Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The passion of Mel Gibson

He's been blacklisted for years. Will the world ever be ready to forgive him?

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Eight years after Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant during a drunk-driving arrest, Hollywood is debating the rehabilitation of an Oscar winner who was once one of the industry's most bankable stars.

The heated discussion was sparked by a March 12 opinion piece in Deadline Hollywood by Allison Hope Weiner, a freelance writer who covered Gibson's infamous spiral out of favour and now considers him a friend. Her appeal for an end to what she called a "quiet blacklisting" has generated more than 5,700 comments on Yahoo.com's movie page and more than 800 on the Deadline Hollywood site, which is read by many in the industry.

"He has been in the doghouse long enough," Weiner wrote. "It's time to give the guy another chance."

Gibson's movies, from Mad Max to Braveheart and Apocalypto, have grossed $3.6 billion, according to Rentrak Corp., providing an incentive for studios and agencies to consider absolution. His particular transgressions, and the number of them over the years, mean it's unlikely to come easy.

Forgiving Gibson "is not the same thing as forgiving Lindsay Lohan for partying too late," said Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, author of Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity and an associate professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "Anti-Semitism is not just behaving badly."

While the 58-year-old still directs and acts -- he recently completed production as a co-star with Sylvester Stallone on Expendables 3 -- major studios "are either wary of him or prefer not to work with him," said Michael Fleming, Deadline Hollywood's film editor. "I am surprised this has lasted this long. The guy has made a lot of people a lot of money."

The back-and-forth by commentators on Weiner's piece boils down to a bygone question in Hollywood: whether what someone says or does off screen, however repugnant, should have any effect on his fitness to make movies.

Gibson is a long-running case in point. The hits to his reputation aren't limited to those from his tirade about Jews being "responsible for all the wars in the world," delivered as he was arrested in 2006 in Malibu, Calif. In 2010, audiotapes of threats he made to his then-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva -- laced with racial epithets -- surfaced. The next year, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanour battery charge after a dispute with Grigorieva, the mother of his youngest child.

In 2004, he came under fire for what the Anti-Defamation League and others saw as anti-Semitism in The Passion of the Christ, a blockbuster he directed, co-produced and co-wrote. He reacted to a Frank Rich column about it in the New York Times by telling the New Yorker: "I want to kill him. I want his intestines on a stick. I want to kill his dog."

In 1992, he offended the gay community with remarks in a Spanish newspaper interview and later told Playboy he would apologize "when hell freezes over."

He did apologize after his Malibu arrest for what he said were his "vitriolic and harmful words," and after pleading no contest to a misdemeanour drunk-driving charge was sentenced to three years' probation.

Alan Nierob, a Rogers & Cowan publicist who represents Gibson, said his client should be allowed back in the fold. "People should know that he is now healthy once again, both physically and mentally, after suffering a breakdown," Nierob said. "He is an artistic genius, and the industry should benefit once again from his enormous talent."

Weiner, describing herself as an observant Jew, said in Deadline Hollywood that Gibson today "is clearly a different man, one who has worked on his sobriety since that awful night in Malibu." And the movie industry, she said, is hypocritical, willing to "work with others who've committed felonies and done things far more serious than Gibson."

She cited Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, who has been in the Hangover films. Gibson was dropped from a cameo in The Hangover Part II in 2010 after "a lot of people" working on the film protested, Todd Phillips told the Hollywood Reporter.

"Gibson has been shunned not for doing anything criminal; his greatest offences amount to use of harsh language," Weiner wrote in her more than 3,400-word piece. She said she chose to publish it on the 10th anniversary of The Passion of the Christ, which she described as "about an innocent man's willingness to forgive the greatest injustice."

The independent release grossed $612 million at the global box office, and Gibson personally made $210 million in 2004, according to Forbes. His fortune was estimated at $850 million by the Los Angeles Business Journal, and People magazine reported his 2011 divorce halved that.

In recent years, Weiner said, Gibson has befriended rabbis, attended Passover Seders and donated to Jewish causes. He invited to coffee the Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy who took him into custody in Malibu. He was at Weiner's son's bar mitzvah, where she said he charmed her family.

"My friendship with Gibson made me reconsider other celebrities whose public images became tarnished by the media's rush to judge," Weiner wrote. "Whether it's Gibson, Tom Cruise or Alec Baldwin, the descent from media darling to pariah can happen quickly after they do something dumb."

Hollywood is littered with stars who fell from grace -- Charlie Sheen after a rant against the producer of Two and a Half Men, Robert Downey Jr. after arrests for illegal drug use, Cruise after jumping on Oprah's couch and admonishing Brooke Shields for treating her postpartum depression with pharmaceuticals -- and who bounced back.

Downey, Gibson's co-star in Air America in 1990, has been among his staunch defenders. He asked that Gibson be on stage to present him with a life-achievement award from American Cinematheque in 2011, and said in his acceptance speech his friend deserved from Hollywood the same forgiveness it had afforded him. Gibson had helped revive Downey's career when he was considered uninsurable by paying his insurance bond for 2003's The Singing Detective.

Gibson rose to international fame with the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films and won Oscars in 1995 for best picture and best director for Braveheart, in which he also starred. He garnered acclaim for Apocalypto, about the end of Mayan civilization, which he financed through his Icon Productions. Walt Disney Co. distributed it.

Released five months after the Malibu arrest, it did well at the box office. "Say what you will about him -- about his problem with booze or his problem with Jews -- he is a serious filmmaker," wrote New York Times critic A.O. Scott.

One of Gibson's big hits as an actor before Malibu was Signs, a 2002 thriller by M. Night Shyamalan that grossed $228 million. One of his biggest flops ever was The Beaver in 2011, with Jodie Foster, which made less than $1 million in U.S. theatres, reported the Internet Movie Database.

He bypassed theatres with Get the Gringo in 2012, releasing it instead on pay-television. Last year, he was a co-star with Sheen in Machete Kills, which wasn't a critical or commercial success.

In Hollywood, "there are some who may forgive and some who never will," said Michael Sitrick, chairman and chief executive of Sitrick Brincko Group, a Los Angeles-based public relations and crisis-management firm that has represented rapper Chris Brown, baseball player Alex Rodriguez and socialite Paris Hilton. "It's not about spin. It has to be genuine."

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 23, 2014 A14

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