— I’ve never been the type to throw things at the television screen out of anger. But I’ll admit I did shout something nasty at my TV when I caught Mel Gibson yukking it up with Jay Leno and calling himself “Octo-Mel” since his pregnant girlfriend is carrying his eighth child.
My anger, of course, was directed at Gibson’s hypocrisy. Not so long ago, Gibson was the world’s best-known Traditionalist Catholic, talking about his preference for the old-style teachings of Vatican I (no divorce, no Russian girlfriends while still married). These days, he’s not yet divorced and living the kind of life he preached against. What’s worse is that Gibson seems unrepentant, to use church lingo. Even publicity mongers Jon and Kate Gosselin seemed more chastened when confronted with their alleged indiscretions. And that’s saying something.
Five years ago Gibson co-produced, co-wrote and directed, “The Passion of the Christ,” a film he said his beliefs inspired him to make. Back then, he spent a lot of time talking about his “spiritual journey,” not cracking jokes on late-night TV. Gibson’s zealotry turned some people off (especially the media tastemakers), but he stood his ground despite some very vocal criticism.
Gibson put up his own money to get “The Passion of the Christ” made, and then couldn’t find a distributor because of the film’s graphic goriness and claims by the Anti-Defamation league that it was anti-Semitic. Still, he did his best to quiet the naysayers and got his vision of the Crucifixion onto the big screen. It went on to be the top grossing film of 2004 and one of the biggest in the country’s history.
Gibson had no qualms about telling people that the topic of his film — the Crucifixion of Jesus — was a huge deal to him, and should be to all of us. As he said to Reader’s Digest: “I wanted to impress on the viewers the enormousness of this sacrifice, the willingness — and the horror of it. I wanted to overwhelm people with it.”
It’s an American tradition to champion people who overcome obstacles, so Gibson’s story struck a chord with a lot of people, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with his views. But there’s also an American tradition of despising hypocrites, especially religious ones. That meme was popularized by author Sinclair Lewis in 1927, when he drew on real life examples to paint a vividly disturbing portrait of a religious charlatan in his classic novel “Elmer Gantry.”
Celebrities and scandals
Gibson has now become a modern Elmer Gantry. Forget Vatican I, the new Vatican still says adultery and out-of-wedlock births are a no-no. Oh, and if Mel gets remarried, that marriage won’t be recognized unless he gets the first annulled. Strike three! Mel’s out!
Gibson’s indiscretions are somewhat similar to those of Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker, the TV preachers of the 1980s whose careers were brought down by sex scandals. Although their situations seemed more serious than Gibson’s because they were televangelists, they were not taken seriously by the majority of the public. Gibson, on the other hand, has movie star power and reached more people with “The Passion” than they ever did, since it was a worldwide hit.
Like them, he also didn’t walk it like he talked it. In 2004, the New York Daily News reported that Gibson “has spoken out against the reforms of Vatican II (and) promoted his anti-abortion and anti-divorce views.”
What’s different this time around is the reaction from the media. Since Gibson had more influence, his fall from grace should be a lot worse. You’d think someone, somewhere, in medialand might have called him on being, you know, a phony. Hell, David Letterman was tougher grilling Paris Hilton over her stint in jail than Leno was with Gibson, who violated the very Catholic tenets he supposedly stood for.
But it’s not the 1980s anymore, and celebrity now trumps morality when it comes to wrongdoing. Had Bakker and Swaggart been around today, they probably would have gotten to spin a reality show out of their scandals, instead of sobbing on the idiot box.
It’s the same with politicians. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was at the center of a political scandal last year, but now he’s writing opinion pieces for the Washington Post and Slate, and everyone is behaving as if nothing ever happened.
Turning religion into money
All of which makes me wonder if Mel Gibson’s passion for “The Passion of the Christ” was ever sincere. Or was he just in it for the money, like a better-looking, more articulate version of those cheesy TV preachers? Proselytizing is one thing; it’s part of many religions. Profiteering is another.
Also, when anyone who is religious seems too exhibitionist, it throws the purity of their intentions into doubt. After all, one of the most popular passages of the New Testament admonishes making a show of your religion.
Gibson supposedly found religion nearly 20 years ago and had said it straightened up his wild life as a movie star. But his religious beliefs suddenly surfaced in public about the time he had a film to promote. They sure don’t seem to be on the front burner now that he’s heating it up with a new girlfriend on the side.
The crude anti-gay comments Gibson made back in 1992 didn’t seem to hurt his career. And when Gibson went on an alcohol-fueled, anti-Semitic tirade after his drunk driving arrest in 2006, conservative commentator Michael Medved (who is Jewish) seemed willing to forgive him, if grudgingly. But you wonder if the millions of people who shelled out money to see “The Passion of the Christ” will be as forgiving.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe “The Passion of the Christ” was just “product” to Mr. Gibson, and should be considered something of a spiritual kin to Paris Hilton’s reality show “The Simple Life.” Pun intended.