ALLISON HOPE WEINER
It has been a decade since Mel Gibson made The Passion Of The Christ and watched it become the biggest-grossing independent film with $612 million in worldwide ticket sales. In the years that followed, Gibson made several comments that went public, made him seem anti-Semitic and racist. They made him persona non grata at major studios and agencies, the same ones that work with others who’ve committed felonies and done things far more serious than Gibson, who essentially used his tongue as a lethal weapon. As a journalist who vilified Gibson in The New York Timesand Entertainment Weekly until my coverage allowed me to get to know him, I want to make the case here that it is time for those Hollywood agencies and studios to end their quiet blacklisting of Mel Gibson. Once Hollywood’s biggest movie star whose film Braveheart won five Oscars and whose collective box office totals $3.6 billion, Gibson hasn’t been directly employed by a studio sincePassion Of The Christ was released in 2004.
The Gibson I’ve come to know isn’t a man who’ll shout from the rooftops that he’s not anti-Semitic, or hold a press conference to tell media those audiotapes were released as part of a shakedown, and that he never assaulted the mother of his infant daughter. He won’t explain to people that he first got himself into a career spiral because he’s a long struggling alcoholic who fell off the wagon and spewed hateful anti-Semitic remarks to an arresting officer who was Jewish. He won’t tell you that he’s still got a lot to offer Hollywood as a filmmaker.
The fact that he won’t jump to his own defense is part of his problem, but also part of why I have grown to respect him. That is why on the occasion of this 10th anniversary of Passion, a film about an innocent man’s willingness to forgive the greatest injustice, I propose to Hollywood that it’s time to forgive Mel Gibson. He has been in the doghouse long enough. It’s time to give the guy another chance.
For those who are skeptical, I understand. For the longest time, I disliked Gibson and thought he was a Holocaust-denier, homophobic, misogynistic, racist drunk. I wrote as much in articles for EW and the NY Times. And whenever I wrote about him, I would get irate calls from his representatives saying I didn’t know him.
Then something happened that I never expected. I came to rethink my harsh assessment after I got to know the man. It started when I interviewed him in 2006 for an EW cover. I could see that he was smart, expressing sincere empathy for the people he’d hurt. I had to admit to myself that I was impressed that he hadn’t shied away from answering my tough questions.
We next spoke when he was working on a script about Vikings with his Braveheart writer Randall Wallace. After that, we spoke occasionally on the phone and met for lunch at his Icon Production offices to discuss Get The Gringo. Our conversations were mostly about business, but would carry over to movies or books we liked, trips we’d taken. I liked how his mind worked. Like the movies he directs, the stories he told were incredibly visual. He never asked me for anything or tried to play me, and I’ve interviewed enough movie stars to know when they are working you. Gibson was unafraid to disagree with and challenge me. Our conversations broadened to family, our relationships, religion.
It developed into something that felt like friendship, which doesn’t often happen with investigative journalists and the subjects they cover. Odder still was that it happened with a man disdained by my colleagues, friends and my family, who, like me, are observant Jews. At this point, Gibson’s career had gone all kinds of wrong, starting with that 2006 DUI arrest, when he told that cop that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Four years later, he sounded positively unhinged and racist in surreptitious recordings of an angry phone exchange between Gibson and ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva — the mother of his infant daughter. The whole world heard him shout abusively at her and make racist remarks.
It was after the latter episode that my relationship with Gibson truly changed. It’s very difficult to get to know anyone in a journalistic context — one rarely gets any real insight into the person you’re interviewing. In Gibson’s case, this was particularly true. He wasn’t the kind of person to open up a vein and publicly plead for forgiveness as some do. But a conversation that came months after that changed our relationship.
I was on vacation with my family when Gibson called me. During his breakup with Grigorieva, he’d gone through a terrible emotional breakdown and struggled to get healthy, gain joint custody of his infant daughter and deal with the fallout from the publication of those awful tapes. He was in a very bad place and we talked for some time about how difficult it was for him to deal with the pain he’d inflicted on his family — his ex-wife Robyn and his seven children, his infant daughter. He got so upset talking about that period in his life that he ended our call abruptly. He’d shared some very deep, personal feelings with me and was in so much pain, that I was honestly worried about him. It wasn’t the type of conversation that one has with an interview subjects. I decided we were friends now and that I could no longer write objectively about him.
Since then, I’ve gotten to know Gibson extremely well. I thought it would be difficult for him to have a friend in the media, but he has been surprisingly honest and trusting. As a lawyer-turned-reporter, I have no problem asking tough questions, even of friends. Gibson never wavered or equivocated when I confronted him, whether the subject was his drinking, his politics, his religion or his relationships with women. It soon became clear that my early journalistic assessment of him wasn’t right.
This crystallized when we met each other’s families. It was hard to blame his family for being skeptical of a journalist, but the issues with my own family were more challenging. Gibson asked to meet them at my son’s bar mitzvah celebration. Imagine the scene: A room filled with Jews. In walks the person who, in their minds, might be the most notorious anti-Semite in America. Gibson attended alone and I can only imagine what was going through his head when he walked into the party.
Before the evening was over, he was chatting with many of my relatives, who saw a funny, kind, charming guy and not the demon they’d read about. Gutsier still, he attended our Yom Kippur break fast dinner. Anyone who has attended such a gathering knows there is nothing more imposing than making friends in a room full of Jews who haven’t eaten in 24 hours.
It might sound naïve after 20 years writing about celebrities, but my friendship with Gibson made me reconsider other celebrities whose public images became tarnished by the media’s rush to judge and marginalize the rich and famous. Whether it’s Gibson, Tom Cruise or Alec Baldwin, the descent from media darling to pariah can happen quickly after they do something dumb. I was part of that pack of journalists paid to pounce, so I know. I consider myself intelligent, someone who makes up her own mind, but just like readers do, I have accepted some reports at face value. The press said that based on Gibson’s statements, he was a homophobe, a misogynist, a bully, an ant-Semite, so he must be. What he was, I discovered, was an alcoholic whose first outburst was captured after he fell off the wagon. What the later release of audiotapes showed was a man with a frightening temper, capable of saying whatever will most offend the target of his anger.
I’ve discussed the Holocaust with Gibson and whether his views differed from those of his father. Just as he refused to condemn his father in that TV interview with Diane Sawyer, Gibson refused to discuss his dad with me. Similar to what he told Sawyer, Gibson told me that he believed that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. “Do I believe that there were concentration camps where defenseless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of course I do; absolutely,” he told Sawyer. “It was an atrocity of monumental proportion.” In our conversations, I took that a step further. Why, I asked him “did you say those things about the Jews starting all the wars? Where did those unkind things come from?” Gibson thought for a moment, then answered that he’d been terribly hurt by the very personal criticism of him from the Jewish community over The Passion Of The Christ. He said that while he’d been criticized for films before, this was personal and cruel. He said that when he drinks, he can be a mean drunk and “Stuff comes out in a distorted manner…” His own faith led him to make his version of Christ’s story, and he found himself being attacked for making a film that might get Jews killed, and that he was insensitive that his depiction of Jews as Christ’s killer could inflame religious tensions. He was called names by numerous Jewish leaders and a few people literally spat on him. “The criticism was still eating at me,” he told me. “This was a different kind of hammering. A very personal attack.”
Based on my exchanges with Gibson and my own reporting on his transgressions, I’ve stopped doubting him. He worked in Hollywood for 30 years without a single report he was anti-Semitic. Before that drunken evening in July 2006, he worked all the time with producers, directors, actors and crew who happened to be Jewish, without incident. But, even if I accept the comments from those who believe his drunken remarks tapped into some deep-seated anti-Semitism back then, the Gibson I know now is clearly a different man, one who has worked on his sobriety since that awful night in Malibu.
Gibson would later tell me that he was grateful the officer pulled him off the road that night because he might have killed someone else or himself. He felt so badly for verbally attacking LA County Sheriff’s Deputy James Mee that night that he later asked him out for coffee to personally apologize. Like many things he does, Gibson never publicized that.
I am not nominating Gibson as an altar boy. It takes a certain kind of person to make movies with the intensity of Braveheart, The Passion Of The Christ, andApocalypto. As I’ve seen with other temperamental stars, there is a wildness in his blue eyes, an electricity that is part of what has made him a big movie star and a great director. One has only to interview the man to see that there’s something a little different in how he sees the world. He’s intense and rash, and he struggles with alcoholism. Despite the Australian bravado, and the crude humor, he is actually quite sensitive to criticism, even if he doesn’t publicly challenge or deflect it.
In his second apology on the anti-Semitic statements, Gibson promised to reach out to Jewish leaders. Gibson followed up by meeting with a wide variety of them. He gave me their names when I asked, but Gibson asked me not to publish them because he didn’t want them dragged into public controversy or worse, think he was using them. The meetings were not some photo op to him, he told me, but rather his desire to understand Judaism and personally apologize for the unkind things he said. He has learned much about the Jewish religion, befriending a number of Rabbis and attending his share of Shabbat dinners, Passover Seders and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur dinners. I believe that effort, along with our conversations, helped him understand why Jewish people reacted as they did toThe Passion Of The Christ and why there was Jewish support for the Second Vatican Council. Gibson has quietly donated millions to charitable Jewish causes, in keeping with one of the highest forms of Tzedakah in the Jewish faith, giving when the recipient doesn’t know your identity.
Gibson went well beyond a mea culpa tour. He came out of that experience determined to film the Jewish version of Braveheart. He set at Warner Bros a film about Judah Maccabee, who with his father and four brothers led the Jewish revolt against the Greek-Syrian armies that had conquered Judea in the second century B.C. That seminal story is celebrated by Jews all over the world through Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Gibson planned to direct, but the effort was undermined by the decision to hire Joe Eszterhas to write it. The screenwriter’s penchant for making public spectacles of private matters (he famously leaked a conversation when he said ex-agent Mike Ovitz threatened him), and Gibson’s unwillingness to publicly defend himself, doomed the film.
After Eszterhas traveled to Gibson’s Costa Rica estate to discuss a draft he’d written, things got ugly. I’ve heard from sources at Warner Bros that Eszterhas turned in a shoddy script that was rejected. Gibson was upset, the writer’s son taped the outburst and Eszterhas leaked a nine-page memo to a website happy to take his side. Eszterhas said he did all this for reasons that ranged from persuading Gibson to get help to protecting the Jews and Gibson’s estranged girlfriend from his violent rage. Was it possibly a convenient smokescreen to obscure taking a studio paycheck and not putting in the work, or maybe something more, since the writer turned the episode into a windfall when he used the controversy to get an e-book deal?
Gibson will never win in some quarters, but his penchant for not hitting back makes him the dictionary definition of a good punching bag. I’ve observed hypocrisy in several examples where Gibson was vilified. For instance, when agent Ari Emanuel wrote a column for the Huffington Post urging Hollywood to shun Gibson, the actor’s longtime agent, Ed Limato, told me that Emanuel tried to poach Gibson as a client as recently as when The Passion Of The Christ was released. “For some people in my business to publicly try to destroy Mel Gibson because of this incident the other night I find very hypocritical,” Limato told me, “since I know Ari and a few others, who even after The Passion Of The Christhave been calling Mr. Gibson and trying to entice him to their agency as a client weekly.”
While talent including director Roman Polanski (drugged and sodomized a minor, and fled), Mike Tyson (rape conviction), Chris Brown (beat up ex-girlfriend Rihanna), T.I. (weapons charge), and many others are repped by major agencies, no agency has touched Gibson since Emanuel discharged him as a WME client after those tapes surfaced and he used the “N” word. Gibson has been shunned not for doing anything criminal; his greatest offenses amount to use of harsh language.
I’ve spoken to numerous colleagues who forgave Gibson for his anti-Semitic remarks (that list includes Dean Devlin, Mike Medavoy and Richard Donner) and they are quick to remind you who Gibson helped along the way. Start with Robert Downey Jr, who at one point was broke and an insurance risk on films. Gibson put up the insurance bond himself to secure Downey to star in The Singing Detective, which Gibson’s Icon produced. It was a performance that ignited the actor’s resurgence. I know that he also helped Britney Spears when she hit bottom, and that he tried to save Whitney Houston from the drug abuse that ultimately killed her. Not everybody is that generous: when Gibson himself needed a break that came when Warner Bros hired him for a showy role in The Hangover Part II, he was abruptly dropped when cast complained to director Todd Phillips. Mind you, these same actors happily worked with Tyson despite his felony conviction for rape.
I don’t bring all this up to excuse anything Gibson has done wrong, but sometimes it’s worth a closer look. Take the notorious audiotapes released during his row with ex-girlfriend Grigorieva. From my own investigation of the incident, I am persuaded Gibson did not beat her or give her a black eye. I base this on interviews with her lawyer and the deputy district attorney who handled the case. Gibson admitted to “tapping” Grigorieva on the head during an argument in which she shook their infant daughter. This was at a time when Gibson was going through an emotional breakdown, and Grigorieva capitalized on that by secretly taping their calls in an effort to shake money out of him.
On March 11, 2011, Gibson was charged with misdemeanor battery and pleaded no contest, without admitting guilt. I covered the case for Newsweek (before Gibson and I crossed the friendship line). The L.A. District Attorney’s office determined that Gibson was responsible for misdemeanor assault but that there was also evidence of extortion by Grigorieva. “There is no question there was admissible evidence of extortion,” former Deputy District Attorney John Lynch said at the time. “The problem, however, was whether the D.A. could get a jury to convict.” Lynch added, “As a practical matter, you have to choose between the two cases. In the one case of domestic abuse, the victim could potentially be a defendant in the other case of extortion. If we’d filed an extortion charge against Ms. Grigorieva and tried to call her as a witness in the domestic abuse case, no defense attorney on the planet would allow her to answer questions.”
Although the police initially contemplated charging Gibson with a felony, they declined. As one investigator with knowledge of the case told me at the time, “they had enormous problems with the credibility of the complaining witness [Grigorieva].” This statement was also confirmed by sources within the District Attorney’s office.
I’ve since learned from Gibson about his personal spiral that occurred between his 2006 DUI arrest and the breakup with Grigorieva. The day after the DUI, Gibson’s wife asked him to leave the family home. Gibson was suddenly single and alone for the first time in 30 years, cut off from his seven children and wife as he struggled to stop drinking. He was depressed and lonely, his career in shambles as he apologized to anyone who’d listen. Alone in a new house, he tried to stay off the sauce. It was then that he met Grigorieva, a Russian pianist who’d dated composer David Foster after being married to actor Timothy Dalton.
The relationship got rocky when Gibson asked her to sign a co-habitation agreement. Shortly after, according to published emails, Grigorieva began arguing with Gibson about whether he would provide for her if they split. This intensified after the birth of their daughter in October 2009, when she began taping the recordings that she allegedly leaked to the press despite a judge’s order. Those recordings revealed a man in personal turmoil. While they contain racist and misogynistic statements, there is also evidence that the comments she made to provoke those statements were conveniently edited out. No matter. You can’t make any of what he said OK, and Gibson paid a price much higher than whatever monies Grigorieva walked away with. Whatever good will Gibson had in Hollywood evaporated.
I’ve asked him why he didn’t defend himself when the tapes surfaced. Why didn’t he challenge the assertion he was crazy? He shrugged his shoulders and said his comments just seem to make things worse. So he continues to say nothing.
Hollywood has long been a town famous for loving a good comeback story. In Gibson’s case, I believe that a few powerful people have gone out of their way to prevent that.
I’m telling you, my friend Mel Gibson has pulled himself together. He is sober seven years, hitting the gym for a role in an independent film, and thinking positively about the future. It has been 11 years since he was paid by a major studio to star in a film, and he hasn’t directed a studio film since Braveheart won five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. He wasn’t the bad person I thought he was back when I first wrote about him, and I’m telling you, he is now not the person you think he is. As one A-list star told me recently, “Mel has spent enough time in the penalty box.”
So how about it, Hollywood?