The Johnny Depp vs Amber Heard trial is now in its fourth week, and so many of us are still gripped. People are either consciously ‘following’ or ‘not-following’ the trial as if it were a television drama, which in more than one way it is. The two main characters are actors, after all.
Kimberly Lau, a partner at the New York legal firm Warshaw Burstein, said this week that ‘the testimony of the witnesses and documentary evidence will be even more essential for the jury to determine who is really telling the truth and who may be acting out a role.’ The more slippery truth, however, is that both parties are playing out roles. As in reality TV, or any good court fiction, the thrill comes from trying to figure out who is faking what and when. My view is perhaps more sordid. Watching the trial quite closely, I can’t help but wonder: is this some sort of legal-themed role play? Is it possible that Heard vs Depp is actually one big sexual fantasy being played out in a court of law before the world’s media? If the testimonies have taught us anything it is that Johnny and Amber appear to enjoy degrading each other, and for two people who have very little left on their sexual bucket lists, this exceptionally high profile case could in fact be the most elaborate role play ever.
At certain points it almost seems as if one of the two catches the other’s eye for a moment whilst giving testimony, and you the viewer can sense a bat’s squeak of sexuality that appears to be imperceptible to the court. At one point Rottenborn asks Depp, ‘you’re a lot bigger than Amber, correct? Physically.’ Johnny smiles and after a pause says, ‘I wouldn’t say that.’ Depp then smiles to himself and looks down before appearing to glance to the left of the courtroom, where Miss Heard is sitting. In general Johnny’s glances at Amber are momentary. It feels as if Johnny is trying her gaze, like some kind of eye-contact tantric exercise. Amber in general performs her testimony to the jury, but often looks straight ahead to where Johnny is seated in front of her. Is this a conscious tactic?
In her testimony on Monday, she testified that she often looks to Johnny in court, but that he barely looks at her. Could this all be part of a very complicated flirtatious dance? Amber has even been appearing to ape Johnny’s courtroom outfits. On 11 April Johnny wore a double breasted grey suit, and on 12 April Amber wore a double breasted grey suit. One day Johnny wore a Gucci tie adorned by a bee and two days later Amber wore the same Gucci tie. Another day Johnny wore pinstripes. The following day Amber wore pinstripes. Might this be some sort of implicit acknowledgement of each other whilst the trial demands they cannot speak?
The unreality of the case stems in part from its many extraordinary twists and turns. Depp is suing his wife for $50 million alleging defamation and loss of work following an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post in which she described herself as ‘a public figure representing domestic abuse.’ Heard responded by filing a $100 million countersuit. Depp and Heard both say they are the victims of domestic abuse. This week, Amber is being cross-examined by Depp’s lawyers. Last week she denied the claim that she defecated in his bed as an act of malice. She says that in fact her puppy Boo was responsible. Boo, she claims, had ‘eaten Jonny’s weed and had bowel control issues for life.’ Johnny’s ex-girlfriend and Amber’s sister will take to the stand soon. This week she was forced to admit that, despite her pledge to donate her entire $7 million divorce settlement to charity, very little of the money was actually sent. She seemed quite embarrassed to acknowledge that the bulk of the donations made in her name were paid for by a certain Elon Musk, her boyfriend after Depp. This cringe-worthy case of virtue signalling gone wrong in many ways is the underlying theme of Amber’s case. Social media has come out overwhelmingly in favour of Johnny. Yet the broader court of public opinion appears to agree that both individuals are two spoiled, narcissistic and dysfunctional celebrities, who are using the court as a means of airing their dirty laundry in the most public way. Certainly, it seems unlikely that Johnny will win the case, especially after he lost his case against The Sun newspaper in November 2020, which acted as the table read for the current televised trial.
This is partly because of the libel laws in the state of Virginia, which Heard’s lawyers are invoking in order to make the case that her Washington Post article was a matter of public interest. These (ironically named) anti-SLAPP laws stand for anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and were made to protect people from being sued when they speak out on matters of public interest.
Amber’s op-ed, in which she puts herself forward as the champion of domestic abuse, appears not to have aged well. Taped phone calls between the two reveal her taunting Johnny, ‘Tell them, I, Johnny Depp, I’m a victim of domestic abuse … and see how many people believe or side with you.’ The idea that Amber could put herself forward as the poster girl for such a serious issue, where many women are seriously harmed and in many cases killed by their partners, indicates the depth and breadth of her narcissism.
Johnny meanwhile has become a TikTok star, partly due to a range of amusing episodes in which he appears to be enjoying himself. Take, for instance, the ‘mega pint’ comment. Amber’s attorney, the unfortunately named attorney Rottenborn, plays a video in which Johnny is storming around his kitchen in a cowboy hat at 10am before finishing off a magnum of red wine. ‘You poured yourself a mega pint of red wine, correct?’ Rottenborn ventures. ‘A mega pint?’ Johnny smirks. ‘I poured myself a large glass of wine, I thought it necessary.’
I’d be lying if I didn’t identify with those words during 80 per cent of my waking day, but there are other moments in which Johnny’s star sinks into bathos. At one point during his testimony he describes an interaction with Miss Heard: ‘I had a knife in my pocket, and I just took it out and said here,’ he offers his forearm to the jury and scans the courtroom, ‘cut me, that’s what you want to do. You’ve taken everything from me. You want my blood, take it.’ Johnny’s depiction of himself as a Christ like figure offering his redemptive blood to the satanic Amber suggests he is at least as delusional as she is. It also hints at the role of blood in their sexual relationship. Johnny claims Heard severed his finger by throwing a vodka bottle at him. His response was to write messages to her in his blood. Part of the reason why the case makes for such good viewing is that each episode of the case reveals more bizarre and shocking insights into their marriage, where degradation and dark humour appears to have characterised their relationship. Now they are disentangling these intimate moments in front of each other and the world. As the trial of scorched earth continues, is it crazy to question whether the trial is really an elaborate exercise in fetishistic role play?