July 13, 2010
What We Say When We Talk About Mel Gibson
The recent news that Mel Gibson is no longer a client of William Morris Endeavor should come as no surprise. Many news and entertainment programs, including NBC’s “Today Show,” pegged the delisting to Gibson’s recent domestic assault allegations and tabloid leak of surreptitious tapes of racist rants he allegedly made, all arising from his custody dispute with his baby-mama Oksana Grigorieva.
But Gibson was already on borrowed time at the agency. In 2006, following his Malibu arrest and anti-Semitic rant, Ari Emanuel, then at Endeavor, writing in the Huffington Post, called on all Hollywood to shun Gibson. Gibson’s great defender was his longtime agent Ed Limato, then at ICM, who famously threw a drink in the face of Page Six’s Richard Johnson for comments about Gibson at a Vanity Fair Oscar party. Subsequently, Limato moved his operations from ICM to William Morris, and when William Morris and Endeavor merged last year, Emanuel and Limato found themselves having to make a cold peace.
A few weeks ago, Limato died. Then the other shoe dropped. Regarding Gibson, no one could call Emanuel a hypocrite. For his part, Gibson’s self-destructive self-immolation has cost him his marriage, much of his fortune, his standing in Hollywood and — depending on what happens next — could lead to criminal prosecution for domestic violence.
Which begs the question: Are the travails of Mel Gibson a fitting comeuppance, a vindication of those who saw something noxious in Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” a Shakespearean tragedy where character is destiny, or, perhaps in and of itself, proof that God exists? Or some combination of the above?
Rewinding through Gibson’s oeuvre and focusing on “Braveheart,” “The Man Without a Face” and then “The Passion,” the consistent theme appears to be that violence and harsh confrontation beget redemption.
Gibson entered the fray with his “The Passion of the Christ.” I would argue that each generation gets the version of Christ it deserves. So, if “The Greatest Story Ever Told” was made for the post-World War II “Greatest Generation,” “Godspell” for the ’60s flower children, and “Jesus Christ Superstar” for the “me” decade 1970s, then “The Passion of the Christ” embodies a rift in American culture, a moment when war and existential threats seemed everyday experiences. When Gibson told us he was being true to the Gospels in making his movie, he was not wrong. But it was his specific choices from among the versions that reflected Gibson’s own soul and character.
The enormous success of the film is history now, but it’s almost hard to remember the time when Jews questioning Gibson’s “Passion” were made to seem as if they were asking for a revisionist Jewish version of the New Testament. Indeed, even Gibson’s Jewish publicist, Alan Nierob, defended him.
At one point, Gibson claimed he was going to make a film about the Maccabees, which some took as a form of atonement, but which, to me, carried an implied threat — of exposing an ugly side to Jewish heroism. For most children, the Maccabees are the heroes of the Chanukah saga, but in a Gibson world of violence and martyrdom, the Judean fighters might seem closer to the Taliban, fighting against the corrupting Hellenism of their time by murdering fellow Jews.
Then, in 2006, after being arrested for driving while intoxicated, Gibson made his comments about the Jews causing all the world’s wars. Privately, it seemed a confirmation of Gibson’s darkest thoughts, but publicly many excused Gibson’s rant as a drunkard’s heat-seeking attempt to provoke with the most offensive comment possible. Gibson slipped back under the radar.
What has complicated the discussion about Gibson was that most American Jews of recent vintage spend a good deal of time hearing about anti-Semitism (and donating money to fight it), but few actually have experienced it.
I have met several Holocaust deniers and, strangely enough, I met most of them in Jerusalem — during the course of covering the Demjanjuk war crimes trial. They were always ruddy, Middle America types or English academic types. All very friendly. What they had in common was that they saw themselves as men (and they were all men) of principle committed to finding the truth. Their quibbles were obsessive: If one fact was wrong, then that proved that all the facts of the Holocaust had been false or exaggerated.
Gibson, too, seems to alternate between Mel the Gregarious and Mel the Scary, a man seeking things his way and a man out of control — with anger and self-righteousness fueling a bigotry he won’t acknowledge.
For several years, Gibson seemed a time bomb waiting to explode. There was the church he funded in Malibu that didn’t accept Vatican II, and then the rumors that he had a girlfriend, followed by denials, then his wife filing for divorce, and the announcement that not only did Gibson have a girlfriend, but she was pregnant with what would be Gibson’s eighth child.
Did Gibson think being famous, being wealthy, put him in control? I’m sure he was warned. But an affair and a child with a much younger woman? What did he think would happen?
Which brings me back to my original question: What can we say about Gibson? There is no question that he alone is the engine of his current problems. It is also clear that his bigotry and sexism are part of his vile arsenal, and he can no longer deny the taint on his character. In the days and weeks to come, we may hear explanations for Gibson’s behavior or promises of treatment of one kind or another. He may go on to make other movies, self-financed or even studio distributed (and they could even be good), but no one will ever look at him the same way again. Gibson may pray for things to work out or for forgiveness from family, friends and colleagues; and others may pray for him. But I won’t be one of them.
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