By Jeff JensenJosh Young and Allison Hope Weiner
February 20, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Philippe Antonello/Newmarket Films

The following was the cover story in the Feb. 20, 2004 issue of EW.

One day last November in L.A., a group of Hollywood stars and nonindustry civilians gathered at Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions for a screening of the Braveheart Oscar winner’s controversial new film, The Passion of the Christ. The movie’s Jesus, James Caviezel, was there. So was Gibson’s frequent costar Rene Russo. The director, alas, was absent. It was a frantic day at Icon: That morning, a print of the film had gone missing. (Days later, a pirated copy of The Passion would turn up at the New York Post.) As Icon staffers attended to the crisis, the group was left alone to view the work in progress.

Two hours later, the small audience was left stunned. ”There was a real sense of quiet. It felt like a challenge to stand up,” recalls Dana Sanders, 34, an administrator at Santa Barbara’s Westmont College who’d got into the screening with ridiculous ease: He simply wrote Icon a letter and asked nicely.

Discussion began. Impressions were exchanged. So were fears. Russo told the group that the film was such a political hot potato that friends advised her not to speak out about it. Caviezel had an equally provocative anecdote. While shooting The Passion in late 2002, Gibson hounded the actor like Satan tempting Christ in the wilderness: You don’t have to do this. You can quit. Caviezel tolerated his director’s doubts at first, but eventually broke. This is what I was made for, said the devoutly Catholic actor. Why do you keep bugging me? But Caviezel had misunderstood. Gibson wasn’t doubting him — he was warning him. After you finish this film, Gibson explained, you may never work in Hollywood again.

From the very start, Mel Gibson knew he was courting danger when he decided to make his $25 million passion project, which opens Feb. 25 — Ash Wednesday — on 2,000 screens nationwide. A violent, self-funded chronicle of Christ’s final hours, literally if selectively adapted from New Testament sources, and augmented with material from extra-biblical writings long accused of containing anti-Semitic content — really, how difficult could it have been for Gibson to see trouble on the horizon? EW was denied a screening of the film, as well as interviews with Gibson, Caviezel, and the rest of the Passion team. But according to over two dozen industry executives and others who have seen the movie or are close to Gibson, The Passion is deeply polarizing. And the question that will haunt Gibson long after the furor over the film is this: Did it really need to be?

In Hollywood, cautious deliberations have begun. Many who think favorably of both film and filmmaker were willing to go on the record; detractors preferred anonymity, particularly those who might have to work with Gibson again. ”I think it’s a masterpiece,” raves Dean Devlin, who produced Gibson’s The Patriot. ”I am going to try very hard never to work with him again,” says one studio executive. ”If the film is anti-Semitic, I guarantee you it’s inadvertent,” says Gibson’s six-time director Richard Donner. ”He has driven his career right to the edge of a cliff,” says another studio executive. ”One more false move, it goes right over.”

Amazing: With a single film, a Hollywood icon teeters on the brink. How this thriller resolves itself hinges on a complicated set of interlocking questions: Will the film be a hit? Will it be offensive? And if it’s seen as offensive, what if it’s a hit anyway? Gibson is in a heck of a jam — but don’t underestimate his ability to wriggle free and endure. The 48-year-old was once again named America’s favorite movie actor by the People’s Choice Awards in January. By instinct, calculation, or both, he has proven remarkably adept at shaping and reshaping how the public perceives him. With The Passion of the Christ, that skill is about to undergo its fiercest test.

Messiah complex. Guilt complex. Father complex. Mel Gibson is a very complex guy. From the angry young vigilante in Mad Max to the half-cracked cop in Lethal Weapon, from the romantic revolutionary of Braveheart to the middle-aged man of forlorn faith in Signs, Gibson has been Hollywood’s sexy martyr, suffering greatly, and usually victoriously, for our pleasure. Yet along the way, Gibson has remade himself, ditching the fun of Bird on a Wire for the rectitude of The Patriot. It’s a Schwarzeneggerian arc — a transformation from superstar to man of conscience, along with the occasional calculated nod to his own foibles. (For a man who once said “Feminists don’t like me, and I don’t like them,” his winkingly penitent turn in What Women Want was a masterful bit of spin-doctoring.) In recent roles, the reckless, unapologetic artist who so angered homosexuals by having the king in Braveheart kill his son’s male lover as an applause moment seemed to have been replaced by a more mature, conciliatory force. At least, it appeared so.

According to the testimony Gibson has shared with Passion audiences, the journey that led to his film began about 12 years ago, with Gibson hating the man he had become. He didn’t want to live, but he didn’t want to die, either. Instead, he chose to re-embrace his father’s faith, a fringe Catholicism known as Traditionalism, which rejects many of the reforms introduced into mainstream Catholicism. (These 1962–65 Vatican II reforms also absolved Jews for the killing of Christ; Gibson hasn’t said whether he rejects this as well.)

Those who know the man say a project like The Passion was inevitable. “He’s always been a seeker in terms of finding God,” says Rene Russo. “I know our conversations were always [about] ‘Where is truth? Where do you want me to go from here, God? We’ve been to the mountaintop — what else is there?'”

For Gibson, the next step was making a cinematic meditation on the bloody suffering Christ endured, a brash bid to create the most “realistic” depiction of Christ’s death ever filmed. Those who have seen the film say The Passion is a meticulous evocation of its time and setting, from the (subtitled) Aramaic and Latin dialogue to the re-creation of first-century Jerusalem. It’s also, apparently, the Most Violent Story Ever Told. The scourging of Christ — for some, The Passion‘s most gruesome sequence — sounds like a textbook lesson in torture, with Gibson’s camera doting on the instruments used and the flesh-rending damage they can inflict.

The Passion, in other words, is very much the product of Gibson the martyr/auteur. When Christ is nailed to the cross, Gibson’s hand reportedly makes a cameo on the hammer. When Judas Iscariot hangs himself for betraying Christ, that’s Gibson scream-singing on the soundtrack. “He almost lost his voice,” says Passion composer John Debney, recalling the day Gibson volunteered to perform the wail. What did it sound like? “Complete despair.”

The Passion isn’t all blood and agony. Jesus’ suffering is interspersed with flashbacks to his youth and ministry, like the Sermon on the Mount and the Last Supper. Perhaps tellingly, after the initial round of controversy last year, Gibson shot a few more of these soothing beats with Caviezel. Still, those moments haven’t mitigated concerns that The Passion is hopelessly mired in anti-Semitic stereotypes, be they the religious leaders who conspire to kill Christ, or the bloodthirsty Jewish mobs who clamor for his death. The mere choice of title is dangerously loaded: Passion plays, a centuries-old art form, are often so liable to incite anti-Semitic anger that Catholic theologians crafted guidelines in the ’80s for tonal appropriateness.

Even those in Hollywood who don’t think Gibson is anti-Semitic, and there are many, believe that he and coscreenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald erred by creating a good-guy/bad-guy story. The villain: Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest and Jesus’ chief persecutor, to whom Gibson assigned The Passion‘s most inflammatory moment: the “blood libel” of Matthew 27:25 (“His blood be on us, and on our children”), which has long been used to support the theologically and historically suspect claim that the Jews killed Jesus.

The Passion‘s supporters say the movie is grounded in sound Christian doctrine: Christ goes willingly to the slaughter, and all mankind is to blame for his death. Gibson’s own defense has been that he is merely dramatizing what the Bible says — although just what the Bible says has, of course, been the subject of centuries of debate. Ultimately, viewers will have to decide whether characters like Caiaphas nullify that broader message. “The second Mel decided to give his hero an antagonist,” says one studio exec, “he stepped into a huge pile of s—.”

Mel Gibson seems to be of two minds about the uproar over The Passion. Friends and associates say he is deeply hurt by it. But he has long known that controversy is good for business. “Inadvertently,” Gibson told The New Yorker last fall, “all the problems and the conflicts and stuff — this is some of the best marketing and publicity I have ever seen.” But Gibson himself bears some responsibility for the media firestorm. Given his own words and actions, the controversy seems anything but “inadvertent.”

The director himself laid down the first piece of kindling more than a year ago, when he defended his film on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News talk show — even though no one had publicly attacked it. Seven weeks later, The New York Times Magazine published a story about his father, the Catholic Traditionalist, who was portrayed as a Holocaust-denying extremist prone to blaming Jews for the evils of the world. Immediately, some Jewish activists — including representatives of the Anti-Defamation League — and Catholic theologians began wondering if Mel was a chip off the old block.

Several Jewish leaders requested a screening of the film. Gibson was showing it to Christian pastors and pundits — why not them, too? But Gibson said no. As the film’s profile grew, Gibson began searching for a distributor. Icon claims major studios were interested (though most of the majors contacted by EW say they never seriously entertained releasing the movie). Eventually, Gibson made a deal with Newmarket Films, whose recent successes include Monster and Whale Rider. But when it comes to selling The Passion, Icon is calling all the shots.

Gibson defenders note that an artist has no obligation to those who would thought-police a work in progress. (Although in this case, he stands on shakier ground: “What he doesn’t get is that this isn’t about him,” says one source close to Gibson. “This is about 2,000 years of bigotry and hatred.”) And they understand why Gibson won’t alleviate his problems by distancing himself from his extremist dad. “He’s in an unwinnable situation,” says a friend, who insists the star doesn’t share his father’s skepticism about the Holocaust. “He knows exactly what the headline will be: ‘Mel Thinks His Father Is Crazy.'”

Others in Hollywood are sure Icon is fueling the fire. “They are wonderful guys, but they can beat the drum louder than other people,” says one studio exec who has done business with Gibson’s company, citing in particular the gamesmanship over whether the Pope endorsed The Passion. “Sometimes they go too far.”

Take the confusing situation currently surrounding the “blood libel.” Last fall, Gibson reportedly cut the line; in fact, at the screening attended by Caviezel and Russo, it wasn’t there. But in recent weeks, Gibson showed thousands of Christians a version that retained the line. Word got out. Controversy erupted. The press pounced. Gibson was heard to suggest that dark forces were moving against him. And again, interest was piqued. The capper: In February, The New York Times, whose coverage of The Passion Gibson has deplored, was allowed to see the film, and broke the news that the “blood libel” reference had been deleted. More headlines.

The ADL’s Abraham Foxman knows his protests may only have helped the film. “I may be giving him free publicity, but to challenge him and have a debate is healthy,” says Foxman, who says the Jewish stereotypes and “whole mind-set” of the movie remain offensive.

But healthy debate is the last thing Gibson has sought. An EW journalist seeking to arrange an interview was told that Gibson’s camp wasn’t interested in a balanced story. Instead, he has agreed to speak only to politically simpatico writers like Peggy Noonan for Reader’s Digest, or in TV interviews that are more likely than print pieces to showcase his considerable charm. His Feb. 16 appearance on Primetime looms as a pivotal flash point in his publicity war.

Icon’s wooing of evangelical Christians to promote his movie has been just as engineered–some would say exploitative. The kits Icon has sent churches even touts The Passion as “Perhaps the Best Outreach Opportunity in 2000 Years.” On Feb. 7, Gibson hosted a screening/PR powwow at Azusa Pacific University near L.A.; attendees had to sign an agreement to “hold confidential my exposure, knowledge, and experience of the film, except as authorized by Icon…. However, pastors, church leaders, and students are free to speak out in support of the movie….” Says one signer: “The way I interpreted it was ‘If you liked the film, feel free to talk about it. And if you didn’t like the film, feel free to honor the confidentiality agreement.'”

But there’s another way to interpret Icon’s tactics — as a salvo in the “culture wars,” some of whose proponents don’t care whether the split is between Jews and Christians or “the liberal media” and “the silent majority.” And whether deliberate or not, Gibson’s Christian grassroots counteroffensive and stonewalling of his critics has paid off. Buoyed by advance ticket sales driven by churches and other Christian groups, The Passion could pull in $30 million in its first five days. Says Dean Devlin: “For eight months everyone has been talking about it — that, in and of itself, is genius. The world wants to see this picture. Now, they may want to see it for the wrong reasons — but the buzz is spectacular. I have producer’s envy.”

“LET GO, LET GOD” goes the Christian bumper sticker, and for Gibson, that moment is at hand. Very soon, the most tightly managed publicity campaign in recent memory will give way to judgments made by a democracy of critics and ticket buyers. Gibson’s best hope is that the film is deemed inoffensive and rides its blockbuster status into next year’s Oscar season. But a certain kind of success could get Gibson in even more trouble than a flop would. If The Passion is denounced as anti-Semitic, and still becomes the most popular piece of hate-fueling cinema since The Birth of a Nation, his defiant, unconciliatory stance may well read as a decision to trade away Jewish concerns for Christian box office dollars. That’s something Hollywood may not be so quick to forgive or forget.

Regardless, here’s something to keep in mind as you line up for The Passion. The story goes that at that screening last November attended by Russo and Caviezel, there was talk from the podium of dark forces gathering against the film. But then a man spoke up — a pastor — and cautioned people to be careful with this kind of thinking. Dana Sanders recalls the pastor’s words: “‘Some people may not like this film because they just think it’s a bad film. That doesn’t make them evil. We need to be really careful about setting up a no-win situation where people can’t be honest.'”

To which even James Caviezel said, “Thank you for saying that.”

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