Johnny Depp, Matt Lauer, and the Monsters We Created
In December of 2012, Anne Hathaway appeared on NBC’s Today, ostensibly to promote her hotly hyped role as Fantine in the long-awaited adaptation of Les Miserables. However, host Matt Lauer had other ideas. Prior to her appearance, Hathaway had been photographed getting out of a car, which paparazzi quickly turned into a crotch-shot opportunity. This is not uncommon in the disheartening world of the tabloids, where actively forcing yourself into a woman’s private space is intended to be a slam against the woman for daring to leave the house. Lauer decided to treat these photographs as if they were the story, as if Hathaway was there to apologize for another man’s indiscretion, and he opened the segment by saying to her, ‘Seen a lot of you lately.’ Hathaway, the consummate professional who’s encountered casual sexism on the promotional circuit too many times to count, tried to laugh it off, yet Lauer kept pushing. He even dared to ask her ‘What’s the lesson learned from something like that?’ He almost sounds giddy. To her credit, Hathaway managed to drive the proper message home - this was an invasion of her privacy, this was not a problem she created. She said:
‘Well, it was obviously an unfortunate incident. Um, I think— It kinda made me sad on two accounts. One was that I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment and, rather than delete it, and do the decent thing, sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants…’
She quickly brought the conversation back to Les Miserables, the thing she was there to discuss in the first place, which Lauer laughed at as being ‘one of the most creative turns of a question I’ve ever heard’. Later, he would try to get her to talk in detail about the weight she lost to play Fantine, once again focusing almost exclusively on her body and the possibility for grotesque shaming, but Hathaway refused to glamorise the process. The entire interview is near impossible to track down now, but clips and transcripts are plentiful, so the damage cannot be swept under the carpet.
I’ve been thinking about that interview all morning since, at the time to writing this piece, I read the news that Lauer had been let go from Today after reports of ‘inappropriate sexual behavior’. The man who made $20m a year in one of the network’s biggest money spinners, the man who outlasted Katie Couric and Ann Curry and left the scandal of her leaving the show relatively unscathed, has fallen. Do not underestimate the magnitude of such things. This is a man with power, one who, according to Yashar Ali, had been under investigation from various reporters for many months, even before the news of Harvey Weinstein broke and turned the tides on how we treat harassed and abused women in the public discourse. This is a man who, even amidst the ongoing fallout of powerful men’s abuses being exposed and them seeing tangible repercussions for their actions, would have been considered untouchable. Lauer could be sexist in interviews and belittle women, but it wouldn’t stop him being the squeaky clean dad of America. Now he’s gone from NBC. A monster created by us, an audience who tuned in every morning to see his face while we drank our coffee and got ready for work, has fallen.
I’d call it progress, but it comes less than 24 hours after another abuser of bigger stature had his place in the system secured even further.
Johnny Depp, currently a headlining star in no fewer than three major franchises (assuming Universal’s Dark Universe does not entirely fall through), is not a good man. We know this to be true because his ex-wife Amber Heard said so; because she provided evidence of abuse she suffered at his hands; because his own lawyers admitted that he had gotten violent with her; because it only takes one instance of violence. This week, David Yates, who is directing the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them franchise, which will bring in billions of dollars to Warner Bros., defended keeping Depp in the cast as its central villain Grindelwald. He said that Depp is ‘full of decency and kindness’ and that the accusation made by his ex-wife ‘doesn’t tally with the kind of human I’ve been working with.’ While he called recent allegations made against many people by multiple victims ‘compelling and frightening’, he dismissed the accusations made against Depp by his own ex-wife as ‘one person who took a pop at him and claimed something.’
It’s hard to escape the shadow Depp leaves over the industry and the media that continues to avoid the elephant in the room because it’s convenient to do so. Depp is still appearing in films, most recently the commercially successful Murder on the Orient Express, and is set to star in more, from indie dramas to the biggest franchises in the industry. He will go on the promotional trail for all of these, and nobody will ask him about Heard, because they’ll do what publicists tell them to. The chances are he won’t be especially chatty or interesting a talk-show guest, as evidenced by his recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show, where his mere presence elicited discomfited squirming from viewers. Watching a known abuser turn on the charm offensive to improve his public image would be one thing to dissect: But to watch one who clearly doesn’t give a fuck is a whole other problem, one that’s greatly indicative of how we have spent years making monsters without fully understanding what that entails.
The stories of Depp’s antics on the set of the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie are already infamous. The reports of perpetual lateness and having his lines fed to him through an earpiece were reported on before the film’s release, with most of the damning evidence coming from court documents filed by Depp’s former business managers, after they counter-sued him over claims he made of them mismanaging his funds. According to these documents, Depp had a sound engineer who was ‘kept on yearly retainer so that he no longer had to memorize his lines’, and that his money issues came from a ‘clear and epic’ sense of entitlement. It’s not hard to see how that entitlement came to be: It’s as much a creation of Disney’s relationship with Depp as the character of Jack Sparrow.
Originally, Disney executives were terrified of Depp’s performance in the first Pirates movie. CEO Michael Eisner thought it was ruining the entire picture and nobody really knew what to think of this madcap combination of Keith Richards, David Bowie, horny and possibly gay mountain goat, and opium-induced fever dream. It paid off immeasurably in the long run and made the series the juggernaut it became, earning Depp, previously best known as an auteur favourite and indie darling, his first Oscar nomination. After that, Depp became a Disney favourite, his paycheques went up and the company even awarded him the honour of Disney Legend. Even when The Lone Ranger, a film made to further bolster the Disney-Depp image, flopped disastrously, they remained loyal to him. The performances got worse, his personal investment in his work lessened, and he caused more trouble with his presence, but they stuck by him. He remained their Legend. Mediocrity became defensible, losing money a mere trifle to the bigger picture, and Depp became the untouchable monster who could do no wrong. This was all before Amber Heard. Disney had made their bed and lay there with the fleas.
There are too many horrific moments to count in Variety’s report of Lauer’s behaviour, from gifting a colleague with a sex toy he explicitly described as wanting to use on her, to exposing himself to women to interrogating female producers about who they’d slept with, it’s a veritable portrait of sleaze. Out of this abhorrent depiction of a powerful monster who answered to nobody, there is one detail that sticks out as truly disturbing. His office was described as having ‘a button under his desk that allowed him to lock his door from the inside without getting up. This afforded him the assurance of privacy. It allowed him to welcome female employees and initiate inappropriate contact while knowing nobody could walk in on him, according to two women who were sexually harassed by Lauer.’
That’s power. Lauer possessed the kind of clout reserved for network executives and Bond villains, but he did not get that power alone. It was awarded to him over two decades, as his salary rose to the highest ranks and his place in NBC’s jewel in the crown of their news division assured. Many questions arise over who okayed the desk button, over who knew of its use and if anyone else in 30 Rock had such equipment in their offices, but we can be sure that this was not a secret. This was a reward for Lauer: Make people enough money and the inevitability of their abuses of power becomes an acceptable sacrifice to make. Several women told Variety they complained to executives at NBC about Lauer’s behaviour, but it fell on deaf ears. Their priority was to keep Lauer happy and to keep the money rolling in.
There have been countless reported instances of this kind of culpability in protecting abusive men over the past few months: Recent reports talk of the way Disney-Pixar executives would project John Lasseter as he behaved inappropriately with women; Fox News only stopped protecting Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes when it became too embarrassing and expensive to continue; the less said about the protectors at the heart of Donald Trump’s existence, the better. Follow the trail of any abuser and you will find an ecosystem of complicit figures, clean-up men, perpetual defenders and passive participants in the narrative of keeping that person at the top of their game.
We know what Depp did, and yet countless supporters rally around him, spouting half-truths, outright lies and practiced statements of denial in order to keep the façade in place that everything is running smoothly. Depp still has his fans, many of them women who will go to absurd lengths to insist Heard is a monster of Medea levels of spite, because even that ludicrous tale is more acceptable to them than the mundane reality that abusers can be likeable, that they like someone who does bad things. They can’t square the guy they loved in Tim Burton movies, who visits sick kids in hospital dressed as Jack Sparrow, with the drunken bully on the video throwing things at his wife. They need the other story to stay in place, because it’ll allow them to re-watch Edward Scissorhands without that sinking feeling in their gut that accompanies enjoying badness.
And that feeling will continue, because everyone’s still going to see the next Fantastic Beasts film. Everybody will have their excuse, and it will feel fresh and justified to each individual out of millions: They’re not seeing it for Depp, they’re seeing it in spite of him; the Harry Potter franchise is just so much bigger than one man; but they really love the first movie and besides, he’ll be easy enough to ignore; oh, he’s an actor and they can separate art from artist; sure, Depp is bad but isn’t the Potter universe ultimately a force for good; and of course, maybe they just don’t care. It just doesn’t matter enough for them to sit this one out, to pay for another movie or change the channel. Executives know the power of the status quo and they’re counting on it to ensure Depp goes the distance. His performances could become utterly unwatchable, but he sits atop a robust support system that will allow him to do that.
It’s not too late for us to reject the monsters we have created. The poison of rape culture and patriarchal domination is not a natural state, nor is it one without an antidote. Over the past two months - and wow if it doesn’t feel like much longer - we have seen change take root, and we have seen the immeasurable power of believing the accusers, of not instantly assuming they’re lying. It’s a better world, and we cannot allow ourselves to slide back to the old ways, to the locked doors and tired excuses and insistence that we’re not part of the problem. We are all complicit in the monsters of this world, but we can slay them too.
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