About 11 years ago, the bottom began to fall out for Mel Gibson.
In 2006, fans of the actor were stunned when details of his DUI arrest and subsequent anti-Semitic and misogynistic tirade were made public by TMZ, revealing that there were some serious issues bubbling just beneath the surface of the one-time People's Sexiest Man Alive winner. His marriage fell apart, some in Hollywood began writing him off, and yet his movies were still pulling respectable numbers at the box office.
Apocalypto, which debuted some six months after his arrest, grossed over $120 million worldwide, which is a feat when you consider it was ultra-violent, it didn't feature a word of spoken English or a single marketable star, and was directed by the man who'd just exposed his rather ugly worldview. He wouldn't appear on screen again until 2010's Edge of Darkness, which earned $81.1 million (on an $80 million budget).
It was immediately afterwards that the wheels fell all the way off.
Despite his participation in a self-help program and his apology blaming his 2006 tirade on a "moment of insanity," Gibson couldn't keep what that inner rage, as he described it to Diane Sawyer, buried within—or hidden from the world. By the time he was splitting from girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his eighth child, in the summer of 2010, a recording of the actor surfaced in which he could be heard delivering a heinously sexist and racist rant her way. Released to the world in a six-part series via Radar, the tapes, coupled with Grigorieva's accusation of domestic violence from an incident earlier that year (just as he was preparing to promote Edge of Darkeness, no less), once again put Gibson on Hollywood's blacklist.
And yet, here we are, on the opening weekend of Daddy's Home 2, with Gibson assuming a role in the Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg-fronted family comedy. And one that's awfully similar to his own at-times especially unpleasant public persona, to boot. So how did we get to the point where we're OK with him turning his dark past into a "joke"? It turns out Gibson's road to rebound was a bit like falling asleep: gradual, then all at once. It involved a handful of high-profile defenders, regardless of his actions. And it speaks volumes about Hollywood and its ability to overlook almost anything in service of a great redemptive narrative.
As Gibson faced down an LAPD investigation as a result of Grigorieva's allegation, to which he ultimately plead no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge in 2011, and Hollywood at large had turned its back on a man who appeared to have become toxic beyond repair (his agency WME dropped him like a hot potato the same just as the inflammatory 2010 tapes were released), it turned out that he had a few friends who refused to leave his side. Whoopi Goldberg refused to label him as a "racist" on The View, despite his use of racist slurs, while longtime pal Jodie Foster was the first to take a chance on Gibson,professionally, casting him in her 2011 film The Beaver. The film flopped, something Foster chalked up to it being a "dramedy" ("Very often Americans are not comfortable with [that,]" she told reporters at Cannes) and not the fact that no one was really in the mood to hand over some money to watch Gibson on the big screen.
During The Beaver's press tour, Foster never passed up an opportunity to defend Gibson, whom she met on the set of the 1994 film Maverick. "[The] Mel that I know, the man that I know, that I've known for a very long time as a friend, is an incredibly deep thinker," Foster told E! News in 2011. "He's somebody who's thoughtful and loyal and thinks about struggle and that's somebody who understands struggle in a very personal way.
"Surely people misunderstand when they don't know him at all. I mean, they don't know him at all, and why would you know a complete stranger? You don't. I mean, the only way that people know him is his beautiful work and what he brings to his work, and they know him by his professional reputation which is stellar."
"He's so incredibly loving and sensitive, he really is," she told The Hollywood Reporter the same year. "He is the most loved actor I have ever worked with on a movie. And he's not saintly, and he's got a big mouth, and he'll do gross things your nephew would do. But I knew the minute I met him that I would love him the rest of my life."
Despite Foster's unwavering support, Hollywood seemed to have made its mind up about Gibson, for the most part. In the ensuing years, he could only find work in VOD release-only films he wrote and produced himself (Get the Gringo) or when producers of B-movies like Machete Kills and The Expendables 3 were looking for stunt-casting to generate headlines for their films that wouldn't get much press otherwise.
And then in 2014, a sea change began. It started when, on the 10th anniversary of the release of The Passion of the Christ, journalist Allison Hope Weiner published a long op-ed on Deadline, pleading with Hollywood to take Gibson off the blacklist. "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," she ended her remarkably long defense of the man. "As one A-list star told me recently, 'Mel has spent enough time in the penalty box."
Later that year, Robert Downey Jr., a man who overcame struggles of his own to become one of Hollywood's biggest and most bankable stars, spoke candidly with Deadline about Gibson, as well. (It should be noted that when no one would hire Downey following his own troubles, Gibson helped him earn a role in the 2003 film The Singing Detective, which he was producing.) "Nobody should make a case for somebody who just wants forgiveness but hasn't changed, but he's a fundamentally different guy," Downey argued in defense of his pal. "I think it was just the very worst aspects of somebody's psyche being treated as though they were the blanket statement about a person. But honestly we are talking about a competitive business and it all comes down to this: because he is so gifted as a story teller and a director, I don't know that he requires some sort of mass forgiveness."
Cut to 2016 and the man's directed award season darling Hacksaw Ridge, earning him a 10-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival, gushing praise from his star Andrew Garfield, and a trip back to the Academy Awards—his first invitation since his damning DUI arrest a decade earlier—as Best Director nominee. (He lost out to La La Land's Damien Chazelle.) "I have nothing but love for him and pride in him not only as an artist and a filmmaker but also as a man and as a good friend," Garfield gushed to E! News earlier this year when Oscar nominations were announced. "I think it's a good sign that the Academy has acknowledged his work. It's utterly deserved, but it's a really good sign that finally the healing he's been doing internally and in his life and with the people in his life can finally be recognized on the outside as well. He's not going anywhere. He's been ready for this for a while."
So what is it that's allowed the man to go from blaming Jews "for all the wars in the world" and a no contest plea on a battery charge to starring in a family comedy in just over a decade? For all the time Gibson's defenders have spent proclaiming he's a changed man, markedly different from the man who in 2006 and 2010 spoke with such viciousness, it's not as though he'd never been down this road before. In 1991, during an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais, he shared some especially derogatory opinions of the gay community, opinions that, had social media existed then, would have probably stopped his career in its tracks. He defended his words during an appearance on Good Morning America, saying, "If someone wants my opinion, I'll give it." And during a 1995 interview with Playboy (where he also emphatically stated that men and women are not equal, while admitting he didn't understand the "point" of feminists), he said he would not apologize, as GLAAD had suggested. "I'll apologize when hell freezes over," he said. "They can f--k off."
And for all of his defenders, there are still those in Hollywood who share a slightly different opinion on the man. Winona Ryder, for instance, has one hell of a story to tell about her run-in with Gibson. "I remember, like, fifteen years ago, I was at one of those big Hollywood parties. And he was really drunk. I was with my friend, who's gay. He made a really horrible gay joke," she told GQ in 2010. "And somehow it came up that I was Jewish. He said something about 'oven dodgers,' but I didn't get it. I'd never heard that before. It was just this weird, weird moment. I was like, 'He's anti-Semitic and he's homophobic.' No one believed me!"
Is all it takes for the industry to overlook this laundry list of toxic behavior simply a period of time away, a few basic acts of contrition, and fellow industry leaders willing to, as in the slightly similar cases of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, separate "the art from the artist" as they sign up to work alongside him? In an industry that spends its time celebrating perfectly-crafted narratives, is the redemption arc, no matter how unlikely or undeserved, more important than the truth? And what does it say to the victims of Gibson's abuse over the years, as they watch his industry welcome him back with open arms, all sins forgiven? It stands to reason they're not getting over it as easily as his pals who claim to know the real Gibson are.
As more and more bad men are exposed on a seemingly daily basis, its how Hollywood responds to them once the furor has died down and the accused feels ready for another chance that will really speak to how this industry polices its own. If we forgive, but don't forget, should we also hand over our money, accolades, and respect, too? That question, it seems, remains more important than ever.