” she says, “asking ourselves: ‘am I looking at this correctly before I create these opinions?’”

How many will pause to ask themselves this in our “post-truth” era of snap judgments, biases and emotional allegiances is anyone’s guess. But one thing seems certain: Wallis’s “unreal story” of Depp v Heard still has an epilogue to come – at least.

Depp v Heard: The Unreal Story by Nick Wallis is published by Bath (£12.99); the first episode of Depp vs Heard will air on Channel 4 on Sunday 21 May at 9pm


Published by anthonyhayble


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