Tony Earnshaw: We don’t like it when our idols turn out to be flawed just like us

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Our collective possessiveness towards our favourite movie stars was underlined this week following Johnny Depp’s frankly bizarre display of mumbling invective at a swanky awards ceremony.

The guest presenter of the Documentary gong at the Hollywood Film Awards – earmarked for Supermensch, which focuses on his pal Shep Gordon, who was watching bemused from the audience – Depp was clearly tired and emotional.

The HWA organisers must have thought so, too, since they cut away from Depp as he swayed, swore and slurred his way through a prepared autocue address. In the hours after the event the Internet went mad with rumours. What on earth could have been the matter with Johnny Depp?

I was reminded of the reaction to Tom Cruise’s well-rehearsed and plainly orchestrated couch jumping back in 2005 when he used Oprah Winfrey’s talk show to giddily declare his affections for new love Katie Holmes. Most people saw it as blatant fakery.

You let the genie out of the bottle and all hell breaks loose. What’s more surprising is that Average Joe is still capable of being shocked even after almost a century of movie folk having their behaviour controlled, structured and sanitised.

Film stars have been getting into trouble for as long as the masses have queued to watch their movies. And over the decades all manner of transgressions have been the subject of cover-ups – from sex scandals to drug overdoses to suspicious deaths.

We are all guilty of building up our heroes to teeter precariously on wobbly pedestals. And when their feet of clay crumble we profess to be shocked. Maybe it’s something to do with feeling let down – that our faves aren’t extraordinary after all. That they’re foolish and fallible and flawed. Just like us.

In the so-called glory days of the Hollywood studio system stars’ lives and images were rigidly controlled, monitored and camouflaged via anodyne news stories courtesy of compliant gossip columnists. When that system collapsed it was the turn of super agents to protect their clients. Thus John Wayne, a mean, two-fisted drunk, became the poster boy for Uncle Sam’s patriotism. And Henry Fonda, a cold, distant and cruel man, was accepted as a paragon of decent, all-American manhood.

Thus imperfections were smoothed away and ironed out. Audiences wanted the ideal, not the harsh truth. Despite everything we can read and see with our own eyes we – the great cinema-going public – prefer to believe in the people our movie stars play. That’s what we fall in love with, not the sometimes frightened, insecure, nervous and worryingly fragile people thrust onto a world stage.

We want the bubble to stay intact. When it bursts we all lose some of our innocence. Just ask Johnny Depp.