— That name “Mel Gibson,” used to mean one thing and one thing only: movie star. But at the moment it’s a name that carries more associations, most of them negative. To a fairly large cross-section of the moviegoing public, questions about him linger: Is he a misogynist? An anti-Semite? Racist? Homophobic? Abusive? An alcoholic? Just plain crazy? All — or maybe none — of the above?
The questions are legitimate. And there were early warning signs. At least as far back as 1992, Gibson went on record in the Spanish publication El Pais as having not very nice things to say about gays. Presumably other troubling views simmered somewhere inside him for several more years while the rest of the world was loving “The Patriot” and “Braveheart.”
Then his strange inability to say the right thing surfaced again in the controversy surrounding his film “The Passion of The Christ” and came to a rolling boil in the past few years as a widely publicized DUI arrest and drunken rant to police soiled his reputation.
Finally, the offensive statements made on tape to his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva as well as her allegations of physical abuse, made it look like the public’s love affair with their once-favorite movie star might be coming to a bitter end.
But now he’s back with an odd new movie, “The Beaver,” directed by his good friend Jodie Foster. He’s also participated in a couple of carefully worded mea culpa interviews, the first to Nikki Finke’s Deadline.com.
So what does this mean to the people who ultimately pay his salary, the moviegoing public? Does he need to be forgiven by people he doesn’t know and who don’t know him? And if so, how do fans approach this new, fractured version of the seemingly affable action hero they used to like unconditionally?
The answer is sort of remarkably simple. In fact, the forgiveness template has already been created, by the fallen famous before Gibson. There are steps to follow. And while some of them might seem like cynical moves on the parts of both the tainted celebrity and the easily distracted public, they’re mostly just human nature.
Step one: Watch them grovel
As Gibson embarks on his first tentative public steps, he follows men like Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant, Jesse James and Tiki Barber, all of whom approached the media with varying degrees of public contrition. As Gibson’s clinically depressed character in “The Beaver” presciently states, “Everybody loves a trainwreck as long as it’s not happening to them.” We like to watch the famous caught behaving badly and we also like to watch them beg for forgiveness. It has become its own bizarre form of sub-entertainment.
If, on some level, we secretly resent celebrities for having too much of everything, then this is how we make them pay. After that, we like to make good on that forgiveness. As a general rule, most people don’t want to be bothered by lingering grudges, especially against people who are almost abstract creatures, seemingly living inside the television or theater, fictional characters who are supposed to make us happy.
Step two: Forget about it
Sometimes, if you’ve done something everyone hates, you can skip the apologies and just live your life and eventually people will still come around. Time might not actually heal wounds, but it tends to soften everything.
Decades ago, Ingrid Bergman left Hollywood after having an affair and a baby with famed director Roberto Rossellini while they were both married to other people. Time passed and the public decided they didn’t care as much as they thought they did. Woody Allen married his former stepdaughter. Then time passed. And now nobody brings it up much anymore. Rob Lowe filmed himself having sex with teenage girls in the late 1980s. And now? Oprah interviews him in his Santa Barbara home next to his pizza oven and he’s a regular on the adorable sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” If Gibson can put a lock on his mouth, at least when he's talking to police or anyone who might be recording him, his actions will eventually start to slip from public consciousness.
Step three: Separate the artist from the art
Here's where Gibson, strangely enough, might have it a little easier. More than most movie stars, he is his films.
The films he's made over the past decade — whether he’s directing them or simply acting — amount to an obsessive’s diary of pain, rage, punishment, violence, sacrifice, redemption and misery. And now, so does the dark psychological comedy-drama “The Beaver.” This is a guy working out his demons in front of everyone who feels like buying a ticket to watch the exorcism.
“The Beaver” concerns a man thrown into a pit of clinical depression so severe that, in one scene, he literally flagellates himself like a Catholic penitent in order to feel anything at all. In a last ditch effort to save himself he begins wearing a beaver puppet on his arm, talking to his family and co-workers as the animal in a weird Michael Caine-like voice, creating a distancing new persona in the name of healing.
If moviegoers feel for Gibson's sharply troubled character in the film, suffering mental anguish he can't explain yet trying everything to heal himself, will that translate to sympathy for Gibson himself?
Filmed before Gibson’s meltdown and held from release for obvious reasons, "The Beaver" can now be read as the actor’s real life drama, a movie about climbing out of a pitch-black hole of despair and hoping you find a sympathetic hand to give you that one last leg up.
That hand, in this case, belongs to director Jodie Foster; the whole film feels like her strange, grace-filled gift to him. Now all Gibson needs is for audiences to decide that they want to watch him make that climb.