The "Braveheart" actor offers an olive branch to the gay community

Two weeks ago, on the L.A. set of his new film, The Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson settled down to a simple lunch that could have turned into a food fight. The event was a filmmaking seminar organized by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media watchdog group that for years has angrily accused Gibson of homophobia. Joining Gibson was Conspiracy‘s combustible producer, Joel Silver, who sat across from out-of-the-closet celebrity daughter Chastity Bono, GLAAD’s new entertainment media director. But also sharing in the modest spread of chicken fajitas and fresh fruit were nine up-and-coming lesbian and gay directors selected by GLAAD to meet Gibson and talk about whatever they wanted.

The lunch was shadowed by a series of past incidents. In 1990, GLAAD chastised Gibson for what it called his ”demeaning” characterization of a hairdresser in Bird on a Wire. The rancor really flowed a year later when El Pais, Spain’s biggest newspaper, published a controversial interview with Gibson. ”Who might think that with this demeanor I could be gay?” Gibson said. ”Do I talk like them? Do I move like them?” The actor, raised a staunch Catholic, also made an off-color joke about the inappropriateness of anal sex. He subsequently maintained that the quotes were misinterpreted. Soon, one of Hollywood’s box office giants was knuckle-rapped by Liz Smith, who wrote, ”It is awful to find out that mentally he lives in the Dark Ages.”

After that, Gibson could do no right with the gay community. His 1993 directorial debut, The Man Without a Face, was criticized because his character in the novel — a gay teacher involved with a 14-year-old student — was changed in the movie to a presumably straight teacher wrongly accused of child molestation. No matter that this overhaul was made before Gibson signed on to the project.

The ill will boiled over with 1995’s Braveheart. GLAAD organized protests in nine cities against Gibson’s acting-directing tour de force, calling its portrayal of Edward II a ”typical homophobic caricature.” One scene, in which Edward I throws his son’s lover out of a window, seemed filmed in a way that invited hurrahs from the audience. However, Gibson’s depiction of a weak, craven Edward II doesn’t stray far from history books. ”This type of interpretation was very much in place within 10 or 20 years of his death,” says Charles T. Wood, professor of history at Dartmouth. Wood, however, knows of no chronicle of an incident in which Edward I kills a lover of Edward II. ”But it would be perfectly consistent,” he says. ”Edward I certainly had a reputation for a fierce temper.”

Gibson’s response to the Braveheart criticism was equally fierce. ”I’ll apologize when hell freezes over,” he told Playboy in July 1995. ”They can f— off.”

So it was all the more surprising to find the actor cordially talking shop in a Jan. 27 forum sponsored by his detractors. The first steps in this pass-the-peace-pipe meeting — organized by Chastity Bono — were taken last spring when GLAAD contacted Gibson directly, looking for a way to defuse the tension and demonstrate the group’s new effort to educate, not alienate, celebrities.

Although both GLAAD and Gibson refuse to comment on the tenor or scope of the discussion, Gibson’s publicist, Alan Nierob, characterized it as “a nice dialogue between people who have a lot in common.” And at least two of the filmmakers who were present say they’re quite happy with how the day went—and not just because they got to meet Gibson’s Conspiracy costars Julia Roberts and Patrick Stewart.

According to Robert Lee King (director of The Disco Years, part of the 1994 shorts trilogy Boy’s Life) and Nicholas Perry (who’s slated to shoot Tom Arnold’s My Funky Method this summer), the discussion centered on the depiction of lesbians and gays in mainstream films. Gibson did address the Spanish interview: “He characterized it as an interview that really got out of hand,” says King. He also commented on Braveheart. “Gibson didn’t say, ‘Oh, I goofed,'” says Perry. “He just said, basically, ‘On the information I had, I did this.'”

Both directors say Gibson stopped short of apologies. “I was relieved that it wasn’t a love-fest,” says King. “You never know the sincerity of that.”

It’s unclear why Gibson chose this moment to mend fences. Again, Gibson refuses to comment, but one motivation might be found in the Playboy interview, in which he said he’d been personally harassed for being seen as antigay. “I’ve been chased by automobiles doing dangerous things on the freeway…” he told the magazine. “It’s made me totally paranoid.”

While Gibson probably doesn’t worry about the criticism adversely affecting his career—his most recent film, Ransom, raked in $132 million, and Braveheart swept the Oscars—the perception of homophobia has been a dark spot on his otherwise glistening Hollywood image. “Being anti-anything, being seen as sort of racist or sexist or homophobic, is seen as a detriment,” says DreamWorks producer Bruce Cohen, a cofounder of Out There, an organization of openly gay Hollywood professionals.

Either way, Gibson’s willingness to meet with GLAAD marks a growing recognition of gay concerns in Hollywood. Last summer, when the gay community protested Eddie Murphy’s appearance on a Late Show With David Letterman broadcast from San Francisco, Murphy issued a one-page statement apologizing for jokes he’d made early in his career about AIDS and gay men. “I deeply regret any pain all this has caused,” he said. “I am not homophobic and I am not antigay.” And over the years, performers ranging from Bob Hope to Mark Wahlberg have been prompted by GLAAD to publicly make amends.

In the case of Gibson versus GLAAD, the rapprochement is a creative resolution to a feud that both parties seem to have tired of, but it’s too soon to know what effect the meeting may have. Some in the gay community think Mel’s move is insufficient. “He’s left a very bad taste in my mouth. It still could do with a little bit more cleansing,” says playwright/activist Larry Kramer. But the tension, which once rivaled that of a Braveheart battle, has eased. “The impression was created that he was the enemy of our people,” says King. “Having sat down with him, I don’t think that’s the case.”