Recently a high profile court room drama caught my attention. It reminded me of those big splashy cases of yesteryear, like the notorious murder trial of the architect Stanford White in 1906 or the Lindbergh kidnapping trial in 1932. Not that I was alive in 1906 or 1932 but I do devour books about those events. BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE ACTING UGLY trials, as I like to call them. I'm ashamed to admit it but I'm drawn to the voyeuristic, schadenfreude-y aspect of it all.
In one of the UK tabloids I used to peruse there was a section titled Celebrities: They're just like us. And it was genius. In fact it was pretty much the only 2 pages I would read. This double page spread showcased paparazzi pics of celebs being (of all disgusting things) human. There would be a large photo of Sir Paul McCartney stepping in dog shit, or Tom Cruise spilling coffee all over himself. Of John Travolta dropping a bag of groceries, the carton of eggs falling, rolling and smashing everywhere, all over his nice clean Bentley. Madonna fighting with a cop over a parking ticket. Donatella Versace or Bill Clinton leaving a bathroom at a fancy soirée with a long trail of toilet paper stuck to their shoe. I seriously loved it. And other people do too as witnessed by how well those ludicrous magazines do on the newsstand.
The case that grabbed my attention of late was the public showdown between the well known, 59 year-old actor Johnny Depp and his ex-wife, the stunning, lesser known 36 year old actress Amber Heard.
It was all sort of titillating on day one, this peek inside the debauched private life of Hollywood's long time A-lister Johnny Depp. The planes, the cars, the private island, the $250,000 a month he spends on staff for homes he has not set foot in for years. But after those sort of juicy "oh no he didn't" morsels, the whole circus turned very dark and very bleak very quickly.
I don't have a horse in the race in terms of who defamed who but the trial made me worry about Johnny Depp, whose talent I have always admired. Mr Depp was the plaintiff and the opposing side characterized him as some sort of alcoholic, drug-addled monster. Who knows, maybe he is. But his descent into addiction, a place where he still apparently resides, and which he chronicled from the stand, broke my heart.
One of the lawyers from Ms. Heard's side was trying to pin Johnny down and get him to admit that he was a bad man, a drug addict and a violent alcoholic. Johnny would not admit to being physically violent but he did admit to struggling with substance abuse disorder from a very young age.
"Well when did it start?" they barked at him as he sat in the witness chair, head hung low.
"When I was a young child my mother would ask me to go and get her 'nerve pills'" he said in a very soft voice, eyes downcast, "and I think I was about 11 when it dawned on me that nerve pills calmed her down. So I brought my mother her nerve pills one day and I took one and that was the beginning of my drug use." When the attorney asked him why a young child would take drugs, he replied "I took them to escape. To escape from caring so much - and feeling so much. I wanted to escape from the chaotic nature of my home life. It's the only way that I have found to numb the pain." Johnny went on to say that he continues, to this day, to use drugs and alcohol not to party, but to self-medicate.
“I think I use drugs and alcohol to deal with the unprocessed trauma and pain that I still experience...from things that happened to me in my childhood. I use substances to numb out those unwelcome feelings that I am unable or unwilling (or both) to address and process.”
I was very touched by that honesty. By that vulnerability.
In the end, Johnny won the case, but did he really? All that horrible dirty laundry aired for vultures like me to consume. The whole thing felt a bit tawdry, not nearly as glamorous and interesting as its early 1900s predecessors.
More than anything else, the trial showed me that everything addiction touches is destroyed. It's like the Midas touch but in reverse. In Johnny's case that was his marriage to Amber Heard, his relationships with others and even his glittering, long and successful career in Hollywood. It was all dragged through the court in lurid detail, with photos and even videos attached.The fact is that because of his drug and alcohol abuse, Johnny Depp has become an unreliable person. An unreliable actor that directors and producers and agents can no longer count on. A fading, sputtering, self-immolating star that not many people in Hollywood are interested in working with. Photos of him passed out drunk and high flew around the courtroom and the internet. We all got to hear that Mr. Depp, once one of Hollywood’s biggest talents, now has to wear an earpiece while filming as he can no longer remember his lines. Even his once glorious looks have faded. And yet....he may never give it up. His wine and his weed and his coke and God knows what else.
It’s possible that Johnny Depp will go the way of so many other performers and we will lose another talented artist to the disease of addiction. And maybe we have been getting a watered down version of him for several years now. Maybe he's getting high and dialing it in? Only he knows the answer to that.
I remember when Alexander McQueen, a wunderkind of the fashion world, took his own life at age 40 and at the pinnacle of his career. I couldn't understand that at all. A friend of mine who had worked with him said that McQueen always knew, somehow, that he would die young. And I wonder about people like that. Maybe McQueen's star burned so bright and hot and fast that he couldn't handle it. So he put it out himself. Maybe that is what Johnny Depp is doing, just trying to tamp down the brilliance of his own star. Maybe that fiery, burning, star quality is too hot for a mere human to handle.
I'll say a prayer for Johnny Depp, a bit selfishly I'll admit, for if he gets his act together we could possibly enjoy his true acting talent for many years to come. But after watching the trial I walked away reminded of what I already knew, that addiction will first damage and then destroy anything it can sink it's claws into - anything worthwhile, anything beautiful, anything brilliant.