Johnny Depp Just Killed the Hollywood Celebrity (With a Little Help From Will Smith)

Movie stars have been shrinking for decades but never before have they sunk quite so low. Is fame finally over?

Johnny Depp steps outside court during the 8th day of his civil trial at Fairfax County Circuit Court on April 19, 2022 in Fairfax, Virginia. Depp is seeking $50 million in alleged damages to his career over an op-ed Heard wrote in the Washington Post in 2018. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movie stars were the very definition of grace under pressure. Sure, Tom Cruise would occasionally hop up and down on Oprah’s sofa like a lunatic and every once in a while Justin Timberlake would take a swipe at a paparazzo. But for the most part, they kept their cool.

Indeed, they paid teams of high-powered publicists millions to make sure their exquisitely curated public personas remained perfectly unruffled. 

Not anymore. Today, celebrities are getting in touch with their inner demons and melting down in front of the whole world. And, frankly, it’s becoming increasingly painful — even nauseating — to watch.

Take Johnny Depp. For nearly four decades, the 58-year-old “Pirates of the Caribbean” star enjoyed a super-privileged perch in the Hollywood ecosystem. He wasn’t merely a movie star, he was a hipster icon, part Marlon Brando, part Keith Richards, projecting a sly, wry, above-it-all insouciance that made him one of the most beguiling leading men on Earth.

But all that went out the window last week at his televised defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard, where taped evidence — surreptitiously recorded by Heard herself on her phone — revealed Depp in an all too human moment of pain and rage, shouting “motherf—er” as he smashed kitchen cabinets in their West Hollywood home.

And that was hardly the worst of it. Testimony was presented of horrendously abusive slurs, thrown wine bottles, sliced-off fingertips, drug and alcohol binges and even allegations that Heard revenge-pooped on their matrimonial bed (don’t ask). A lot of these revelations were first exposed in 2020, at an earlier trial in England, but actually seeing it on TV, watching Depp dither and sputter in the witness chair, made it all so much more revolting and humiliating. Not to mention puzzling. Depp lost that first case and yet still chose to bring this one to trial. Why in the world would he want relive the experience, this time in front of American cameras?

The Will Smith debacle at the Oscars wasn’t quite as gross, but it was equally disturbing. Over his three decades-plus in the business, the 53-year-old “King Richard” star has cultivated a super-genial, all-American image that positioned him as one of the most affable humans on the planet. Then he took a swipe at Chris Rock and delivered that tearful non-apology apology while accepting his Best Actor trophy, demolishing in a single evening one of the most carefully crafted public personas in the history of Hollywood. It was a truly shocking spectacle, like witnessing the abrupt disintegration of Mount Rushmore.

will smith oscar
(Getty Images)

Of course, the public has always been titillated by peeks into the private lives of celebrities, which is why US magazine’s “They’re Just Like Us!” pages were such a popular feature and why TMZ still pulls in 50 million visitors a month. But an embarrassing photo of Ben Affleck accidentally exposing his butt crack at a gas station is one thing. What we’re witnessing now is altogether different, and far more noxious. It’s as if Smith and Depp are putting the culture through celebrity aversion therapy, jamming the airwaves with so much demeaning and sordid personal information about themselves and their mates — seriously, Amber, you couldn’t find the bathroom? — that the very idea of celebrity has become a turn-off.

In some ways, these meltdowns are almost understandable. After all, being famous isn’t what it used to be. The star system that sustained Hollywood for 100 years — and that arguably hit its zenith in the mid 1990s, when Smith and Julia Roberts and the two Toms (Cruise and Hanks) could summon huge crowds merely by affixing their names to marquees — has crumbled into dust. Their $30 million-a-movie paydays are long gone. Their fan bases have grown grayer and less ardent, as younger audiences have moved on to whole new crops of far more accessible “influencers” on YouTube and TikTok.

But what we’re witnessing today seems to be more than merely an aging generation of actors coming to terms with shrinking paychecks and diminished status in the social media era. Something deeper seems to be going on, something that speaks to a larger change in the pop culture: It may, perhaps, be nothing less than the end of “celebrity” as we know it.

For fame to work, it requires a certain mystery. Film stars are supposed to be larger than life both on and off the screen. They’re supposed to be aspirational figures, enjoying more glamorous, gorgeous lives than the rest of us poor slobs in life’s cheap seats. Inspiring the audience, enthralling and seducing us with their grace and beauty and charisma — sometimes even their talent — is pretty much their entire job description.

So when that facade cracks — or, as with Depp and Smith, utterly disintegrates in public, in ways that leave the rest of us mere mortals gagging in disgust — it blows up the illusion for all celebrities. Suddenly, instead of looking up to movie stars, we find ourselves looking down on them with pity and repulsion. 

Because these days, they’re not just like us — they’re much, much worse.