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.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.