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Mel GibsonEverybody’s heard that Lord Byron was mad, bad and dangerous to know. But perhaps it’s not so well advertised that Caravaggio killed his opponent after a game of tennis by stabbing him through the femoral artery in a bungled castration attempt. Or that Bernini, on suspecting his mistress was having an affair with his brother, dispatched a bravo to slash her face to ribbons, then pulped his brother himself. Or that Naked Lunch author William Burroughs aimed his handgun at a water tumbler balanced on his wife’s head in a drugged-up game of William Tell and shot her in the face. Or that Picasso beat his mistress Dora Maar into unconsciousness and ground his lit cigarette into the cheek of his other mistress — Paloma’s mother, Francoise Gilot — when she refused to shack up with him.

Ok, so most people know Picasso was a monster. But the diabolical behaviour of countless celebrated artists is enough to make the recent escapades of Lindsay Lohan look like a comedy of manners. And Mel Gibson’s improprieties, by comparison, have him looking less like Cerberus and more like your garden-variety jerk. But while Caravaggio et al rest peacefully in the grave, their oeuvre elegantly segregated from their wicked lives, Gibson and co are being marched out of Hollywood. Perhaps LA is not a den of immorality after all.

Lohan is easy to dismiss, and if I knew more about her I would. But Gibson is a powerbroker. Despite his haggard appearance of late he’s an A-list actor, a two-time Academy Award winning director, a successful screenwriter, and president of Icon productions. Disposal would never be simple. But there was another problem. Before he was to be dishonorably discharged, Gibson and Jodie Foster (as director and co-star) made a little movie with what a reviewer in the Guardian thoughtfully described as a “giggly” title: The Beaver.

It must be said that Foster is terribly likeable and, it would seem, almost unanimously respected, but the films she has directed to date – Little Man Tate (1991) and Home for the Holidays (1995) – are a little bit twee. And that said, The Beaver’s premise– a man suffering from depression starts communicating to his family and work colleagues exclusively through a beaver hand-puppet – doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. So why are so many critics agreeing with the puppet when it says to Gibson: “I’m here to save your goddamn life”?

It’s a difficult question to answer because the final (here’s hoping) installment in Gibson’s charade as a train wreck has necessitated The Beaver remain in “a holding pattern” since filming wrapped in 2009. But in March 2011, the SXSW festival in Austin held an advanced screening with Jodie Foster and award-winning screenwriter Kyle Killen in attendance. Gibson took a hall pass due to a prior engagement at the LA Airport Court, where he pled no contest to misdemeanour battery of his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. (Incidentally Lohan appeared at the same Court the day before for her alleged jewelry-theft hearing.)

But the early Beaver reviews are glowing. “The moments between Walter and the beaver are genuine, heartfelt and contain some of the best acting Gibson has ever done,” as one critic enthused. But there’s something strange about the buzz surrounding The Beaver. Everyone’s running the same headline: “Can The Beaver Redeem Mel Gibson?” In fact Google returns over 26,000 hits for the question in direct quotes. To redeem is the American dream, but can a movie about a puppet really make you feel fuzzy about someone who’s just knocked in your front teeth? Or perhaps it’s just marketing elves at Summit clocking overtime.

Gibson’s fall from grace goes back to July 2006 when he was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol (he blew in at 0.12%) after being stopped for speeding in Malibu. Initially he was cooperative but became belligerent when handcuffed: “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” he told the arresting officer; at the police station he reportedly asked a female officer, “What are you looking at, sugar-tits?” Within hours, a four-page police report was leaked to the entertainment website TMZ.com. It quickly went viral. Gibson issued a general apology for his dangerous behaviour and a second apology addressed to the Jewish community for his “vitriolic and harmful words … blurted out in a moment of insanity.” He’s not an anti-Semite, he insisted. In a 2009 interview, however, Gibson denied using the term “sugar-tits” (he attributed it to the arresting officer) but wished he had coined it because it is funny.

In the end Gibson pled no contest for misdemeanour drunken driving. He was fined, had his license restricted, and was to attend an alcohol-abuse program and AA meetings for a year. While his friends loaned their public support — Patrick Swayze, Jodie Foster, and Robert Downy Jr among them — the head of Sony called for an industry boycott of Gibson, which was supported with hawkish denouncements from Endeavor, MCA and other heavy hitters.

But Gibson wasn’t finished. In May 2009 he divulged onthe Tonight Show with Jay Leno that he’d done “a hatchet job” on his 30-year marriage to Robyn Gibson and that Grigorieva, whom he’d met on the set of Edge of Darkness (2010), was pregnant with his eighth child. Gibson was clearly besotted with the Russian musician cum model. “My dark eyed beautiful little communist,” he dubbed her in text messages she would later submit to the family court to substantiate his unstable personality. “You conquered the monster in me with your love emanating from your truly beautiful heart and soul,” he slavered. Gibson extended the Cold War metaphor by calling himself her “capitalist pig”, presciently, perhaps, because the iron curtain was about to fall on their relationship.

According to Grigorieva, on 6 January 2011 Gibson punched her, choked her, and waved a gun at her while she was holding their two-month-old baby. The accusation, which came six months after the blowout, followed the leaking of seven expletive-laced audiotapes to RadarOnline.com. Among other things, Gibson threatens to burn down the house and bury Grigorieva in the rose garden. He calls her a bitch, cunt, whore, slut, gold digger, and berates her for falling asleep before “blowing him”. Radar also posted photographs of her with broken veneers. Gibson admitted that he slapped Grigorieva to stop her shaking Lucia, but he didn’t punch her. And he didn’t wave a gun, he said.

This time Hollywood was not swift to act. It wasn’t until Gibson got racial — “You look like a fucking bitch in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers, it will be your fault” — that he was dumped by the William Morris Agency. Apparently race trumps gender in Hollywood.

Why Grigorieva waited six months to file charges is unclear. Gibson’s legal team says it was because she was busy trying to extort their client for $15 million. She claims she was trying to work out their differences. In an interview on Larry King Live in November 2010 Grigorieva elaborates: “I stayed for a little bit too long,” she says. “I gave him [a] last chance. He asked me for the last chance. He begged. He cried. He cried on his knees. What am I supposed to do?”

What indeed. Grigorieva was up against an actor. Not any old actor, but one of the all-time great warrior actors. Mad Max, Fletcher Christian, Sgt Riggs, Porter, and William Wallace all rolled into one. Gibson owns these roles because he understands these men. He is one of them. His first instinct, he explains in a documentary on the making of Hamlet (1990), is to “scream and roar and yell”. He’s not good at compromising when people don’t see things his way: “I’ll let it brew, let it brew,” he says, “and try and figure out a way around it. And then when it doesn’t I just go up and choke them”. It’s a fault, he concedes.

Gibson is a master of unhinged aggression. Forever spoiling for a fight, he’s spent more screen time in the arms of men than women. He may not be sensitive but he is surprisingly emotional.

In fact, he’s a real crier. Gibson came of age as an actor in the 1980s when masculinity was under review. Men were being told they should cry, and Gibson showed them how to do it … and still be a badass. He turns on the tears in Lethal Weapon (1987), Hamlet (1990), Braveheart (1995), Ransom (1996), The Patriot (2000), We Were Soldiers (2002), and Signs (2002) and both men and women come unstuck.

Grigorieva’s mistake was to fall, like Gibson’s audiences do, for his tears. But it wasn’t her only mistake. In the audiotapes she commits the ultimate crime for a woman: she fails to cry. Worse, in the photographs documenting her broken veneers, she’s smiling. Grigorieva is unruffled in the face of Gibson’s fury, and his fans don’t like it. While Gibson was publicly flogged for his racist remarks, on the ‘woman issue’ the masses are aggressively backing Team Mel.

Besides sexism, fans might side with Gibson because he’s always getting bashed. Bruises and lacerations are central to his image, and pain buys him admiration, sympathy, and sex appeal. The more masochistic, the more manly. Pain is the whole point of Payback (1999) in which Gibson’s Porter is shot in the back, run over by a car, and beaten up by the mob, a Chinese gang, and the police. At Gibson’s suggestion Porter’s toes were smashed with a sledgehammer. Compared to Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis, and Johnny Depp who are always kicking the bucket, Gibson rarely dies on film (only four times in more than 40 movies). He does, however, hold the record for number of tortures.

Gibson’s characters are not only in danger from others, they’re a danger to themselves. In Lethal Weapon, Riggs sticks a gun in his mouth and contemplates pulling the trigger. “Riggs was suicidal,” director Richard Donner says, “Mel just fit the mode perfectly.” Donner wasn’t alone in thinking so. Franco Zeffirelli saw it and knew he’d found his Hamlet. Gibson’s simpatico with his suicidal characters is born of experience. In a 2004 interview Gibson confessed he’d recently “got to a very desperate place. Very desperate. Kind of jump-out-of-a-window kind of desperate. And I didn’t want to hang around here,” he said. “And I just hit my knees.”

And so this is where we find Walter Black at the opening of The Beaver: floating in a pool, arms outstretched, numb with self-loathing, his life feeling like it’s ended. Originally Steve Carrel, then Jim Carrey was slated to play the lead, but Walter is a Gibson role. Despite its quirky premise The Beaver is not a comedy, Foster insists. Turn by turn the story gets darker and more violent until Gibson renders Walter’s complete emotional collapse in a performance that is leaving critics stunned.

Caravaggio’s bad behaviour is a footnote to his work; for Gibson it’s the headline. How an artist can come back from disgrace in a society almost entirely restructured by technology is anybody’s guess. Words are no longer ephemeral, but orchestral: replayed on 24-hour news, transcribed, extracted, analysed, and satirised in video mash-ups and comic skits. The question is not whether we will forgive Gibson the things he’s said and done, but whether we – or he for that matter – will ever be allowed to forget.

First published under the title “Jury Still Out for Mad Mel” in Australian Literary Review (May 2011): 23.