Johnny Depp through the looking glass

We know, of course, that men can be beautiful, but rarely do we acknowledge, let alone analyse, the powerful influence male beauty wields.

That power was a central, yet singularly unacknowledged, element in the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial, which wrapped up this month. Depp, like many Hollywood megastars, has long benefited from his striking good looks, which clearly played a role in the enormous social media support he garnered during the trial (of which it seems hard to imagine that the unsequestered jury was unaware).

But Depp is not your standard American handsome actor. He is “a man who still carries the reputation for being one of the most beautiful men in Hollywood,” as Katie Edwards wrote in The Independent. Instagram and Twitter accounts devoted to the trial amassed followers in the tens of thousands and routinely posted hundreds of close-up photographs of him.

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One Instagram page, depp_perfection, had nearly 40,000 followers. Another account, johnny.deep.fan had more than 30,000 followers and used the tagline “He’s just like a dream.”

It’s hard to tell the origin of accounts such as these two — if and how they may be connected to Depp’s defense and seems public relations teams — but it is clear that for many of Depp’s fans, the actor’s appeal offered an external manifestation of inner physical worth . On Twitter, hundreds of accounts, many with names that include phrases like Justice Served for Johnny Depp (with over 41,000 followers), focused on Depp’s physical beauty, assuring us, for example, that Depp “is just as beautiful in real life,” or calling him a “king” or a “god.”

It’s rare to see male beauty inspiring such moral conclusions. Beauty remains a subject largely reserved for and about women. It’s typically women whose appearances are dissected into countless parts to be assessed or embellished — eyes, lips, skin, hair. It’s mostly women whose beauty is constantly scrutinised for signs of perceived decay or mishap, attributed to aging, weight gain, inadequate (or even excessive) maintenance or other potential crimes.

Women, metaphorically, occupy the realm of faces and bodies. Men are presumed to live in the realm of ideas and action. So, according to conventional thinking, to focus on a man’s beauty (as opposed to, say, his virility), or use it to adjudge his character, risks emasculating him, depriving him of his inner value, his spirit, strength or accomplishments. And so we shy away from mentioning male beauty very much.

Depp proves an exception to this rule. In his middle age, he still possesses an unusual, arresting facial beauty. A beauty that exceeds conventional handsomeness, and — especially in his youth — wandered into a kind of feline, even feminine territory: a symmetrical face with large, dark, almond-shaped eyes; a small chiseled nose; the highest, sharpest cheekbones imaginable; abundant, wavy hair.

Even fans who no longer found Depp the great beauty he once were able to summon the images of him as a younger man. That close-up-worthy face helped make Depp a star, and it has been lavishly praised for decades. “You have to understand, Johnny Depp, 1989 Johnny Depp, so beautiful,” actress Jennifer Gray said on Drew Barrymore’s talk show. Gray, who was briefly engaged to Depp, added, “It’s almost inhuman.”

Consider, too, the iconic roles for which Depp became famous, created for films directed by his longtime collaborator Tim Burton: Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd and the Mad Hatter in ” Alice in Wonderland.” Later, of course, he’d go on to great acclaim and wealth for his role as Captain Jack Sparrow, from the five-part Pirates of the Caribbean series.

These cartoonlike characters are all heavy-makeup roles, requiring elaborate cosmetic transformation — rings of black eyeliner, heavy eye shadow, wild wigs in crazy colors, lipstick, top hats — all of which draw exceptional attention to the face beneath. To stand this much scrutiny, an actor needs uncommon cinematic facial beauty, expressiveness and delicacy. And even trickier, he needs to look good wearing all this paint while remaining a male heartthrob. It’s a tall order, demanding a kind of gender flexibility — but not too much.

Depp has such a face. He knows how to use it, too. On the witness stand, he proved able to evince visible pleasure in his own appeal while conveying just enough self-irony to forestall accusations of smugness or vanity. Strengthening his beauty credentials still more was the supportive testimony offered by a former girlfriend, 1990s supermodel Kate Moss.

Moss described Depp as a kind and caring partner, dispelling the persistent rumor that he had once pushed her down a flight of stairs. That this woman, famous for decades as a nearly silent icon of exceptional beauty, broke her silence to support (and strive to exculpate) Depp only burnished the celebrity glow he was cultivating in court, reinforcing the implicit connection between remarkable external beauty and moral blamelessness .

It seems as though male beauty at Depp’s level represents a curious X factor, an almost magical quality that throws off even long-established gendered presumptions: In a contest between an older, wealthy, powerful man and a smaller, less powerful woman, male beauty can help make that man seem younger, weaker, more vulnerable, turning him into the helpless victim of the woman’s presumptive physical aggression (even in light of the evidence her lawyers presented that argued to the contrary). All without depriving the man of his other, more conventional male privilege.

Heard is beautiful, too, but her looks, while remarked upon, did her little good in the court of public opinion. On the contrary, Heard’s beauty was frequently held against her, offered as proof of her capacity to deceive. Despite the arguments from her lawyers that she was physically abused by Depp, accompanied by photographs of bruises, testimony of witnesses and previous British court judgments in her favor, she was perceived as the aggressor — a femme fatale whose alluring facade belied repellent evil beneath.

“Believe all women except Amber Heard,” said comedian Chris Rock in a comedy special in Britain on May 12. Rock was making a joke about the #MeToo movement’s credo, as well as Heard’s alleged defecation in Depp’s bed.

“No inner beauty at all,” one Twitter critic declared. Another shriek-tweeted at Heard after the verdict, “You are a liar, manipulator, and abuser.” Thousands of such screens filled social media throughout the long weeks of the trial.

This odd imbalance of beauty “credit” makes sense in a way, for according to the laws of popular culture, a long-standing celebrity like Depp exists on two planes at once. The craggy 59-year-old of today is infused with the collective memory of the handsome heartthrob of yesteryear.

Heard enjoys no such status in the pop-culture imagination. And that specter of Depp’s striking earlier beauty hovered over him in that courtroom like a protective force field, impossible to dispel. “Remember when Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt were beauty treasures?” one internet fan site asked. “But when they turned to watch at Johnny Depp, everyone had to take their cap off.”

Depp prevailed in his trial and was awarded $10 million in damages from Heard (whose lawyer said she cannot pay this and wants to appeal). But whatever defamation may have occurred, Depp’s career has surely also enjoyed a renaissance thanks to this trial. (Joining TikTok immediately after the verdict, Depp amassed several million followers the first day.)

His face has been everywhere for months now — contemplated and consumed daily by millions in tiny video snippets on TikTok and Instagram — as if in hundreds of miniature movie close-ups, accessible in pockets and purses. Dior has not dropped Depp as the ambassador for Sauvage, its popular men’s perfume. The name, French for “savage” or “wild,” connotes danger, even animallike violence. Some Sauvage ads feature Depp among a pack of wolves.

In the end, while Depp was declared the victim of defamation, and garnered sympathy by implying he had been physically abused, he has emerged more able than ever, even at 59, to portray himself as a sexy “savage,” and a powerful, commercially viable star.

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