Can Mel Gibson’s career bounce back?

This time it’s Beyond Blunderdome


David Gray/Reuters

A decade ago, Mel Gibson was a chauvinist pig. The type of man who used and abused women, caring little for their thoughts, feelings or affections. Then, he accidently dropped a hair dryer in a bathtub and instead of meeting a shocking end, was magically transformed, imbued with the power to read the female mind. “Finally?.?.?.?a man who’s listening,” went the slightly witty tag line from the 2000 film What Women Want. Gibson’s character, Nick Marshall, followed a predictable arc, at first using his great gift for advantage in affairs of the heart and business. But by the romantic comedy’s end, he had learned valuable lessons about respect and love, fairly swooning when co-star Helen Hunt agreed to save him from himself.

Released just before Christmas, when audiences are often in a giving mood, the fluffy fantasy went on to gross US$183 million in the United States, and a further $191 million worldwide. It still ranks as the number two all-time earner in the date-movie genre, trailing only My Big Fat Greek Wedding. And until recently at least, you could often find it playing late at night on cable’s upper tier—an artifact of an era when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, and Mel Gibson was Hollywood’s most bankable star.

Starting with the post-apocalyptic Mad Max in 1979, the American-born, Australian-raised actor found remarkable success as a leading man, pulling in more than $2 billion in box office in the U.S. alone. Blessed with good looks—People named Gibson its inaugural “Sexiest Man Alive” in 1985—and roguish charm, he found ready audiences for roles as diverse as a drug dealer (Tequila Sunrise), Revolutionary soldier (The Patriot), and a Plasticine rooster (Chicken Run). Early, artier films like Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously proved he could act.

The critics were even kind to his turn as Hamlet: “strong, intelligent and safely beyond ridicule,” wrote the New York Times. But Gibson’s bread and butter was always the unhinged man of action: don’t-give-a-damn cop Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon series, the revenge-seeking dad in Ransom, William Wallace in Brave­heart—the 1995 film that earned him Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.

Maybe that’s why the profane recordings of the 54-year-old actor screaming down a phone line at his estranged companion Oksana Grigorieva feel so oddly familiar. Strings of curses, delivered with the same volcanic fury and hyperventilating style as his signature roles. Except this time, Mel is speaking lines that would never appear in a Hollywood script. “You’re an embarrassment to me. You look like a f–king bitch in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n—–s, it will be your fault,” he rants in one tape. (Grigorieva, in the midst of legal battles over support and custody of their nine-month-old daughter, has so far released recordings of more than a dozen calls and voice mails to a gossip website.) “C–t. Bitch. Gold digger. Whore!” he spits in another. And there are threats of violence. “You went to sleep and didn’t blow me. I deserve to be blown first,” Gibson screams. “Before the f–king Jacuzzi. Okay, I’ll burn the goddamn house down, but blow me first! How dare you?”

When Gibson and Grigorieva announced their separation in April, after less than a year as a couple, the line from his representative was the classic “they just drifted apart.” (The actor split with his wife of 28 years, Robyn Gibson, in the spring of 2009.) The 39-year-old Russian-born pop singer—Gibson financed and produced her 2009 debut album, even co-writing one of the songs—reportedly came close to signing a $15-million kiss-off. But all pretense of civility disappeared at the beginning of July, when word of the recordings began to leak out to the gutter press. Grigorieva has since filed a criminal complaint alleging Gibson punched her in the head and mouth last January, while she was clutching their newborn.

Proffering photos of her chipped front teeth as proof, she sought and obtained a restraining order. The star’s lawyers responded with charges of an elaborate extortion plot. And Robyn Gibson is said to have provided a statement swearing that Mel never physically abused her or their seven kids during all their years together. One thing is clear: every nasty development instantly finds its way onto the Net, mostly via TMZ and RadarOnline, the gossip websites that hounded Tiger Woods to the ground last fall.

At the moment, Gibson appears to have few friends. William Morris Endeavor dropped him as a client in mid-July, effectively excommunicating him from the Hollywood fold. (Gibson’s long-time agent, Ed Limato, died on July 3, and WME head Ari Emanuel—brother of Rahm, Obama’s chief of staff—is no fan.) There have been calls for a boycott of his work from various interest groups, and the studios are debating what to do with two Gibson movies already in the can. A Viking epic he was to direct this fall, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, also hangs in the balance.

The actor seems to have recognized that there is no easy road back. When cops in Malibu nabbed him for drunk driving in 2006, sparking an infamous anti-Semitic rant about “Jews being responsible for all the wars in the world” (the arresting officer happened to be Jewish), he was quick to issue a public denunciation of his own actions, and beg for help and forgiveness. This time, there has been no such apology. And his legal efforts appear focused on questioning his girlfriend’s motives, rather than the veracity of the tapes.

Maybe he no longer cares. Already feted, almost past his studly prime and filthy rich—his fortune has been estimated at nearly US$900 million—there is little left for him to prove, or improve. Last winter, right around the time Gibson was making those nuclear phone calls, he was on the road promoting The Edge of Darkness, his first leading role in eight years. Just having survived the drunk-driving scandal was a victory, he told the Daily Telegraph. “You ask anybody what their number one fear is and it’s public humiliation. Multiply that on a global scale and that’s what I’ve been through. It changes you and makes you one tough motherf–ker. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s really that simple.”

Mel Gibson has never been one to hide his light under a bushel. His big break, Mad Max, came about in part because he shot his mouth off at a Sydney house party and got the crap kicked out of him by three men. When the then 23-year-old auditioned for director George Miller a week later, he was still sporting the lumps, stitches and bruises. Bloodied and defiant turned out to be exactly what the filmmaker was looking for.

Bad-boy antics defined his early career. During the filming of a forgettable remake of The Bounty in 1983, he drove co-star Anthony Hopkins—a reformed alcoholic—to despair with his on- and off-set carousing. One scene had to be shot entirely in profile after Gibson got into a bar fight with some Polynesian bouncers. While in Toronto in the spring of 1984 filming Mrs. Soffel with Diane Keaton, Gibson was arrested for drunk driving when he ran a red light on Yonge Street and crashed into another car. A blood alcohol level of .120 netted him a $400 fine and a three-month licence suspension. A few weeks after he left town, reports surfaced that the Yorkville house he and wife Robyn had leased during shooting had suffered tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Floors, walls, ceilings and windows had to be replaced after someone sealed off a bedroom and adjoining bathroom to create a makeshift sauna.

A propensity for saying whatever happened to be on his mind endeared him to journalists, but did nothing to dispel the loose-cannon image. When People visited him on the Australian set of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in 1985, they found their sexiest man sitting in the dirt, chain-smoking and drinking a six-pack. “I don’t want to be doing this interview,” Gibson pouted. “I don’t even want to be making this film. It’s just a piece of s–t.” The critics agreed.

At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the actor was overcompensating for a shy, vulnerable personality. He talked openly about his difficulties fitting in as a preteen when his family moved from upstate New York to Sydney in the late 1960s. Now, more attention is generally paid to Gibson’s unusual family background. His father, Hutton—still kicking at 91—is an incontrovertible piece of work. Wounded at Guadalcanal in the Second World War, he returned home, married, took a job as a railroad brakeman and fathered 10 children. A strict disciplinarian and ultra-conservative Catholic, he broke with the Church in the early ’60s over the Vatican II reforms. A few years later, Hutton used his winnings as a Jeopardy grand champion to pack the entire clan off to Australia, citing concerns that American society was similarly becoming too “permissive.” Today, Mel’s dad is best-known as an all-around whack job who believes the U.S. government is illegal, 9/11 was an “inside job,” and the Holocaust never happened.

Even before the 2006 outburst and current phone rants, there was evidence the apple hadn’t fallen far enough from that tree. In 1991, Gibson ran afoul of gay groups for an interview with a Spanish newspaper in which he declared he became an actor “despite” the many homosexuals in the business. In 1995, he talked about his problems with feminists in Playboy.

“I’ll get kicked around for saying it, but men and women are just different. They’re not equal.” Pressed for an example, the actor talked about an unsuccessful business relationship he once had with a woman. “She was a c–t.”

Despite its ruthless reputation, Hollywood is a remarkably forgiving place, a land of not just second, but often third, fourth and fifth chances. Gibson first joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1991, at the behest of his wife and agent. He strayed and came back on numerous occasions. At present, the party line is that he’s still sober, but was in the midst of quitting smoking when he made the calls to Grigorieva. “I would never comment on him, or any dumb thing he did, no matter what it was,” Jodie Foster semi-diplomatically told Maclean’s in 2007.

“I love him and I’m so happy that he’s sober, because sobriety has been an enormous topic in his life. This is a man who has really been through the wringer.”

In the past, Gibson has returned the favour, reaching out to help other addicts. In 2003, when friend and former co-star Robert Downey Jr. was on the comeback trail, he paid his insurance bond for The Singing Detective. In 2008, Gibson again made headlines when he invited troubled Britney Spears to vacation with his family in Costa Rica.

But redemption in the entertainment industry is most frequently achieved through commercial success. Gibson’s eccentricities were quietly tolerated when he was a major box-office draw.

The heavy scrutiny only came when he decided his place was behind the camera, making what most assumed would be unsellable fare. His blood-soaked two-hour retelling of Jesus’s crucifixion, shot entirely in Aramaic, Hebrew and Latin, sounded like lunacy to Hollywood’s money men. (Gibson ended up putting $25 million of his own money into the project.) The advance press focused on charges the film was anti-Semitic, and on Gibson’s deeply conservative brand of Christianity—anti-abortion, anti-birth control, anti-divorce. He even built his own church in the Malibu hills in 2003, where mass is celebrated in Latin, and women must wear head coverings. The Passion of the Christ ended up grossing $612 million worldwide. Fini le débat. Similarly, Gibson’s quick readmittance to the mainstream after the 2006 Malibu debacle had a lot more to do with the success of his ultra-violent Mayan epic Apocalypto—released just four months after his arrest, $120 million worldwide box office—than any apology or treatment program.

Resuscitating his career presumably won’t be quite so simple this time. The man who made himself the standard-bearer of family values in Hollywood has now flamed out of two relationships in little more than a year. And the ugliness caught on tape is too profound and sustained to chalk up to a momentary lapse of reason.

There have been reports the actor is planning to abandon America, and return to the Australian cattle ranch where he spent a two-year sabbatical in the mid-’80s. Robyn is said to be keen to accompany him. A reconciliation with his ex-wife would certainly solve one of his problems: Gibson is still trying to negotiate a settlement in his divorce, which could end up costing him as much as $400 million. On the tapes, the actor frequently complains about Grigorieva’s spending habits. “I’m paying my tax money instead of the credit card. Don’t you get it?” he screams at one point. (Much of his wealth is tied up in real estate, including a $15-million Fijian island purchased in 2005. Lavender Hill Farms, one of several properties he owns in Malibu, is currently listed at $14.5 million. And his 15-bedroom, 18-bathroom Tudor mansion in Connecticut just sold for $24 million after three years on the market.)

Meanwhile, the late-night comedians are having a field day. Jimmy Kimmel is having a seven-year-old girl recite choice parts of the rants. Letterman did a Top 10 of “excuses”—Number 7: the remarks were much less offensive in their original Aramaic. The Internet is rife with remixes; dance, rap and metal versions. And, inevitably, mash-ups with scenes from What Women Want.

Mel’s friends can only shake their heads in disbelief at it all. A. Larry Ross, a long-time Billy Graham spokesman and the owner of a Christian-focused public relations firm in Dallas, helped Gibson promote The Passion, travelling around the country with the actor, showcasing the film to ministers. He fondly recalls a deeply spiritual man who would rather talk about theology than sports. “I’m confident that he will find his way back to God,” Ross told Maclean’s. And back into the hearts of the public, too. “To use an analogy from the film, it’s Friday, but I think Sunday is coming. God is a god of second chances.”


Can Mel Gibson’s career bounce back?

  1. Konichua,

    Good article. Very good article. These are the articles that makes one know another celebretty better. They are all human. And the whole celebretry, fame, actor, Hollywood status is one big fake. Except for the talent and the big money they bring in. But anyways……..Still I think Mel is the man. Not as perfect as portraid on the screen. But human. And by that I still salute him.


  2. Best most rational and reasonable piece I have read since this mess first occurred. I would support Mel Gibson because he's a great filmmaker and a wonderful actor. This too shall pass as they say. I hope he does go back to his ex wife. Never heard of any family scandals when he was with her and she has supported him through all his drinking problems. She's a damn good woman!

  3. I have to say that I enjoyed mnay of Gibson's movies, but was not aware of any of his personal life. Based on what I have learned about him over the past year or so, I would never again even watch any movie he had anything to do with. Being a good artist does not excuse reprehensible behaviour.

  4. This custody dispute may become the poster child for the term "high-conflict" separation. For an interesting and enlightened approach proposed for dealing with this in Canada see:

    Many family law professionals say that this type of high-conflict custody battle frequently indicates that there are TWO personality disordered individuals involved. This case is the first time I've seen the term "anchor baby" used in reference to a liason with a public figure, and I have to say that the timing is somewhat suspicious. Mr. Gibson's personality quirks were not exactly a secret when Ms. Grigorieva became involved with him.

    Mel has made a career and fortune out of being a bad boy and slightly "insane" – not sure that this situation is going to change his fortunes that much in the long term. He needed help a long time ago, but his industry colleagues aren't exactly known for that. They'd prefer to pamper inflated egos and reap the profits on the way up, and ride the publicity wave and reap the profits when that pampered inflated ego flames out.

  5. Excellent piece.

    We all have problems to deal with and faults to iron out, and Gibson certainly has his share of challenges.

    Personally I just wish the late-night jackals would lay off. When someone is down, you don't keep kicking them.

    • I would agree with that, except that Mel seems to be the kind of person to tell you what to do, but not have to do it himself. He is deeply religious more-Catholic-than-Catholic, women have to wear head coverings in his church–yet he can divorce his wife, have a child out of wedlock, and use that kind of language. How does this compute?

      • Correct, it doesn't compute. It didn't compute before his recent meltdowns either, when he was making movies (e.g. Braveheart, the Patriot, Payback, Ransom) that glorified revenge and hatred. So he's not living a consistent life – I know few people who are, it's just not so blindingly obvious in most cases.

        None of this excuses the vultures on late-night comedy who take the chance to get a few yuks by hitting an easy target, a man who is visibly falling apart and wildly unpopular. They chortle at someone else's suffering. It's particularly revolting when the person is unpopular enough that the mob will immediately approve and encourage any abuse hurled at the target. It's cowardly and it's disgusting. It's no different from schoolyard bullies who gang up on some kid they know no one will stand up for because he's unpopular, and therefore an easy victim.

        • True about the late-night comedians, except they've always done this. I don't watch them myself. I don't care for that kind of humour, even though its often funny–it is, as you say, hitting a person when they're down.

          Really, I only have a problem with people who purport to be holier than thou, and turn out to be way worse than most. I mean, even though the guy has turned out to be a sleaze-ball, I'd still enjoy his movies if he hadn't been a hypocritical sleaze-ball.

          • Gibson has his problems, but I've never heard or read anything to suggest that he thinks he's holier than anyone else. Quite the contrary – I think he's pretty hard on himself. On what are you basing that accusation?

            No, I think if you want to find hypocrisy in Hollywood, as opposed to garden-variety (albeit spectacular) human weakness, you should look no farther than the pious activist types who preach to us all about reducing carbon footprints and consumption while living lifestyles lavish enough to feed thousands every year.

          • Well, that's very true. They don't bug me as much somehow, well, unless they get really in-your-face about it, like the PETA ones. Of course, I also ignore them so that might have something to do with it. :)

            I'm basing it on the church he founded/owns. I don't suppose he preaches in it, but owning an ultra-conservative church is a pretty strong message, I think. Mind you, it could also mean he's looking for the holiness that eludes him, but then why not just have a chapel in your mansion and hire in some preachers?

          • "I don't suppose he preaches in it, but owning an ultra-conservative church is a pretty strong message, I think. Mind you, it could also mean he's looking for the holiness that eludes him, but then why not just have a chapel in your mansion and hire in some preachers?"

            I think you're misinterpreting that quite drastically. Gibson, as I understand it, is what's called a "Sedevacantist": a former Catholic who believes the Pope is not the true successor of Peter. For this reason he started a church to practice according to the rites he believes should be followed, and he funded it for all those in the area who see things his way. It's not about thinking he is holy, it's about following through on some strange ideas he has.

            Here's an anecdote for you. My understanding is that in the Passion of the Christ (directed by Gibson) he also played one role on screen: the Roman soldier who hammers the nail into Christ's hand. You never see the guy's face. This holds a lot of symbolism for a Christian – if true, it suggests that he thinks of himself as one of the tormentors of Christ via things he has done throughout his life. Here's a quote attributed to him on the subject: ""I'm first on line for culpability. I did it."

            He's a weak man, as are we all, but I think it's wise to remember that many of us would probably do no better than he if we were deluged with heady fame, fortune, and women throwing themselves at us at every opportunity. That's a lot for anyone to manage while keeping their feet on the ground, their head on their shoulders, and their eyes fixed on eternity.

          • I'll take your word for the church thing. I admit I cannot understand people who firmly believe–to the point of funding a church for it–that one marries for life, that one doesn't have sexual relations outside of marriage, etc., "failing" to the point where he gets a divorce, lives with another woman and has a child by her. I mean, I understand how these things can happen. I myself married for life (before I got divorced and shacked up with another guy) and I think most divorced people thought they were marrying for life when they got married (unless they live in Hollywood). But I don't think my divorce or my current living arrangements are a sin. If I truly believed that, I can't see how I'd do it. I can see separating, and I can see having a night or two or three of "failure" resulting in a child, but I cannot understand the sinful divorce and the sinful living together.

          • "….but I cannot understand the sinful divorce and the sinful living together."

            I can. One of the benefits (?) of being a practicing Catholic is that one gains extensive first-hand experience with long-term failure. When the standards are high, the failures are even more spectacular.

          • Yep, hypocrisy is the inevitable result of idealism.

      • Jenn, there is a difference between being religious, and having a relationship with Jesus Christ. so please don't hold this against Christians. Also, even Christians can slip and fall. We are not perfect, and we try not to judge although i will admit it isn't always easy, Christian or not. Only Mel and Christ know his true relationship. But it is very sad that he has fallen so far. I believe that he needs a lot of prayer, as does his ex girlfriend, ex wife and children. This has to be hard on all of them. Also remember, there are two sides to every story, the recordings were all taped by Ms. Grigorieva, so she had the option of holding back…who is to say what she may have said or done if she were the one being secretly taped. It is just too bad that this whole thing had to be made so public.

        • Just Me, I don't care for organized religion. That said, I don't hold the actions of a member of a group against all members of that group. I hold the actions of a member against that member. I'm pleased to see what I assume are your religious tenets against judging others being adhered to by you–I just wish it didn't sound so much like an excuse.

          It's good to know you'll be praying for him, because Mel does need help.

        • "even Christians can slip and fall."

          Ya, and even those crazy atheists can be nice people too…

  6. Gives all aging men who fall for the younger tease something to think about. I think that he and she, got what they deserved, unfortunately the babe is an innocent in this egocentric couples life together.

  7. Mel is great and Oksana is a golddigging skunk. She provoked him. Mel will come back!

  8. re. – "Ari Emanuel—brother of Rahm, Obama's chief of staff"

    He is also the inspiration for Ari Gold on Entourage. I would have thought he would appreciate a good, expletive-laced rant. Will he end up hugging it out with Mel?

  9. I spent many years in the bar business, and whilst no student of human behaviour, I think that when people get drunk, all those repressed emotions become un-repressed. I f you are a violent drunk, you are probably a reasonable man when sober, but you are repressing the violence inside.

    So to me, Gibson is a violent, anti-semitic, racist boor.

  10. You know, a substantial number of people I encountered in my past dealings with organized religion seem to do a spectacular job at failing utterly at living up to what they preach. My best friend in school was deeply religious thanks to ma and pa, until she found out pa was living a double life with another woman for years and dumped them all upon the revelation of his "inadequacies" as a husband and father. I see criminal Pharisees tatted up with Bible messages, lawyers wearing the yarmulke whilst coking it up nightly, and bearded Muslims whoring and drinking themselves to oblivion all the while ascribing themselves to a set of values superior to the uninitiated. My family isn't particularly religious, yet they all have children, jobs, and good lives. The religious side? Jail, alcoholism, domestic violence, the works. I don't find it particularly difficult in my life to live a good one, but I attribute that in part to acknowledging the fallacy of religious thought as well as the unattainability of some of its tenets. I just don't find it difficult not to hurt my fellow man, but I constantly see an ease in this regard from the other side. I really don't get it.

  11. I have always loved Mel Gibson on films although some are a bit gory.
    Unfortunately. drink has done a real number on his brain and he's really sick. My advice to him would be to pay Ms Gregorieva the $400 milion for a divorce and clock in to rehab. From there maybe start communicating with Robyn.

  12. Oxana was a selfish plotting goldigging whore that pursed mel motivated by money,then tricked him into getting her pregnet so she would become rich on the chidsupport and never have to work again the man was married in the old days whores like that got what they deserved stoned to death,and now shes trying to sue that poor family for every cent she can get,mels wife should be sueing his whore.