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

Once upon a time in Hollywood, movie stars were the epitome of poise under duress. Sure, Tom Cruise would jump up and down like a crazy on Oprah’s sofa every now and then, and Justin Timberlake would periodically swing at a paparazzi. However, they maintained their composure for the most part.

Indeed, they lavished millions on teams of high-powered publicists to ensure that their meticulously crafted public identities remained undisturbed.

Not any longer. Celebrities are confronting their inner demons and melting down in front of the entire world today. And, to be honest, it’s becoming excruciating — even nauseous — to watch.

Take, for example, Johnny Depp. The 58-year-old “Pirates of the Caribbean” star has had a privileged position in the Hollywood ecosystem for nearly four decades. He wasn’t just a movie star; he was a hipster icon, a cross between Marlon Brando and Keith Richards, with a sly, sarcastic, above-it-all insouciance that made him one of the most captivating leading men on the planet.

All of that was thrown out the window last week during his televised defamation trial against ex-wife Amber Heard, when taped evidence — secretly recorded by Heard on her phone — revealed Depp in an all-too-human moment of pain and rage, screaming “motherf—er” as he smashed kitchen cabinets in their West Hollywood home.

That wasn’t even the worst of it. Horribly nasty remarks, thrown wine bottles, sliced-off fingertips, drug and alcohol binges, and even charges that Heard revenge-pooped on their matrimonial bed (don’t ask) were all submitted as evidence. Many of these revelations were originally made public in England in 2020, but witnessing it on TV, watching Depp dither and splutter in the witness chair, made it all the more repulsive and embarrassing. It’s also perplexing. Depp had already lost the first case, but he decided to go to trial again. Why would he want to relive the experience in front of American cameras this time?

The Oscars debacle involving Will Smith wasn’t quite as heinous, but it was just as frightening. The 53-year-old “King Richard” star has built a super-genial, all-American persona that has positioned him as one of the most likable persons on the planet over his three decades in the business. Then, while winning his Best Actor award, he took a jab at Chris Rock and offered that sobbing non-apology apology, obliterating one of Hollywood’s most meticulously cultivated public images in a single evening. It was as though you were watching Mount Rushmore disintegrate in front of your eyes.

Of all, the public has always been fascinated by glimpses into celebrities’ private lives, which is why US magazines’ “They’re Just Like Us!” columns were so successful, and why TMZ still attracts 50 million monthly visits. But it’s one thing to have an embarrassing snapshot of Ben Affleck accidently revealing his butt crack at a gas station. What we’re seeing right now is very different, and it’s a lot more poisonous. It’s as if Smith and Depp are subjecting the public to celebrity aversion therapy, bombarding the airwaves with so much demeaning and sordid personal information about themselves and their friends — seriously, Amber, you couldn’t find the bathroom? — that the very concept of celebrity has become a turn-off.

These meltdowns are nearly understandable in some ways. After all, being famous isn’t the same as it once was. The star system that has supported Hollywood for 100 years — and which perhaps reached its pinnacle in the mid-1990s, when Smith and Julia Roberts, as well as the two Toms (Cruise and Hanks) were able to draw large crowds simply by affixing their names to marquees — has collapsed to dust. Their days of making $30 million per film are long gone. As younger viewers have moved on to a whole new crop of considerably more accessible “influencers” on YouTube and TikTok, their fan groups have gotten grayer and less fervent.

But it appears that what we’re seeing now is more than just an older generation of performers coming to terms with reduced paychecks and diminished stature in the age of social media. Something deeper appears to be happening, something that points to a bigger shift in popular culture: it could be the end of “celebrity” as we know it.

It takes a certain amount of mystery for celebrity to work. On and off the screen, movie stars are supposed to be larger than life. They’re supposed to be idealized individuals who live more glamorous, beautiful lives than the rest of us slobs in the cheap seats of life. It’s pretty much their entire job description to inspire the audience, enthral and seduce us with their grace, attractiveness, and charisma – occasionally even their talent.

When that facade crumbles — or, in the case of Depp and Smith, completely disintegrates in public, leaving the rest of us mere mortals gasping in disgust — it shatters the fantasy for all celebrities. Suddenly, instead of looking up to movie stars, we find ourselves pitying and repulsioning them.

Because they’re not just like us anymore; they’re much, far worse.



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