Owen Gleiberman deplores what the actor/director said while drunk -- but still wants to see his films

By Owen Gleiberman
August 11, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Mel Gibson: Getty Images

Owen Gleiberman’s take on Mel Gibson

So what do we think about when we think about Mel Gibson? I was surprised to see that his sozzled mug didn’t make the covers of more of the glossy celebrity-scandal weeklies — is this a bigger story in media-land than it is in the heartland? — yet there’s no denying that the Gibson saga continues to exert a disturbing fascination. It invites us to confront an unusually complicated chemistry between two forces: a Hollywood superstar who has acted not just decadently (we expect that, and maybe desire it) but atrociously; and the audience that may nor may not want to follow him from here.

You can feel the questions that lurk, unanswered, behind the coverage: Will Gibson’s behavior result in the dimming of his star? If so, by how much? Should he be demonized for his actions, or is he in thrall to inner demons that, regardless of how destructive and indefensible, beg to be understood? In trying to confront these issues, I must warn you that I’m going to indulge in a bit of armchair psychologizing. Please take it with a grain of salt, as I do. I’m well aware that trying to ”explain” a person’s dark side is never fully possible; it leaves out the mystery that’s always there. What follows is meant to be speculative, not definitive. Most of us, however, have probably theorized a bit over the last couple of weeks about what’s up with the guy, so why not at least try? Here, in the spirit of inquiry, are a few random thoughts on the Gibson saga.

WHY IS MEL SO MAD? During the incident, he sounded like a classic angry drunk. The conventional wisdom, of course, is that when Gibson spewed his anti-Semitic poison at the L.A. officers who pulled him over, it was, to a greater or lesser degree, the booze talking — and it’s also conventional wisdom that that in no way excuses anything he said. I buy all of that. But it strikes me that Mel’s battle with the bottle, in the very slovenliness of its tabloid drama (those pictures of him carousing at the bar earlier that night outdid the 20 worst paparazzi shots of Colin Farrell combined), has overshadowed his real battle, the one that he’s still suppressing: the war with the father whom he refuses to fight. Hutton Gibson is on record as denying the existence of the Holocaust, and while it’s easy enough to say ”Like father, like son,” Mel’s refusal to distance himself from his father’s crackpot revisionist history suggests that he has never truly wriggled out from under Hutton Gibson’s thumb to become his own man.

If you want to know where Mel Gibson’s rage comes from, that might be a good place to start. Holocaust denial is an insidiously deceptive form of bigotry: a philosophy of violence in code. By arguing against the reality of the Holocaust, what it actually does, below the words, is to deny that the suffering and death of Jewish people matters. In the guise of Holocaust denial, it is really, in spirit, Holocaust endorsement.

Much as I deplore Mel’s anti-Semitic comments, I don’t believe that he shares his father’s venomous ”version” of history. Yet his refusal to distance himself from Hutton Gibson’s comments — he has said that his father never lied to him — suggests that he lives in mortal fear of a different kind of denial: the public disavowal of his father’s beliefs. He is still, in other words, a trembling son, a boy, a slave to Hutton Gibson’s patriarchal force. That’s an untenable position — a torturous one — for any grown man, let alone a famous and powerful man, to be in. I am not in any way denying Mel’s responsibility for his actions, but here’s a proposition: Mel’s rage, the rage that he stokes and numbs with alcohol, the rage that he vents at Jews, is really, deep down, the anger that he can never express at the father who taught him to treat Jews as the enemy.

MEL’S MOVIES: A DIARY OF HIS RAGE In the midst of the Passion of the Christ kerfuffle, a number of movie buffs documented the Crucifixion imagery that has run though Gibson’s films (Braveheart, the torture scene in Lethal Weapon, etc.). Far more telling, though, is that the extremity of his anger has always been, in his movies, on high operatic display. It’s set off, strikingly, by his looks. Just because you’re handsome doesn’t mean you don’t have anger-management issues, but Gibson, at least in his movie-star prime, has been such a blue-eyed dreamboat matinee idol, a guy who looks like the world is his, that it always carries an extra frisson of shock when he erupts in volcanic tantrums.

You can see it as early as Mad Max (1979), in the scene where he’s desperate to get his family back from those homicidal biker goons and, knowing that time is of the essence, he does what has to be done, handcuffing one of the bikers to an explosive to force him to talk. When the biker does, he is given his ”reward”: a hack saw that can cut through the handcuff (perhaps not in time to save his life) or through his own shin (definitely in time). The entire Saw horror-film series grows out of that moment, and while credit must go to the feral imagination of Mad Max director George Miller, what makes it is Gibson, even in his dewy early 20s, giving himself over to the punkish low snarl of sadism. Talk about Crucifixion! Max, in this scene, is a guy who looks like he’d enjoy hammering the nails.

I think of other great Mad Mel moments: His hysterical tirade in The Bounty (”I… am… in… hell!”), the top-of-the-lungs madness of his speech to the troops in Braveheart, his vengeful glower throughout The Patriot, a movie that turns the entire American revolution into an act of death-wish payback. Then there was his interview with Diane Sawyer to defuse (and publicize) The Passion: the popping eyes, the words that rolled out in a way that was so articulate yet so…driven, the air of barely repressed fury at those who would dare to attack him. At last, he had something in the real world to be angry about, but in Gibson’s films, it’s never taken much to light his firecracker fuse.

WAS IT MEL’S RAGE, OR HIS BETTER ANGELS, THAT DROVE HIM TO MAKE THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST? Both, and that’s why it’s a true Passion play. The simple explanation for why Gibson crafted his version of the Gospels is that he’s a self-confessed sinner, and therefore an ideal candidate to tell the primal story of Christian redemption. I believe that, yet what makes Gibson a singular poster child for the temptations (and ravages) of sin is that when you consider what a widely worshipped Hollywood star he is, a man who can do pretty much anything he wants, he is by now so obviously ruled by his addictions that it’s no great leap to say that they’re filling a hole in his spirit.

I STILL WANT TO SEE APOCALYPTO The jury is out — way out — on how the Gibson scandal will affect his career. My prediction: not very much. Some executives, and a few actors, may refuse to work with him forever. (Boy, am I gonna miss seeing that Gibson/Rob Schneider remake of All My Sons.) Others will surely be loyal to him. What matters is whether audiences still want to see his movies, and really, why wouldn’t they? As someone who is Jewish, I feel I have as much right as anyone to prickle at what Gibson said, and I do, yet I’d be lying if I claimed that his comments have squashed my interest in him as an actor or director. Judging from its trailer, Apocalypto, his Mayan epic, is full of battles and subtitled grunts and ancient men scampering about in cool-looking white makeup, and the movie looks, like The Passion, to be the work of a genuinely audacious talent. It’s the old college-sophomore Picasso debate: Should we judge the art or the artist’s life? In this case, my desire for adventurous moviemaking, and my understanding that it often comes from fierce, driven, conflicted, and woefully imperfect personalities, trumps my desire to scold Mel Gibson by taking away his celebrity card.

THE REDEMPTION OF THE MEL You already know how it’s going to play out. Let’s assume that Apolcaypto is released on Dec. 8, as it is still scheduled to be. The publicity walk-up to the movie will feature Mel doling out variations on the same well-rehearsed mea culpa speech to assorted media outlets. The campaign will culminate in an hour-long prime-time interview, conducted by a probing journalist-of-the-moment (Anderson Cooper? Katie Couric?), which will function as the ”cleansing” sequel to Mel’s righteous catechism lesson with Diane Sawyer. There will be confessions, revelations, a few tears. It will be the hardiest display of fallen celebrity pluck since Hugh Grant, in the wake of the Divine Brown scandal, let down his stiff upper lip on The Tonight Show. And Mel Gibson’s sins, like Grant’s, will become part of pop-culture lore, so that he, and we, can all move on. It may or may not be justice, but it sure will be show business.