Johnny Depp is currently locked in a protracted legal battle with his ex-wife Amber Heard. The actor is suing her for $50m for defamation. He says she destroyed his career when she alluded to allegations of domestic abuse in an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post. Heard says he’s destroyed her career by denying it – and wants $100 million “for nuisance”.
To some this is nothing more than a trivial he-said-she-said spat between two very privileged and pampered Hollywood luvvies. To others, it is as engrossing as the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The drama unfolding between the two has been dubbed by some as the trial of the century. When Depp unsuccessfully sued The Sun for libel in 2020, the trial took place in London. As such it was not filmed. This one, however, gets the full Star-Spangled-Banner treatment. Taking place in Fairfax Virginia and set to last 5 weeks, the whole sordid spectacle is broadcast live around the world, courtesy of Court TV.
It’s hard to believe it, but there was a time when actors were pretty much venerated as gods amongst men. People generally looked up to and respected movie stars. Glamorous and dignified, they were often larger than life, yet somehow remote and untouchable. It was as if they existed in a different world separate from our own. Influential and inspirational, actors were once something for the common man to aspire to but never quite reach.
Celebrities used to be a lot less accessible than they are today. A metaphorical wall was once in place to distance the general public from the celebrity. The rare occasions you heard from them was when you opened the pages of the latest glamorous A-list celebrity magazine or through an appearance on a late-night talk show.
Even then they were carefully managed through scripted interviews with friendly journalists or contractually protected from awkward and difficult questions posed by presenters. In short, you knew little about their private lives, or worse their political opinions.
Alas, that was a different generation. The rise of social media has permanently reorganised not only our relationship with celebrities, but with the entire concept of fame.
The invention of Twitter meant celebrities could interact directly with fans. With millions of followers hanging on their every word, actors suddenly found a new stage. Typing out every conceivable thought, they became free to give their opinion on everything from foreign policy to climate change. Yet often these people aren’t the best informed.
As Ricky Gervais said, most of them have spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. Engagement means disagreement, so opinions go unchallenged. All of a sudden their flaws, shortcomings and insecurities were laid bare for the world to see.
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With the rise of social media, it should come as no surprise that the Depp-Heard trial has been dubbed generation Tik-Tok’s OJ Simpson moment. Amplified through social media, it has become the latest real-life courtroom drama to capture the attention of the two stars’ fans.
Depp obsessives have been constantly mocking Heard’s histrionics and crocodile tears. According to Tik-Tok, videos featuring the hashtag “amberturd” have been viewed more than 1.2bn times. Others have been swooning over the psychologist Depp hired to evaluate Heard’s mental state.
The cult of celebrity is dying, and the internet will be its swan song. The trial has shown how this once all powerful and pervasive cultural phenomenon is now in decline. It is inevitable that it should be happening now. Everything is changing, especially how we see the rich and famous.
The more we open the door and peer into the world of celebrity the more we’ve come to realise there’s very little substance behind it. There is nothing particularly special about fame anymore. Rather than striving for something worthy of fame, it is more likely to be sought as an end in itself. So what explains our contemporary fascination with fame?
In his book, The Upswing, the political scientist Robert Putnam has documented a vast amount of data that appears to show a growing level of narcissism across the western world. In the last century, Putnam argues that the US has drifted from “we” society towards an “I”. This new narcissistic outlook is found in response to the statement: “I am a very important person” Only 12 per cent agreed with this in 1950. By 1990 this had rocketed to 80 per cent. The figure continues to rise.
This pathological desire for recognition combined with growing self-obsession offers at least a plausible explanation as to why we now seek fame. Combine this with a social media generation craving instant gratification and you can see why it lures so many young and impressionable people.
Nothing highlights the transient nature of fame more than Love Island. In 2020 the reality TV show received twice as many applicants than students applying to Oxford and Cambridge. As one anonymous casting director put it bluntly: “There’s a one-year shelf life [to Love Island fame]… Next year is the new batch of people and no one’s really going to want to know about you next year.”
The internet has democratised fame. These days anyone with a broadband connection and a webcam can go viral overnight. It has stripped celebrities of the special status they have enjoyed for generations. So perhaps this trial is a cynical marketing ploy dreamt up by the stars’ agents to thrust them back into the limelight? Hollywood is not exactly a bastion of decency.
Those of us who don’t seek fame seem content to simply live vicariously through the contrived drama of others. Not this writer. I would rather live alone on my own island. Anything but Love Island.