The defamation trial of actor Johnny Depp against his former wife, Amber Heard, has all of the makings of a Hollywood hit except for the absence of a single redeeming character. The comedian Henny Youngman may have been right that “the secret to a happy marriage remains a secret,” but the Depp trial shows that it is clear how to have a miserable marriage. It includes things like mutually taping each other, throwing objects of varying sizes, and rivaling each other in the competition of conspicuous consumption.
The first two days of the trial included gripping and disturbing testimony despite Depp’s tortuously fragmented and rambling accounts. There were the hospital pictures and details of his severed finger tip, which he said was the result of Heard throwing a vodka bottle at him. Heard’s stony demeanor in court played well for Depp as he described someone who seemed to enjoy torturing him with every weakness. It did not help the defense that, at points, Heard looked like she wanted to through a bottle at Depp on the stand.
Conversely, Depp presented himself as a fragile figure tormented by a conniving and greedy spouse. He used his abusive relationship with his mother to not only explain his own inability to be abusive but to paint Heard as a classic case of a man tragically marrying his mother.
Depp may have succeeded in one notable respect. He did not try to hide that fact that he was an utter train wreck of a human being; someone who burned through millions and past relationships. Yet, he may have connected on the notion that Heard picked through the rubble to take what she could. Being clueless (even comically clueless) is better than being abusive.
Depp detailed how Heard allegedly flew into fits of violence and abuse to the point that his children did not want to be around her. He alleged that she used nail polish to pretend that he broke her nose while repeatedly leaving him with cuts and bruises. Heard is heard in one tape admitting that she hit Depp and there were photos offered to support his claims that she was physically abusive.
Depp did likely cause damage to Heard in his graphic accounts of uncontrolled rage, but now he will be subjected to cross examination. He started poorly in questioning by Heard’s counsel Ben Rottenborn, a name that Depp seemed to like to emphasize on the stand. Depp used a common approach to depositions in drawing out questions and giving hyper technical, nitpicking answers to counsel. That does not work well in front of a jury. It makes you look less like a clueless wreck and more like a snarky sophisticate. You look less like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight and more like Marlene Dietrich in Witness for the Prosecution.
The defense continues to hammer Depp on the fact that he was not actually mentioned in the Washington Post column where Heard claimed that she was an abused spouse. It is a curious tact since that is not necessary for defamation. She was clearly referring to Depp as shown by the tsunami of criticism that followed.
What is likely to be more damaging for Depp is the self-inflicted damage to his career. Depp’s drinking and bizarre behavior made him notorious in the media. Disney (which owns the Pirates of the Caribbean series) had already decided that he would not continue in his most famous role before Heard’s column ever ran. Moreover, she previously accused him of abuse years earlier in seeking a temporary restraining order (TRO).
Yet, Depp did make a convincing case that his career was effectively ended when Heard first claimed abuse. There is no appellate process in the court of public opinion. Moreover, by making the allegation in a court filing, Heard could not be sued for defamation due to immunity rules. She would have to repeat such claims outside of court to lay the foundation for a lawsuit. That did not come until years later with the Washington Post column. By that time, Depp’s career was as sunk as Davy Jone’s locker.
The fact is that it would have been better if this trial were held two years ago when Heard first made the allegations. He is right that, when he was asked on the stand what the allegation cost him and he responded, “nothing less than everything.”
In the end, both Depp and Heard seem more intent on mutually assured destruction than actual verdicts in their favor. The one thing that is already established is perhaps the best single line from the movie So I Married an Axe Murderer: “We both said, ‘I do!’ and we haven’t agreed on a single thing since.”