Johnny Depp is seen leaving the Royal Courts of Justice on February 26, 2020 in London, England. The Hollywood actor is suing The Sun newspaper over claims he beat up his ex-wife Amber Heard. (Photo by Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The rise and fall of Johnny Depp

Now that Depp has lost his libel case, it is now widely believed that his career is all but over

In 2004, Johnny Depp played a character who seemed a man after his own heart. This figure was a heavy drinker, who often was reduced to incoherence or incapacity after a particularly bibulous night on the bottle, and whose relationship with women was a tempestuous and often violent one, seasoned with a dramatic and colourful use of (often obscene) language. The man, who was once renowned for his good looks, wit and charm, associated with the most important and powerful figures of his day, but seemed incapable of restraint or nuance in their presence. His work was often extraordinary but could equally descend into lazy and repetitive bathos. And he attracted the opprobrium of those around him, as his behaviour became more and more outrageous.

The role that Depp played then was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, the debauched and brilliant poet. The film, an adaptation of a play called The Libertine, was both commercially and critically unsuccessful, but Depp had acquired his considerable reputation as an actor by taking risks that few of his peers would even consider.

Although he was, at 41, considerably older than Rochester was when he died at 33, he still managed to convey an obvious sympathy for this iconoclastic outlaw, just as he did for such disparate real-life characters he portrayed as Hunter S Thompson, Ed Wood and JM Barrie. If nothing else, his depiction of Rochester indicated his range, versatility and artistic interests, and could only enhance his standing amongst his peers.

The judge decided that 12 of the 14 allegations of domestic violence made were accurate

The judgement made against him in the High Court in London on Monday 2 November has destroyed this standing, after a trial that had battered Depp’s already shaky regard amongst all but the most committed of his admirers. He had sued the Sun newspaper for libel because of an article that described him as a wife beater, referring to his tumultuous and short-lived marriage to the actress Amber Heard. The newspaper’s defence was that the allegations made were true, and, after a long and sordid hearing in which the actor’s licentious lifestyle, heavy drinking and drug use and frivolous attitude towards money were all made public knowledge, Mr Justice Nicol found in the newspaper’s favour, calling the article “substantially true”.

The judge, in a ruling that did not spare Depp, decided that 12 of the 14 allegations of domestic violence made were accurate, and the only reason why the other two were not was because of insufficient evidence. Although it was not a criminal court, it is now perfectly legal for any newspaper or magazine to describe Depp as a wife beater, at a time when public attitudes towards men who behave in such a way have never been angrier.

There has, naturally, been a groundswell of reaction on the actor’s side, not least on social media, where his most devoted fans alternated between praising him and viciously attacking Heard, just as they had done during the court case. His lawyer put out the angry statement that “This decision is as perverse as it is bewildering … the judgement is so flawed that it would be ridiculous for Mr Depp not to appeal this decision”, and an expensive and time-consuming appeal may yet take place.

However, Depp’s attention may soon be diverted to America, where he is suing Heard for $50 million due to a piece she wrote for the Washington Post, and she is countersuing him for defamation, on the grounds of his “rampant physical abuse”. Her suit claims that “Mr. Depp is attempting to defame Ms. Heard and interfere with her reputation, career and livelihood through an online smear campaign he has organised and orchestrated.” Given that one of the revelations during the trial was that Depp was, like Rochester, frequently debilitated by his use of drugs and alcohol – one of the highlights was his scorning the claim that he spent $30,000 a month on wine, as he boasted that his actual expenditure was considerably more – it seems difficult to imagine his organising and orchestrating the proverbial piss-up in a brewery, and yet this has now joined the apparently endless list of allegations against him.

It is now widely believed that his career is all but over

It seems extraordinary to think that, when he was still best known for playing the wild men of history rather than joining their ranks, Depp was probably the coolest of all Hollywood megastars. He had begun his career in the TV show 21 Jump Street but had quickly veered off into more interesting territory, beginning a long and initially hugely fruitful collaboration with Tim Burton in his 1990 film Edward Scissorhands. He then spent the Nineties alternating between offbeat but reasonably mainstream fare, such as the Mafia drama Donnie Brasco and co-starring with his great idol Marlon Brando in Don Juan de Marco, and more esoteric activities. These included working with the uncommercial but brilliant likes of Terry Gilliam, Jim Jarmusch and Sally Potter, and indulging what appeared to be a rock star manqué lifestyle, whether playing slide guitar on Oasis albums, dating beautiful women like Kate Moss and Vanessa Paradis or building a reputation for assaulting the paparazzi and trashing hotel rooms.

His unpredictability and apparently poetic soul were regarded by his admirers as proof that Depp, like Brando before him, was an actor who was uninterested in chasing fame, but instead pursued his own enthusiasms, and the consequences be damned. It was this quixotic sensibility that saw him play the role of Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise in 2003. Rather than playing the traditional square-jawed hero, Depp interpreted Sparrow as a mincing, camp and usually inebriated figure, wearing eyeliner and given to fond recollections of debauched adventures.

Disney, who saw the film as their wholesome summer blockbuster, were appalled, but the film was an unexpected success because, rather than despite, Depp’s performance, for which he was nominated for an Oscar. It established him for the first time in his career as a bona fide superstar, and he began to earn enormous amounts of money as he pursued more conventional projects, not least further instalments of Captain Jack’s exploits. And in retrospect, it is clear to see that that is where Depp’s interesting, unusual career sprang a leak.

His films swiftly became less personal, as he was regarded as an actor whose name atop a project would lead to box office success. Like Sean Connery, who seemed visibly to lose interest in his career as his stardom grew, Depp began performing ever-more absurd variations on his Sparrow character, whether or not it was appropriate for the role, and his once substantial artistic reputation seemed to decline with every year that passed.

If he still had impeccable taste in collaborators and material, the results were now poorly conceived and delivered. It was pleasing to see that he was an admirer of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s excellent books about the portly and dissolute art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, but less impressive that he himself took on the role in the titular Mortdecai, another box office flop, just as his luring Withnail writer and director Bruce Robinson back to the cinema for the first time in two decades only produced the so-so Hunter S Thompson adaptation The Rum Diary, doomed to be remembered by posterity as the film on which he met Heard.

Depp now finds himself a pariah, but it is impossible to say whether this will last forever

It is now widely believed that his career is all but over, but it had been in difficulty even before the libel case’s result. It had been years since he had had a commercial or artistic success in the lead of a non-Pirates of the Caribbean project, and the roles that he was being offered were either showy cameos, as the victim in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, or in films that barely attracted any interest from cinemagoers. Nobody has been queuing round the block to see Depp in The Professor, City of Lies or Waiting for the Barbarians. And so, while studios will no doubt prepare public statements disassociating themselves from him, most are watching Warner Bros, for whom he is currently filming the third in the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and waiting to assess their reaction.

It was his casting in the role of the films’ antagonist Gellert Grindelwald that had led Wotton to publicly ask JK Rowling if she wanted to see a wife-beater cast in her picture, given her own very public history of domestic abuse. And given the controversy that she has herself faced, one can only imagine the levels of outcry and boycott that the film will eventually receive if it is released in its intended form. That is, of course, assuming that cinemas still exist, by its projected November 2021 release date.

Like Kevin Spacey, Depp now finds himself a pariah, but it is impossible to say whether this will last forever. Spacey’s career is probably over, something that he has greeted with anger and defiance, but his brilliance as an actor was never equalled by similar commercial standing. Depp’s films have cumulatively grossed $10 billion, and Hollywood is an industry that loves a comeback story if there is money to be made. Mel Gibson, whose own downfall was sparked by both allegations of domestic violence and intoxicated anti-semitism, has returned, both as jobbing character actor and Oscar-nominated film director. His WWII film Hacksaw Ridge was profitable, critically acclaimed and offended those who considered that he should have been drummed out of the industry for his actions, but he has returned, with the public support of friends such as Robert Downey Jr, Jodie Foster and Whoopi Goldberg.

It remains to be seen whether Depp’s career now mirrors Gibson’s or Spacey’s, and if he can rebuild his reputation or not. It is doubtful, but stranger things have happened, not least his emergence as a megastar in the first place. But he will probably not be inundated with offers of work in the future, and he may wish to spend some of his leisure time returning to Rochester’s poetry. In particular, he might derive wry amusement from “Love and Life”, which feels especially apt for anyone, such as Depp, meditating on the pitfalls of fame. It concludes with a warning he would have been wise to heed, before embarking on such a disastrous public course of action:

“All my past life is mine no more,

The flying hours are gone,

Like transitory dreams giv’n o’er,

Whose images are kept in store

By memory alone.


The time that is to come is not;

How can it then be mine?

The present moment’s all my lot;

And that, as fast as it is got,

Phyllis, is only thine.


Then talk not of inconstancy,

False hearts, and broken vows;

If I, by miracle, can be

This live-long minute true to thee,

’Tis all that Heav’n allows.”


Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover