Mel Gibson's New Movie Just Got a 10-Minute Standing Ovation--but Can He Ever Really Be Back?

Hollywood's long yet short memory and why this doesn't mean the onetime blockbuster movie star and Oscar-winning director's sins are forgiven

By Natalie Finn Sep 06, 2016 9:15 PMTags
Mel Gibson, Venice Film FestivalAndreas Rentz/Getty Images

Does time really heal all wounds?

It's been 10 years since Mel Gibson was arrested for DUI and spewed anti-Semitic vitriol, giving the cops an up-close-and-personal glimpse at some real deep-rooted issues (not least of which was his alcohol problem). Then TMZ got a hold of the details and...

Just like that, a storied, Oscar-winning career as an actor and filmmaker was stopped almost dead in its tracks.

Well, sort of. He was persona non grata around respectable mainstream water coolers, but his epic Apocalypto, which came out about six months after his DUI debacle, actually fared fairly well at the box office, at least as far as a two-plus hour, intensely violent film starring unknown actors and shot entirely using Mayan dialect, directed by a guy who'd belligerently said the Jews were "responsible for all the wars in the world," is concerned.

That being said, he wasn't actually in another movie until 2010, and he hasn't exactly been a frequent fixture on the big screen since 2006.

Celebrity Comebacks

After Edge of Darkness came out in 2010 and made a respectable $101 million at the box office, however, Gibson seemingly blew up his career all over again when he was recorded ranting and raving at Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his eighth child, screaming profanities and racial slurs that ensured if he had left any group not offended before, he remedied that with those recordings. The tapes were memorably leaked to Radar Online, which released them in six parts, each featuring Gibson saying something repellent.

Grigorieva also accused him of domestic violence in court papers and ultimately Gibson pleaded no contest in 2011 to a misdemeanor battery charge, later clarifying that it wasn't an admission of guilt, but short of continuing to battle for years he opted to "take the hit and move on."

Giulio Marcocchi/Sipa Press

Ex-wife Robyn Gibson had given a statement to the court that she had never been abused by Mel. Meanwhile, Grigorieva's motives and the validity of her claims were the subject of much scrutiny; she ended up with joint custody of their daughter, Lucia, a $750,000 settlement, and a house to live in until Lucia is 18. Grigorieva later sued her attorneys for counseling her into a bad deal.

Regardless, Gibson was understandably Scumbag Zero once again in the eyes of the masses and longtime agency William Morris Endeavour Entertainment cut ties when the tapes came out. Hence his even lighter work load since then.

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And now, five years later (and 10 since his media-landscape-altering DUI), just as the discussion over what the "fair" or "correct" response to Nate Parker's much-lauded historical epic The Birth of a Nation is in light of the fact that he was acquitted of rape as a college student and his accuser later committed suicide, and as we struggle with how to look at Johnny Depp in light of Amber Heard's domestic violence allegations, we're once again talking about Mel Gibson and whether it's OK to watch his work and if that's the same thing, or should be considered the same thing, as "forgiving" him, or "moving on" from what he said, what he did and what he was accused of doing.

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But why is this a conversation again? We didn't really have it when he starred in longtime pal Jodie Foster's film The Beaver, or when he popped up in Expendables 3.

Well, apparently it's time to talk because his latest directorial effort, the World War II-set Hacksaw Ridge, reportedly received a 10-minute standing ovation following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. That, coupled with his buzzed-about turn in the Taken-esque Blood Father, has people bandying about the word "comeback."

In Hacksaw Ridge, Andrew Garfield plays a sworn pacifist who refuses to bear arms in WWII but instead saves lives as an army medic on the front lines. According to early reviews and reception, it's mercilessly violent but also makes a strong statement about peace. How about that, from Mel Gibson!

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Asked in Venice how he would characterize his current relationship with Hollywood, Gibson quipped at a news conference, "Survival."

He said that he hoped he was getting better and more at ease with his craft with age, but admitted, "Sometimes you take this big step backwards. I've done it. You do something good, and then you do something not quite as good, for one reason or another. Maybe it's where you are in your life."

He was referring to movies, for the most part, but the same could be said about his personal mistakes and their effect on his career, namely the "big step backwards" part.

But here we are, and with Gibson getting a bunch of tentatively positive press.

Danny Martindale/GC Images

So we're going to venture that there's no real such thing as a true-blue comeback for Mel Gibson. No matter how many movies he has in his future, or even if he wins an Oscar when he's 69, as Roman Polanski did in 2002 for The Pianist (26 years after the European filmmaker fled the United States fearing he'd be thrown in prison for statutory rape after he sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl), there's never going to be a time when Gibson isn't inextricably linked to the things he said and did.

He'll never just be Mad Max, or just the Aussie star of the Lethal Weapon franchise, or just the tartan-sporting Oscar-winning director of Braveheart—or even just the director of the controversial Passion of the Christ—ever again. And nor should his behavior be forgotten, because the hideous things he said needed talking about and the people he hurt—whether personally or peripherally—deserve the right to cast him aside like the irredeemable jerk they've felt he is for however long now.

But as for whether he should even be eligible for accolades like standing ovations, or any praise in general at all, as he's perfectly free to keep making movies...

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As anyone who counts himself a Woody Allen fan or who never misses a Polanski film can relate—or, perhaps, for those who still really want to see The Birth of a Nation because of or in spite of the Parker controversy—that's a loaded question. For some, the answer about Gibson has always been a firm no, he's done. For others, what seems like a strong no one day turns into a, "well, I don't know...maybe?" on another. Still others have always blamed Gibson's behavior on the drinking, and have been more forgiving, or even figured that people say things sometimes that don't reflect who they are inside.

What we've seen is that no one—or not enough people, anyway—feel the need to definitively answer the should-they-go-away-forever question. Because it gets in the way—of how we used to feel, of what we thought we knew, and of what we're hoping is or isn't the truth moving forward. Aside from that, most people just want to go to the movies, and despite these pseudo-personal relationships we've formed with celebrities, we're never more detached from reality than when we're asked to judge, one way or another.

AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Very famous friends of Gibson's, including Jodie Foster, Robert Downey Jr. and Whoopi Goldberg, have defended the man behind the headlines all along. And it's not as if he hasn't worked at all until now. He's also appeared multiple times at the Golden Globes—Ricky Gervais always made sure we noticed when he was there—and he was at Foster's table when she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award in 2013.

On the flip side, Gibson has not been at the Oscars since his 2006 DUI, a sign that the heights of the establishment have found no use for him since his anti-Semitic tirade. The more forgiving-seeming Hollywood Foreign Press, which puts on the Globes, may have just been more tickled by the idea of having a walking controversy in their midst in later years.

But if the buzz surrounding Hacksaw Ridge continues to build, and this standing-O wasn't just a pre-awards-season fluke, that could change. And once again we could be faced with the ubiquity of a guy who screwed up more than most—one who offended millions with his bigoted remarks and made himself not only a late-night punchline but a pariah among entire communities—back in the fold.

We ask, does time really heal all wounds? Or rather, particularly when it comes to the convoluted business of celebrity, does it just do its best to patch up a wound and hope that the scar doesn't show too much?