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What defences of Johnny Depp in Fantastic Beasts tell us about Hollywood post-Weinstein

Clearly, Hollywood still finds allegations of domestic violence easier to swallow than workplace harassment.   

The debate about Johnny Depp’s casting as Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them franchise rages on. A quick recap: Depp was cast as Grindelwald a few years ago, but it was kept under wraps, as his casting was part of a big twist at the end of the first film.

But last summer, just before Fantastic Beasts was released, Amber Heard, his now ex-wife, accused Depp of domestic abuse. Videos of Depp throwing bottles and glasses and shouting at Heard, photos of Heard’s bruises, and text exchanges between Heard and Depp’s manager, all made their way into the press. The couple later released a joint statement saying neither party had lied for financial gain and that there was “never any intent of physical or emotional harm”. 

The latest developments come as the press for the second Fantastic Beasts film, The Crimes of Grindelwald kicks into gear. The title, and images of Depp in character, reignited a debate over whether someone accused of domestic abuse should be given such a high-profile role, especially in a progressive children’s franchise. Depp has continuously denied all allegations since the divorce as salacious false stories”. 

On Tuesday, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Fantastic Beasts director David Yates explicitly defended Depp’s character, calling the concerns of audiences “a dead issue”. Yates attempted to positively contrast the allegations against Depp’s with those made against Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.

“Honestly, there’s an issue at the moment where there’s a lot of people being accused of things,” he said. “[But] with Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something.

“It’s very different [to instances] where there are multiple accusers over many years that need to be examined and we need to reflect on our industry that allows that to roll on year in and year out. Johnny isn’t in that category in any shape or form. So to me, it doesn’t bear any more analysis. It's a dead issue.”

Yates also seemed to find it relevant that he has had no direct experience of Depp being abusive towards him. He added: “I can only tell you about the man I see every day: He’s full of decency and kindness, and that’s all I see. Whatever accusation was out there doesn’t tally with the kind of human being I’ve been working with.”

It’s an interesting departure from Yates’s previous take on the issue, which emphasised Depp’s talent over his private actions, separating art from artist. “The whole principal of casting the movie was go with the best actor,” he said last year. “In this business, it’s a weird old business. You’re brilliant one week, people are saying odd things the next, you go up and down. But no one takes away your pure talent. Johnny Depp is a real artist.”

It’s possible that after the widely commended decisions from studios and directors to have both Harvey Wenstein and Kevin Spacey removed from their cinematic projects, Yates has felt the need to change tack. Instead of saying that the personal actions of an actor are irrelevant to their professional roles – an argument that Hollywood and the public seem to have moved beyond – he tries to separate Depp from those men by emphasising the differences in the actions themselves.

In 2016, J K Rowling simply said of Depp’s casting,“I’m delighted. He’s done incredible things with that character,” again ensuring the focus stayed solely on talent rather than Depp’s character as a colleague or friend.

Those comments cause some controversy, and in the days after, she tweeted a couple of cryptic quotes seemingly referencing the situation. First, “’Those only who can bear the truth will hear it.’ - Arthur Helps”. Then, “Arguments cannot be answered by personal abuse; there is no logic in slander, and falsehood, in the long run, defeats itself - R G Ingersoll”. When a fan messaged her to say, “We know you'd never support abuse”, Rowling, whose first husband Jorge Arantes has admitted to acting abusively, replied “Thank you x”. It’s impossible to say from these quotes what her position actually is. Is the “truth” she references a belief that Depp is not really an abuser? Or is she hinting that she would like to re-cast the role, or condemn Depp’s casting, but is contractually unable to?

Since then, she’s been silent on the issue. Although Rowling’s actual thoughts on the situation are unclear, supporters of Depp see these cryptic tweets, the casting, and her general lack of condemnation of Depp, as evidence that she supports him. If you look up the hashtags #JohnnyDeppIsInnocent and #JohnnyDeppIsMyGrindelwald, J K Rowling immediately appears as a related person and related search term, as so many Depp supporters are mentioning the two in the same breath – either thanking J K Rowling for her support, or using her name to argue that Depp must be innocent if even J K Rowling herself thinks so. Some have even used the hashtag #JohnnyDeppIsJKRowlingsGrindelwald.

Domestic violence is by nature a more difficult crime to discuss that serial instances of documented workplace sexual harassment – it happens at home, with few or no witness, to people in complex existing romantic relationships.

In Amber Heard’s own words, “When it happens in your home, behind closed doors, with someone you love, it’s not as straightforward as if a stranger did this.” Clearly, Hollywood still finds allegations of domestic violence easier to swallow than workplace harassment.   

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia