Welcome Back, Mel, You Creep. I Missed You

Put it down to my tender Jewish heart, but I’m glad to hear that Mel Gibson’s stricken career, like the man said in Holy Grail, isn’t quite dead, and may even pull through. The Beaver, Gibson’s new film, in which he stars opposite Jodie Foster, opened today to mixed, but mainly positive, reviews. Many of the sympathetic critics think Gibson is the best thing about it. In Rolling Stone, Peter Travers gives him credit for “a high-wire performance of the highest caliber.” Mick La Salle of the San Francisco Chronicle writes: “[Gibson] gives a performance of such pain and insight that he makes the case for himself as an actor again, not a public spectacle.”

It may help that Gibson’s playing a character just as crazy as he is. Having suffered a nervous breakdown, Walter, a CEO, develops a second personality, which he channels through a beaver hand puppet. To Andrew O’Hehir, this looks like “a psychodrama that’s part therapy and part self-criticism. Was it Mel who made those terrible phone calls, or was it the puppet?” In other words, the actor’s relationship to the character is a bit like the character’s relationship to the puppet. In both cases, the first helps the second to explain himself, to beg understanding.

Really, I can’t put my finger on why I’m feeling so sentimental about Mel Gibson — not after his anti-Semitic tantrum, his racist tantrum, his domestic- partner abuse, his…you name it. His films never did all that much for me. I’m too big a history geek not to have hooted at the sight of William Wallace in a kilt, or the thought of him siring Edward III. I liked the idea of Passion more than I liked the film itself, and I knew I had no hope of sitting through Apocalypto. It just sounded too…apocalyptic.

I suppose I could tell that his vision was unique, and his talents were rare. Joe Queenan, one of the writers I’d most like to be when I grow up, pleads Gibson’s cause. That he does so somewhat grudgingly makes him all the more credible.

Gibson has also on occasion been willing to put himself at risk – as he did in Hamlet, in which he joined a long list of actors who were either too old to play the part (Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh), or too obviously manipulative (Jude Law) to be the callow, indecisive Dane. If it is true that quite early in his career he came to rely on that impish eye-rolling, or keeping his mouth slightly ajar while conversing with others, or pulling his eyes away from other actors and then suddenly firing a sideways glance back at them, these tics were no more annoying than Eastwood’s trademark squint or Cruise’s high-beam smile. Gibson, like McQueen, is one of those actors who made his debut on screen equipped with a full complement of acting chops, and pretty much stayed the way he was for the next 30 years. Movie stars more than actors, these types of performers don’t get any better, and they don’t get any worse. If it worked at the beginning, it will work at the end.

Some, perhaps most, actors wear out their welcome on screen. But that did not happen with Gibson; he was as good in last year’s generic Edge of Darkness as he was in Gallipoli and Mad Max. Unlike Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, who deliver one listless, fatigued, phoned-in performance after another at this stage in their careers, Gibson has always gone about his job in a professional fashion. He may be cynical in real life, but he is not cynical on screen.

Gibson is also a very fine, and in many ways daring director. Braveheart, a throwback film, is the kind of lusty historical epic that evokes Ben-Hur and Doctor Zhivago. The same is true of The Patriot and of his very strange, very entertaining Apocalypto, which contains no English dialogue. Indeed, one of the most troubling things about The Passion of the Christ, a film whose cavalier antisemitism makes it seem like something written in the Middle Ages by someone whose dad doesn’t care much for Jews, is how well-made a film it is. In undertaking this benighted project, Gibson set out to show that the last 18 hours in the life of Jesus Christ were nauseatingly unpleasant. He most certainly succeeded.

Queenan’s a much better critic than I’ll ever be, but there’s one redeeming quality of Gibson’s he misses. Though probably no less a monster of ego than any other titan of the entertainment industry, Gibson has always known, even in better times, when to lay aside his vanity for the good of the project.

The last Gibson film I really enjoyed was The Patriot. (I’ve always been a Revolutionary War buff, and at the time of the film’s release was trying to scratch out a novel on the Carolinas campaign.) Many things about the script made me groan — to pick just one, the disclaimer that Gibson’s character had freed all his slaves felt both manipulative and false to history. But it also impressed me that Gibson cast Heath Ledger, who at that point in their lives was conventionally better-looking, to play his son. To play the bad guy, he chose Jason Isaacs, a man with an arguably stronger screen presence. Clearly, looking good was not among Gibson’s priorities.

Better, he didn’t insist on playing Jesus.

When I went to see Passion, I was primed to find anti-Semitism, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. Not so much as a subtext or a dog-whistle. The Sanhedrin looked more like actual people than like embodiments of any stereotype. The actor who played Caiaphas, Mattia Sbragia, was Italian, and — it seemed to me — infused his performance with a certain lovable comic-opera flair. To play the Blessed Mother Gibson cast Maia Morgenstern — yes, Morgenstern, as in Rhoda Morgenstern, Mary Richards’ sidekick. If that’s cynical tokenism, I’ll take it.

Besides, there has always seemed to me something very gracious, very democratic, in a society that offers scoundrels and maladjusted characters a narrow but real road to obscene wealth and cultural influence. Like Powerball or a monarchy where sovereigns occasionally grant peerages to their illicit lovers, it teaches the lesson that not only can you make it, someone much worse than you can make it — so hang in there.

– Max Lindenman

  • Greta

    With all the left wing nut jobs out in hollywood, I find it amazing that Mel Gibson, who until he went out off the ledge recently had produced great enjoyable work and mostly kept his opinions to himself. He said some really nutting things over the last couple years. If he keeps it up, he will catch up with some of the more vocal liberals out in la la land.
    I loved Braveheart and the Passion of the Christ best, but enjoyed almost everything he did. I would not hesitate to see him in anything going forward. I think a lot of the issues he has had are based on the trashing he took on the Passion of the Christ. His ol liberal friends who use to invite him over now looked at him as pure evil and also with envy on what he had pulled off despite being hit every way possible. That is enough to drive folks over the edge…

  • Joe C

    Thank you for such thoughtful insight into this man. I like Mel Gibson and pray for him daily. Like us all, he is good and he is bad. Like you, I find him refreshing in his films. And complicated as a man. Last I heard his wife has recanted some of her abuse claims, and the police statement, well is just that. I have said stupid things to a cop drunk. You can make a mistake or two and if your liked by your piers, they will laud you still. But your enemies will try to crush you if you slip even once. Mel has shown he is just a human, not God, and he is very blessed in so many ways.

  • Barbara C.

    My husband is friends with someone who worked closely with Mel Gibson on a movie recently, and Mel was a total diva on the set. I seriously wonder if the man doesn’t have an undiagnosed brain tumor that is effecting his behavior. You tended to hear nothing but positive about him until about six or seven years ago, and then all heck seemed to break loose.

  • Mandy P.

    I can’t help but wonder of maybe Greta is on to something. I’d never read even the tiniest tidbit about Gibson being a jerk until after all the junk surrounding the release of The Passion. Just last week I read an article about Jim Caviezel, the man who played Jesus in the film. He was in my area recently speaking at some church or another and spoke pretty extensively on how his career, which was really taking off before the film’s release, just suddenly died afterwards. He seems to have taken it in stride. But Gibson was already a huge name and had been for almost two decadeFor having all of his influence out in film land dry up over night, I can see that taking a huge toll. That doesn’t excuse the creepy behavior at all. But maybe explains it.

  • Roz Smith

    For all of Gibson’s many faults that one form of personal vanity endemic to Hollywood doesn’t seem to be among them: He doesn’t seem terrified of looking old. He readily admitted he was way too old to play William Wallace but had to do so for the studio to finance the project. Since then his roles have been age appropriate and his face has changed in some interesting ways. If you look at photos of some other actors over the same time frame it is easy to see that is not always the case.

  • Leonard

    If the “creep” had made his rant about Roman Catholics no one in the media or law endforcement would have even noticed or cared. He probably would have been lionized in many cirlces. Anti-Semetic remarks are never appropriate, but; give me a break, Hollywood fame, money, drugs and booze and other vices can drive anyone nuts at least temporarily. Mel isn’t a potential mass murderer but rather perhaps just a temporarily insane raving lunatic. Get a grip feer mongers! I think it is very uncharitable to call the man a creep even if he acted like one! Who knows what kinds of drugs may have been slipped into his cocktails?

  • http://thepagantemple.blogspot.com/ ThePaganTemple

    Gibson always struck me as a little nutty, and that almost always seems to come through in his roles. Watch Conspiracy Theory with Julia Roberts and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. That’s not really acting, that’s just Gibson playing a hyped up, exaggerated version of himself. Only maybe it wasn’t so hyped up and exaggerated after all.

  • Pete

    A shameful post. The things that Mel Gibson has said publicly and to the police officers we pay and to his own family members should be enough to exclude him from public life. At the least, he certainly does not deserve the praise you bring to him in a public forum like this.

  • http://tocountmyblessings.blogspot.com/ Mouse

    Eight comments in and we already have the gamut from “How dare you speak of ‘He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named!’” and “Don’t be so mean!!!!”
    Controversy, thy name is Gibson.

  • HCSKnight

    Wow, I can hear Mary & Jesus saying exactly the same salutation of your piece….

    Thanks for showing everyone the true state of Charity i your heart.

    In my book you’re just another post-Vatican II “Protestant” that makes up the majority of “Catholic” bloggers who are filled with selfish & self-absorbed “Christian Testimonies” that are far more about their beliefs than Roman Catholic Faith.

    AMDG

  • Linus

    Thank goodness I am neither interested in movies these days nor Mel Gibson. The less I hear from the Hollywood crowd the better. I know there are a few good apples but to search for them and then to hope for a decent, intertaining ( both) is just more work than I want to engage in. I will get one from the library from time to time but they are ususlly ” oldies ” and I know all about them ahead of time – I hate to be ” ambushed ” half way through a film or a book for that matter.

  • Leroy

    Mel Gibson is a genuine person, unlike so many other Hollywood people. Which is why people like him even if they don’t particularly like his films and despite his controversial comments.

  • Greta

    Leonard has a great point. If Gibson had come out and said “I made a huge mistake on the Passion of the Christ and in my past support of the f—— Catholic Church. and coninued on with a balast about pediphile priests and homophobia”, he would have been the most loved hollywood star of all time and the most brilliant and on all the shows and the talk of the town. The media could not have had enough of him and every movie he wanted to do, espeically if it supported those views would have found as much money as he wanted.

    I had not thought this side of the issue.

    He went from beloved to dirt and all they needed was a slip and he became the lowest form of humanity. So this is also an amazing story of how money does not buy you happiness for The Passion brought him huge windfall of cash because no one else would get involved and he had to do it all. Actors can say the most outrageous things about anything but those that the left have put off limits as if there had been an amendment to the freedom of speech we missed that removed that right from all but socialist leftist perverts. Image if he had been out in public supporting Republican Conservative causes as well as faith.

    It kind of like the difference in coverage we would be seeing today if the same events with Bin Laden were handled the same way by W. Bush. You know, the death squad sent into a foreign country and an ally on top of it, without their permission or warning and shot an unarmed man and his son when we cold have brought him out to trial. And we also shot the mans son and wife. this is not what America does and is not only illegal, but immoral. We would have been holding hearings this week, not going to NYC and Kentucky. And by this week if Bush poll numbers had gone up, the media would be saying that is old news, what about jobs, the economy, gas prices, and out debt.

  • Paolo

    Regarding comments about Mel having lost it in the last 6 or 7 years, there is plenty of gossip in Australia about how he was as a teenager and young man that suggest he has always had a tendency to volatility, and a real ‘dark’ side. I always thought that the rumours about his wife being a very calming influence were true, and that it was his separation and divorce that sparked the most unhinged behaviour. Having said that I like some of his films, and I feel that he cops a lot more sanctimonious comment than other stars, because of his conservative religious views.

  • Louie Gomez

    So terribly tough. It’s difficult a thing to give up women and booze…. especially when they are easy on the eye and the liquor goes down smoothly.

    It’ll take some time for the guy.

  • Rob Federle

    In the past, I have read most of your blogs, and I’ve found that most of them were thoughtful and of value. After reading today’s blog, I almost feel as though I need to take a shower. Sounds a bit gossipy, almost like kicking someone when they are at their most vulnerable. Is this what we are supposed to do with each other?

  • http://-- H Koczur

    Really did not think the title was very charitable, calling someone a creep. He seems to be a man spiraling, down with no way back up.

  • CV

    Here’s a fascinating, and long, very recent interview with Gibson:

    http://www.deadline.com/2011/04/exclusive-mel-gibson-finally-talks/

    I think a testament to his character is his friendship with Jodi
    Foster (as her friendship with Gibson is a testament to Foster’s character).

    As he says in this interview, he and Foster are miles apart in their views on everything from religion to politics. Yet they accept each other and support each other completely. Wouldn’t most of us appreciate a friendship like that. It’s hard to imagine that kind of guy also harbors deep anti-Semitism, etc.

    My grandfather was an alcoholic. He was a very “mean drunk” as they say, and the stuff that would come out of his mouth when he drank would curl your hair. His words hurt my mom (his daughter) deeply.

    Alcoholism affects people differently, but Gibson’s rants (as appalling as they were) seem consistent with my experience with my grandfather and other similarly-afflicted people I’ve known. Not an excuse for him, just reality.

    Gibson has experienced great success but he has alsopaid mightily for his demons as well. His own father is a loon. I can’t imagine his failed marriage and the impact of his behavior on his children doesn’t haunt him day and night.

    FWIW, his golddigger Russian ex recently dropped her charges against him.

  • tim baugh

    yeah, call a guy anti-semitic enough times and guess what, he’ll be as anti-semitic as you want him to be. if we cant see the devil’s hand at work is dethroning mel gibson for the good work he has done in the Passion, then we aren’t worthy of mel, and we’re not very faithful Christians either i suppose.

  • Anushree Shirali

    Joe Queenan’s insight on the Passion of the Christ is very keen and points to how difficult it is to separate the person from the artist. Charges of anti-semitism (which I didn’t detect in the movie. If anything, I came out of the theater feeling very anti-Roman) and grotesque violence (really, how much worse was it than Silence of the Lambs or Die Hard?) aside, the movie was a piece of art. Everything about it, from the precise dialogue to the cinematography and music, was beautiful from a purely artistic point of view. If I were to rate them on a scale of how nice they seem to be, Kirk Cameron would be much higher than Mel Gibson, yet it is Cameron- the Christian next door- who perpetually commits the cardinal artistic sin of making terrible Christian theme movies.