Can Johnny Depp’s Reputation Recover From Abuse Accusations?

Johnny Depp Abuse Scandal
John Salangsang/REX/Shutterstock/REX

For almost thirty years, Johnny Depp has thrived as one of our most beloved and popular box office stars. But just as his latest feature, Walt Disney’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” was being released worldwide last week, allegations of domestic abuse were put forth by his estranged wife, Amber Heard, raising questions about his career and reputation going forward. (The allegations came just days after Heard filed for divorce — and asked for spousal support — following a 15-month marriage.)

Depp was performing in Lisbon with his band Hollywood Vampires when Heard made her allegations. In his absence, his attorney, Laura Wasser, said in a court declaration that “Amber is attempting to secure a premature financial resolution by alleging abuse.”

A swarm of media converged on Los Angeles Superior Court on May 27 to cover the proceedings, in which a judge granted Heard a temporary restraining order that requires Depp to stay 100 yards away.

Dozens of male stars have been accused of domestic abuse. Sean Penn last year sued Lee Daniels for defamation over comments in which Daniels lumped Penn in with other celebrities who have been subject to domestic abuse allegations. In the flurry of court filings afterward, Penn’s attorneys included a declaration from his ex-wife, Madonna, in which she said that his arrest in 1989 for domestic assault and battery against her was unfounded. The lawsuit was settled last month.

Plenty of celebrities have endured scandal with little evidence that it has hurt their career prospects — Hugh Grant and Rob Lowe both went on to have successful careers after their reputations seemed irrevocably tarnished by high-profile scandals. Charlie Sheen became one of television’s highest paid stars on “Two and a Half Men” despite years of tabloid headlines about substance abuse and an assault arrest.

For all his quirkiness, Depp is actually in a different league, as much of his success has been in movies aimed at families. He’s one of the few real-life figures to have been immortalized as a Disneyland Audio-Animatronic, for his role as Jack Sparrow in the blockbuster “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, which has grossed more than $3.7 billion worldwide. The next installment, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” is set to come out next year.

More recently, Depp drew raves for his performance as Whitey Bulger in “Black Mass,” though there have been recent duds as well, like “Mortedcai,” in 2014, and the underperforming “The Lone Ranger,” in 2013. Last year, Forbes named him the top “overpaid” actor in Hollywood, based on a formula that matches box office performance with salary.

Mark Young, professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, notes that Depp “is beloved by many. Thus, a lot of this depends on public perception of Amber Heard and her credibility.”

Young says, “If Johnny was involved with domestic abuse, his box office performance may suffer in the short run, depending on the severity of the abuse and whether there was a consistent pattern of such behavior throughout his marriage to Amber Heard. But if this is a one-time incident, I think the public may be more forgiving.” He concludes, “Given that the public has strong affection for him … I don’t think that his career will suffer in the long run.”

Depp has drawn some attention for erratic public appearances. At the 2014 Hollywood Film Awards, he slurred his words and swore on the telecast. His appearance at the Palm Springs Festival earlier this year, too, where he accepted an award for “Black Mass,” was offbeat. He told the audience that studios “get very frightened” by what he brings to his characters, and he thanked Heard “for living with all these characters, which can’t be easy.” He said, “It’s hard for me — It’s got to be hard for her.”

In court papers, Heard claims that Depp “has a long-held and widely acknowledged public and private history of drug and alcohol abuse.” She said that he was high and drunk when they got into a fight on May 21, and that he threw a cellphone at her, hitting her in the cheek and eye. She said in a sworn declaration that Depp “has been verbally and physically abusive to [her]” throughout their relationship. Her court filing also included a declaration from a neighbor supporting her claims.

According to the Los Angeles police department, when officers responded to the domestic dispute, Heard told them that she didn’t want to file a criminal report. (Depp was not at the scene). Two days later, Heard filed for divorce.

Wasser contends that Heard’s most recent court filing “appears to be in response to the negative media attention she received” after filing for divorce three days after the death of Depp’s mother.

Before Heard sought a restraining order, Depp’s reps issued a statement saying, “Given the brevity of this marriage and the most recent and tragic loss of his mother, Johnny will not respond to any of the salacious false stories, gossip, misinformation, and lies about his personal life. Hopefully the dissolution of this short marriage will be resolved quickly.”