By now, you’re probably familiar with Amber Heard’s domestic abuse accusations against her ex-husband Johnny Depp. If you haven’t, you can read more here. Still, it’s safe to assume some level of familiarity since the reports have, so far, fit the script of a high profile Hollywood abuse “scandal”—there’s been a ton of coverage. But for all the media back and forth, all of the other celebrities taking very public sides, it’s unlikely Depp’s career will ultimately suffer from Heard’s claims that “the actor pulled her hair, screamed at her and repeatedly hit her and violently grabbed her face,” as the AP paraphrased her words. Nor will Heard’s documented bruises likely affect the promotion of next year’s $320 million dollar pirate movie. This is because when A-list men face damaging accusations, three things happen.
First, victims are discredited. This tends to happen immediately, with force, and is certainly not relegated to the world of Hollywood elites—one of the many reasons a victim may stay with his or her abuser is out of fear that no one will believe them, or that they will “be judged or blamed for the abuse by people that they turn to for help,” according to the Salvation Army’s Domestic Violence Programs site. When she accused Charlie Sheen of threatening to kill her, Brooke Mueller was represented as a drunk and an addict, as well as a bad mother, making her an easy victim to dismiss. Mel Gibson claimed that Oksana Grigorieva used the tapes that held evidence of his abuse “to extort him.” We see this with Heard and Depp already. Tabloid stories citing Depp’s bodyguard claims that Heard is “making it up,” and shady “Ear-Witness” accounts only serve to damage Heard’s credibility and, in turn, bolster Depp’s own image. By painting Heard as a cash-hungry manipulator, the victim effectively becomes the abuser. But perhaps most damning for Heard was comedian Doug Stanhope’s guest column for The Wrap, where he claims the actress is “blackmailing” Depp. Stanhope goes so far as to call it an “awful, abusive relationship”—but he says Depp was the one abused. Stanhope’s language is aggressive and often hard to follow, but the sheer strength of his anger is enough to make anyone pause. But why would Stanhope lie? Perhaps because of the book he released last month that Depp wrote the foreword to? (Heard is now suing Stanhope.) This leads us into step two.
The industry rallies in defense of the accused. Celebrity friends (like Stanhope), along with celebrity family members (like Depp’s ex-wife Vanessa Paradis and daughter Lily-Rose Depp) lend support to the abuser. And other notable actors and directors have been quick to back Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, with Blake Lively even calling the latter “empowering to women.” Here, again, the public is given the chance to side against the victim, and the assurance that doing so is the right choice. We don’t know Depp personally, but these other people (especially ones we admire) do, thus giving their opinion more weight. Because the victim (and Heard) has already been discredited, the decision to side against him or her is an even easier one to make. But beyond friends and family, who have the right to extend their support to a loved one, the tendency of the industry at large to protect its own is a powerful one. This is seen most clearly in cases of sexual abuse against child actors and entertainers, where SAG-AFTRA threatened to sue a documentary examining it. It isn’t that the film business is intentionally callous (though it often feels that way), but that it’s a business, and profit is the bottom line. Woody Allen, Michael Fassbender, Charlie Sheen, and others accused in varying degrees of severity are guaranteed to bring money to expensive projects. And so goes step three...
Finally, a splashy release shifts any remaining negative press to positive. Charlie Sheen got Anger Management after his rampage. Bill Murray had a cameo as himself in Zombieland a few months after his troubling divorce filings were made public. Woody Allen received critical praise for Manhattan Murder Mystery just after the publication of Vanity Fair’s damning publication of “Mia’s Story.” Depp’s latest hasn’t fared so well so far, but with the sure to be massive release of Pirates of the Caribbean 5 next year, the conversation around Depp’s alleged abuse will be just a footnote among all the other coverage.
Barring any seriously compelling new developments (video footage, an influx of other accusers, an admission of guilt), it’s unlikely we’ll see a different outcome with Depp and Heard, and even then the courts of legal and public opinion have historically sided with the abuser, provided that abuser is famous enough—evidence aside.
As the Daily Beast already pointed out, it’s incredibly easy to see the sheer number of celebrities charged with domestic abuse. A two second Google search will take you here, to this list of “80+ Celebrities Who Have Been Charged With Domestic Abuse,” as ranked on Ranker. Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, James Caan, Ozzy Osbourne, Gary Busey, Christian Slater—the list, unfortunately, goes on and on and on. Not since Fatty Arbuckle was accused of rape and murder in 1921, which resulted in three trials and the banning of the comedian’s work, have audiences and industry elites alike taken so seriously an accusation against a once beloved artist. And that was the so-called “first scandal” in Hollywood history. Even O.J. didn’t have his past work destroyed.
Unlike in cases of child sex abuse, which is a documented if under-reported problem in the entertainment industry and one victims are often silent about for years, victims of domestic abuse by A and B-listers are often vocal. Nicolas Cage’s ex-girlfriend Christina Fulton accused him of “mental, physical and emotional abuse” during their relationship in a suit against the actor. Denise Richards and Brooke Mueller are only two of the litany of women who have publicly had issues with violent ex Charlie Sheen. And while high-powered abusers are free to continue their careers uninterrupted, their former partners are often not afforded the same pass back into respected society. Victims of domestic violence are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, which can take a toll on their work — Kelly LeBrock has spoken about her “traumatic” relationship to ex-husband Steven Seagal, which left her “too afraid to leave her home” and effectively ended her career.
What might Hollywood look like if the accusations against actors, directors, and comedians (and against talent agents, publicists, managers, and so on) were taken seriously by the industry? If resources were not allocated to child rapists or the man who told his wife she was “lucky he didn’t kill her?” Talent is not a finite resource. There are fleets of eager actors waiting just an Uber away. But the industry’s attachment to its well-documented moneymakers is uninterested with morality. Domestic abuse is difficult to prove in court. Proof of Depp’s box office Prowess, on the other hand, is incredibly easy to access.