As much as our society loves to mock celebrities, we love to forgive them even more. We'll pick on Lindsay Lohan for her drug problems or Nicolas Cage for his
bankruptcy money woes* and bad movies, but, deep down, we're hoping that they'll pull out of their nosedives. The redemption story is a powerful one, and part of its narrative involves the moment when the humbled celebrity throws him- or herself at our feet for mercy. Then we find it in our heart to forgive, and we go back to enjoying the celebrity's work with a renewed appreciation.
For Mel Gibson, though, there's neither pleading nor forgiveness. It's been almost six years since Gibson became a pariah after his anti-Semitic ramblings during a DUI bust were broadcast to the world by TMZ, and he doesn't seem any closer to returning to our good graces. He hasn't helped himself with more recent charges of domestic violence and racism. But we tend to be more willing to forgive a star who's in a big hit. And Gibson's more recent creative work hasn't given critics or audiences much to love.
Apocalypto was a bold, lurid vision—a project Gibson was only allowed to get away with because he'd already done Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ—but it was hardly a worldwide smash. He starred in Edge of Darkness, which was quickly forgotten about, and his performance as a cracked-up father in The Beaver felt drawn from his personal troubles but failed to generate much interest.
Did you know that Gibson stars in an action movie that will be arriving in two weeks? I didn't, until a few days ago. It's called Get the Gringo, and it's actually already opened in other parts around the globe, including Israel (under the name How I Spent My Summer Vacation). If you want to see it in this country, though, you're gonna have to go through VOD, since there won't be a theatrical release. It's gotten a few good reviews, with critics comparing it to his darker-than-dark revenge thriller Payback, but it can't be a good sign that this is the trailer they're using to sell it in the States:
When you package an action drama to look like a wacky comedy, you're not even trying to succeed. You're trying to catch a few confused suckers to cut your losses.
Meanwhile, there's screenwriter Joe Eszterhas's letter to Gibson this month, accusing him of wanting to make an epic action movie about the Maccabees solely to convince folks he liked Jews. (That's not all Eszterhas accused Gibson of in his nine-page letter. If a quarter of the stuff in there is true, Gibson is a very, very angry and very, very scary man. For his part, Gibson responded by saying that "like most creative people I am passionate and intense" but dismissed most of the writer's claims as "utter fabrications.")
For some folks, Gibson's time in the wilderness isn't shocking: Just listen to the stuff he's said. And it's hard to defend a guy who, at the very least, seems to have some rather worrisome anger-management issues. If you wanted to date Gibson and you asked my opinion, I'd advise against it. But what does that have to do with his moviemaking abilities? When exactly are we going to decide that it's OK to welcome him back?
It's not that he doesn't have anyone in Hollywood supporting him. Whoopi Goldberg, Jodie Foster and Robert Downey Jr. have all spoken about the world's (and the entertainment community's) need to forgive Gibson. And supposedly Robert Rodriguez wants Gibson for Sin City 2. But then you hear stories like how the cast of The Hangover Part II refused to have Gibson do the Mike Tyson-like cameo for the 2011 sequel. In other words, in the eyes of the Hangover crew, what Mel Gibson has done is far more horrible than what Mike Tyson did. Neither man is a saint by any stretch of the imagination but think about that for a moment.
Part of Gibson's problem is that he doesn't seem interested in playing the Public Reconciliation game. He's apologized for his actions, but he hasn't done it in the same aggressive, gushing way that other stars have. I don't doubt he's sorry. But there's an aspect of Gibson that, deep down, just doesn't care what other people think of him. On one hand, that's actually somewhat commendable. That's what makes an ultra-bankable leading man decide to play Hamlet at the height of his popularity or turn the Crucifixion into an R-rated foreign-language splatterfest. The headstrong mania that made him a compelling onscreen presence is making it so hard on him now.
So that brings me to a question: Are we really better off without Mel Gibson? Braveheart was incredibly overrated and Apocalypto an overblown mess, but there really isn't anyone around right now who has quite the same gonzo, bloodthirsty vision that Gibson has. And while The Beaver didn't work, Gibson's committed performance almost pulled the whole thing together. (Rather than rising to Gibson's challenge, director and co-star Jodie Foster seemed to chicken out.) A movie like Drive or a gutsy young actor like Michael Fassbender recalls that go-for-broke spirit that powered Gibson in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies. But among major Hollywood stars, he alone seems genuinely dangerous—and not in a "oh, that Leo DiCaprio, he's such a bad boy" kind of way. I'm talking legitimately unhinged. Even Russell Crowe has nothing on this guy.
Of course, that's Gibson's problem now. Earlier this year at an event at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles where the theater screened the three Mad Max movies, Gibson showed up for a lengthy Q&A, and he came across as introspective and thoughtful about those films and his career in general. But there are those moments where his eyeballs bulge a little too much and he looks a little disheveled that make you start to wonder if all the horrible things Eszterhas said about Gibson are true. It reminded me of what his Edge of Darkness director Martin Campbell said about him. "Everyone now is so lightweight," Campbell noted. "Even George Clooney, who is a terrific actor, he's too polished. Mel has this masculine kind of emotional weight that others don't. ... [Clint] Eastwood is gone [from acting] and Harrison Ford, he's got the grit, but he doesn't have the menace or the power." Later, Campbell added, "You'd want to be careful getting into a dark corner with Mel Gibson. You might take on Harrison Ford in a fight, but not Mel."
Not Mel. For society to forgive a celebrity, we demand that they show us some sort of softness. I doubt Gibson's going to do that. Maybe he shouldn't be forgiven. I don't care how blitzed out of your mind you are, announcing that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" seems to be one of the stupider things to declare after you've been pulled over by the cops for being intoxicated.
But let's face it: We're a pretty tolerant culture. Chris Brown can perform at the Grammys and in movies like Think Like a Man. Tracy Morgan can keep appearing on 30 Rock. Michael Richards, eventually, can show up on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Mel Gibson may very well be a racist or a homophobe or an anti-Semite or a misogynist. It's ridiculous to pretend he's the only one in Hollywood.
*-Sentence corrected. Cage's publicist called to tell us he has "never filed for bankruptcy."
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.