Earlier this week, news broke that Brad Pitt is suing his ex-wife Angelina Jolie – no less than seeking a jury trial – for selling her stake in a French winery they owned together. In legal documents shared by British news agency PA Media, Pitt claims he and Jolie promised not to sell any part of Chateau Miraval without consulting each other, an agreement Jolie broke when she struck a deal with one competing Luxembourg spirits company, owned by is a Russian oligarch.
“Through the alleged sale, Jolie attempted to harm Pitt,” his attorneys allege in the court filings, noting that it was a “hostile takeover” of a “multimillion-dollar international success story” that they believe Pitt with no help from Jolie, who “didn’t contribute anything”.
The lawsuit, which is sure to be a spectacle when it actually goes to court, is a rarity among A-list celebrities — until recently. This news came just days after Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s public-obsessed legal battle in Depp’s favor was settled. These two lawsuits are wildly different in subject and scope, but there is a hint of a pattern emerging here. Is litigation becoming a PR tactic for male celebrities trying to garner their fan base and gain a foothold in the court of public opinion?
Here’s the playbook: Long after the Decree Absolute was issued in a very public, often acrimonious divorce (Jolie and Pitt finalized theirs in 2019, Heard and Depp in 2017), a male celebrity is once again embroiling his ex-wife in a legal arena by using the process to achieve not only the stated objectives of the case, such as damages for defamation or monetary compensation for breach of a business agreement, but also reputational repairs.
It’s certainly a tactic that seems to have worked for Depp, who not only (arguably) won his case, but seems to have convinced part of the world that he’s not the violent criminal Heard painted, but the polite one Self-deprecating, long-suffering movie star he’s played on the witness stand to such effect. In fact, less than a week after Depp’s win, an unnamed former Disney exec said persons: “I absolutely believe after the verdict that ‘Pirates’ is primed for a reboot with Johnny back on board as Captain Jack.” The basis for this prediction? “The Potential Box Office Treasure” is at stake, a signal in this manager’s belief that moviegoers believe Depp’s version of events.
The timing of Pitt’s news is odd. Assuming the lawsuit was saved as Hail Marys when negotiations fell through, Pitt and his team might have seen Depp’s case play out in the court of public opinion and thought it was a wave worth watching to be surfed now?
Could it be that Pitt and his team watched Depp’s case play out in the court of public opinion and thought this was a wave worth riding now?
In part, the Pitt lawsuit is just a testament to how difficult it can be to detach your life from someone you once thought you’d spend forever, especially for celebrity couples. In a particularly gruesome twist, it’s over the same vineyard where Jolie and Pitt got married in 2014. Jolie and Pitt’s divorce has always been a messy one – Jolie, for example, sued for full custody of their six children, never an indicator of an amicable separation, and allegations of child molestation were made against Brad, of which he was later acquitted. This is another bitter chapter in the saga.
But it represents a kind of step backwards from Pitt, who once likened a divorce battle in court to “an investment in corrosive hatred.” In conversation with GQ style A year after his split from Jolie, he said, “I see it happen to friends — I see where one spouse literally can’t say their own part in it and still in some way competes with the other and wants to destroy them.” , and needs justification by destruction and just wasting years in this hatred. I don’t want to live like that.” Five years later, he seems to have chosen this path – or at least opened the door to it.
These are not the discreetly mediated trials of yore. Our ever-growing collective obsession with court cases, particularly live broadcasts, depends on their promise to reveal the “truth” — after all, lying incriminates one with perjury — in a world where truth and facts are slippery terms and many are increasingly skeptical about them. And the contentious nature of a courtroom means both sides must attack the other to prove their case – leaving it to us, the rowdy viewers, from the stands, aka Twitter or TikTok, with a opinionated, algorithmically-aligned peanut -Gallery in the ear to choose a page.
This is confirmed on social media, where support for Depp has been far greater — or at least more vocal — than for Heard, apparently fueled by a post-MeToo backlash against women holding men accountable. (Depp literally sued Heard for defamation for implying Depp had abused her in an open letter Washington Post.) It was suggested that this may have influenced the jury’s decision as they were not seized during the trial. “There’s no way they weren’t affected by it, and it was awful,” said Brederhoft today Show. “It was really, really wrong.”
The role of social media in this process raises two issues. There’s a generational aspect: Both Pitt and Depp are A-listers in their 50s, not active on any platform, and emerged in an era when celebrities (particularly mega-watt celebrities) didn’t speak directly to the public. If they had something to say, they would play a big role vanity fair Cover story or sit down with Oprah or Barbara Walters to tell their side of a story. This is not how public relations work is done by and large. When a younger celebrity has something to say, they do so via a screenshot from their Notes app shared to Twitter, or a text-only Insta-Story that may or may not be deleted 30 minutes later for dramatic effect. (It will be interesting to see what approach another beleaguered A-lister, Will Smith, takes to his own inevitable redemption arc in the coming months.)
Given that misogyny is almost as rampant as it was in the 16th century, it’s a depressing certainty that the women popular men meet will fare poorly if they make their own accusations and try to defend themselves.
Sure, older celebrities could also take to social media and show their feelings. Or they could go old school and do what famous people have done since Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon: be a lawyer, put on a show, and let the court of public opinion decide their fate. Given that misogyny is almost as rampant as it was in the 16th century, it’s a depressing certainty that the women popular men meet will fare poorly if they make their own accusations and try to defend themselves. Meanwhile, the men’s reputations and prospects somehow remain unsullied. Or get even stronger. There’s a reason Jack Sparrow, who debuted in 2003, is the role everyone wants Johnny Depp to reprise.
What Pitt wants to achieve here is not as clear as in Depp’s case. There’s some bad muscle pop culture memories to contend with — all those Team Aniston shirts in landfills are no doubt coming back to life as you read this — but his career certainly hasn’t faltered in the wake of his ugly divorce (and neither did she). after the one with Aniston by the way). The guy won an Oscar two years ago and gets heaps of loving press, especially when he and his first ex-wife are less than 100 miles apart. The most likely explanation is that this lawsuit — and the request to bring it to a grand jury — is an attempt to get Jolie to settle.
So soon after what Amber Heard experienced — having her personal life flaunted in a courtroom and dragged through the mud of social media — it feels like a threat. If you were Angelina Jolie, who is notoriously private and well versed in what it’s like when the public turns against you, the results of the Depp/Heard case could certainly dampen your desire to defend yourself in court. Knowing that it could leave your own career and reputation (rightly or wrongly) in a worse place than if you just quietly settled out of court and made the man you were once married to look like you had he scored a win.
And that might be the most troubling trend of all.