Johnny Depp and Oscar Wilde: “Libel” to Lose Against British Courts

In the wake of Johnny Depp’s recent–and highly rife with embarrassing details–trial and verdict, one can’t help but chart a similar trajectory toward an inevitable downfall that occurred during another famed libel case in Britain: that between Oscar Wilde and the Marquess of Queensberry. Better known as the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s clandestine lover. And Alfred Douglas should perhaps be better known as the little asshole who destroyed Wilde’s life because of his self-involved whimsy. In any event, both Wilde and Depp should have known better than to try to poke holes at the accusations publicly hurled at them, yet neither one could seem to resist. Ego and arrogance can be such fairweather friends, as Donald Trump would also attest if he was of sound mind and body. 

In Wilde’s instance, like any game fop, he wanted to shrug off the Marquess’ bravado by matching him measure for measure in it. After all, it takes absolute hauteur to write, “To Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite” (yes, misspelled) on your calling card and leave it at the club (specifically the hoity-toity Albemarle) for all to titter and speculate about. Oh yes, the Marquess knew exactly what he was doing. And that Wilde would respond to the bait more favorably than he could have ever imagined. 

In spite of his friends discouraging him from pursuing legal action against the Marquess, Wilde’s hubris got the better of him, seeming to forget just how provable the accusation was as a number of private detectives were hired to delve into the Victorian underworld to drum up the ample witnesses who could attest to Wilde’s “debauchery,” to use a euphemism. The same vanity and sense of imperviousness would be the catalyst for Depp’s own demise in terms of reputation after seeking to disprove The Sun’s use of the word “wife beater” to describe him in a 2018 headline referencing his casting in the Fantastic Beasts franchise (in the aftermath of the verdict, Depp was “asked to resign” a.k.a. fired from the role). 

The now ex-wife in question is, of course, Amber Heard, who also published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post in 2018 detailing the abuse she suffered during her relationship with Depp. Throughout the entire ordeal, Depp has consistently tried to flip the script by stating that Heard was the abuser in the marriage. According to the British High Court of Justice, this simply isn’t so, and it’s almost astonishing that Depp has sustained his delusions about his now most famous role of all—abuser—for so long. 

In this way, of course, Depp and Wilde differ immensely, for Wilde was never a harm to anyone except himself, his self-destructive nature ultimately being his undoing (as evidenced by the many rumored final words he uttered in a dingy room in Paris, a personal favorite being, “Alas, I’m dying beyond my means”). He was a man who was the victim of his own passions. As is the case with Depp, save for the fact that the latter made the mistake of engaging in a bit of “bad alchemy,” turning said passion into violence.

The Sun’s triumph in the case also echoes the good fortune of the Marquess, whose legal fees were subsequently required to be paid by Wilde for bringing the case to court in the first place (just like Depp). In the end, it bankrupted him (Depp might only ever be bankrupt, ostensibly, by his chemical dependencies). But one supposes that was irrelevant once he was sought after the trial for his illegal and immoral acts centered on sodomy and homosexual behavior. The events leading to his imprisonment escalated quickly and, in many ways, one marvels at the fact that homosexuality is still a more “criminal” act in the eyes of society than wife beating. For there is no talk of sending Depp to jail for any offense. Indeed, the only affront he seems to have caused is bringing a long, drawn out court battle into the public arena. 

That he is still in the process of suing Heard for an opinion piece that never expressly mentions his name only speaks all the more to her iteration that the systems in place to protect people like Depp are akin to the Titanic in that when it “strikes an iceberg, there are a lot of people on board desperate to patch up holes—not because they believe in or even care about the ship, but because their own fates depend on the enterprise.”

This, too, was the scenario in making an example of Wilde to protect the hetero system in place—to show any “fairies” even thinking about letting their hair down just a little to think twice. No dick was worth the legal reprisal. While imprisoned, Wilde famously wrote De Profundis, in which his revelations serve as a contrast to Depp’s inability to take a cold, hard look in the mirror right now, rather than choosing to appeal the verdict as he continues his separate lawsuit against Heard for defamation. Wilde, instead, waxed, “When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal… To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.”

Depp, at this juncture in his existence and career, has very clearly opted for a denial of the soul, as opposed to searching within himself to find some trace of the roguish rebel of the 90s exuding endless amounts of cool that consequently devolved into full-stop wife beater. So it is that the comparison between Wilde and Depp ends at their ill-fated decisions to spur on libel cases in the British court knowing full well their guilt could easily be proven.

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