While Will Smith timidly returned to public life last week – keeping a low profile and apologizing for the umpteenth time for slapping Chris Rock during the Oscars – Mel Gibson has just released his sixth feature film of 2022. Despite having been accused of abuse and racism on numerous occasions, his career hasn’t slowed down.
Gibson’s latest film – On the Line – has been a critical and commercial failure. But that doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s already preparing to direct and star in the fifth installment of the Lethal Weapon franchise, scheduled to be released next year on HBO Max. Gibson has also signed up to star in a prequel to the John Wick saga.
In 1996 – after writing, directing, producing and starring in Braveheart – Gibson took home two Academy Awards, in the categories of Best Picture and Best Director, marking the zenith of his career before an avalanche of scandals ensued.
Gibson spent many of the post-Braveheart years taking refuge in the roles of villains, action heroes, buffoons and seducers. None of these performances have earned him much praise… but they’ve allowed him to make a lot of money, while escaping critical scrutiny.
From the late-1990s until the mid-2000s, Gibson’s alcohol-fueled temper dragged him along a trail of self-destruction. He admitted to having assaulted Oksana Grigorieva – the mother of his eighth child – and, on a leaked audio recording, was heard threatening to kill her. He also made slurs against Black people on another recording. In 2006, he was arrested for drink-driving, making anti-Semitic comments to the officers while they handcuffed him. A police surveillance camera captured his entire tirade for the world to see.
Despite being on the receiving end of a reputational bludgeoning, Gibson was determined to make his way back to the spotlight. He took whatever role he was offered – few prominent actors or directors were initially willing to work with him.
“The same thing that happened to Mel Gibson happened to actors like John Travolta or Bruce Willis,” says Erich Schwartzel, an entertainment journalist with The Wall Street Journal. “After huge success, they end up halfway between conventional and low-budget productions that take advantage of their fading notoriety.” Gibson’s controversial past, however, complicated matters even further.
But he wouldn’t be doing cheap flicks forever. Several Hollywood observers predicted that, eventually, Gibson would be back in high-budget productions, with aspirations for another Oscar.
In Vulture, journalist Kevin Lincoln wrote: “For the right people, the Academy can be an incredibly forgiving bunch. Despite spending decades in exile to escape a rape conviction, Roman Polanski won Best Director at the 2003 Oscars, to huge applause at the ceremony.”
Gibson’s powerful friends helped rehabilitate him. In the extensive profile dedicated to him by Vanity Fair in 2011, film historian Peter Biskind pointed out that some of the Hollywood types who were (and still are) close to Gibson – Jodie Foster, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert Downey Jr., or his partner in Lethal Weapon, Danny Glover – managed to get him some work a few years after his DUI arrest. Foster gave him a leading role in her psychological drama, The Beaver (2011). When questioned about her casting choice, she said that Gibson was the man she most loved in the film world and denied that he was racist or sexist.
For his part, Downey Jr. – at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles in 2011 – asked for public forgiveness on behalf of the actor, because “whoever is free from sin is in the wrong industry.” Gibson was also very supportive of the Iron Man actor when he was being treated for addiction.
The Braveheart star also gave up alcohol during this rehabilitation. And, in 2012 – as part of his ex-partner’s abuse trial – a judge ordered him to undergo anger management therapy.
All of this seemed to work. At the 2017 Academy Awards – barely 11 years after his arrest – Gibson was nominated for Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge. He had made it back to the promised land.
In an article co-written with fellow journalist Ben Fritz, Schwartzel wondered why Hollywood had decided to pardon Gibson. Money certainly seems to have played a part. Ari Emanuel – who dropped Gibson after his anti-semitic tirade – eventually reconciled with his former client but only after Gibson gave another star he represents, Mark Wahlberg, a role in the 2022 comedy Father Stu.
The #MeToo movement, shockingly, has also helped to bolster Gibson’s public image. In 2017, during a press conference to promote the comedy Daddy’s Home, alongside Will Ferrell and Wahlberg, Gibson answered a question about Harvey Weinstein, which was well-received by audiences shocked by revelations about the serial sex abuser who had controlled much of Hollywood for the past 30 years: “My heart goes out to the victims, I’m glad they spoke up. A lot of light has been shed on places where there were shadows… that’s something healthy.” He described hearing about the abuses as “painful.” As of 2022, Gibson has also offered to testify against Weinstein at ongoing rape trials.
Still, despite Hollywood having welcomed back the Braveheart star, some aspects of his character don’t seem to have changed over the years. For example, in an interview with EL PAÍS in 1991, Gibson insulted gay people. Around the same time, when Winona Ryder told Gibson that she was Jewish, he immediately made a joke about “gas chambers.” 29 years later, he released a documentary about his father, Hutton Gibson, an ultra-Catholic Holocaust denier, who died in 2020.
The last significant controversy that the star was involved in took place in 2021, when he saluted former President Donald Trump at a boxing match. His action was widely cheered by far-right media.
While attending a panel organized by The Atlantic, actor Joshua Malina – best known for his role in television series The West Wing – was asked about the news that Gibson would be taking charge of the next movie in the Lethal Weapon franchise: “It may be time to stop publishing op-eds about the power of ‘cancel culture,’ because if [Gibson] can continue to find money and approval in Hollywood, ‘cancel culture’ simply doesn’t exist.”
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