/ 20 July 2010

Lethal weapon

‘He wasn’t as nice as he was on film,” Mel Gibson once conceded of William Wallace. “We romanticised it a bit, but that’s the language of film — you have to make it cinematically acceptable. Actually, he was a monster …”

And so to the latest episode in the life of Mel, whose hugely successful stock in trade is playing wild-eyed characters with an undercurrent of danger, who are often driven to reckless behaviour by being cut off from their loved ones.

The details are only partially confirmed, but the actor is locked in a custody battle with his former partner, Oksana Grigorieva, with whom he has an eight-month-old daughter, and Los Angeles police confirmed he is under investigation for domestic violence. According to the website Radar Online, Oksana has lodged tape recordings with the family court in which Mel reprises his previous work in the field of causing offence.

In one he is reported to explain that he punched her while she was holding the baby because “you fucking deserved it”. “You look like a fucking pig in heat,” he observes in another, adding that it will be Oksana’s fault should she be raped by a pack of N-words, though I need hardly add that Mel declines to fig-leaf the racist epithet. He has also declined to dispute the veracity of any of the recordings.

Once again, the suspicion is that the aspect of his movie characters for which Mel has to really strive is not the latent insanity — he hasn’t been playing with a full set of rosary beads for a few decades now — but the aspect that has made them sympathetic to audiences down the years.

His reported comments have drawn condemnation from African-American leaders, although one obviously doesn’t need to be black to be vaguely turned off by Mel’s aperçus. Indeed, one didn’t need to be Jewish to cavil with his comment, made to the officers who arrested him for drunk driving in 2006, that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”. And one needn’t be a resident of Malibu to take issue with his warning to the same law enforcement agents that “I own Malibu”. Mel’s is an equal-opportunities repulsiveness, and we mustn’t shut out anyone from taking offence on anyone else’s part.

Will he survive this? Hollywood may be a small town, but on past form you wouldn’t bet on Mel being made its outlaw. He may be its loner — witness the fact he built a private church compound up in Malibu’s Agoura Hills — but it didn’t take long after the antisemitic driving-under-the-influence business before he was back on the talk shows with his Mayan epic Apocalypto being garlanded. (It naturally helps if your loner movies make money, like Mel’s earlier weirdo vanity project The Passion of the Christ.) So although there’s an argument that this latest business will be the last straw, I’d say Mel will go on.

A more intriguing question is whether his audience will accept the uncomfortable truth that his offscreen unpleasantness is inextricable from his onscreen charisma. Through the alchemy of celluloid, the one becomes the other.

From Greta Garbo to Cary Grant, the most successful movie stars have pretended to be other people while at the same time being essentially themselves — and Gibson came to prominence playing distinctly unstable sorts. Mad Max, Gallipoli, Mad Max II, The Year of Living Dangerously — it’s a shtick he’s modulated slightly, but it persists through the Lethal Weapons, Braveheart, Ransom, Payback, all the way to this year’s Edge of Darkness.

‘Hollywood is a factory,” he once said. “You have to realise that you’re working in a factory and you’re part of the mechanism. If you break down, you’ll be replaced.” You certainly used to be. In The Star Machine, her wonderful book on the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, Jeanine Basinger says of Gibson’s off-screen troubles: “He would have been shut down in the old days.”

Yet our anti-hero always seems to ride again, because in some publicly inadmissable but indisputable way, Gibson’s little episodes are the opposite of breakdowns. They are his conforming to type. Whether he is to your taste as a performer or not is irrelevant: he has been one of the world’s most successful movie stars for 30 years because audiences know what they are getting — and they like it. They are getting characters who exhibit Gibson trademarks: devil-may-care types, loners, danger men, borderline crazies. (Contrary to what some said at the time, it wasn’t the least bit surprising that he should have played Hamlet.)

Hollywood has always sought to take performers’ elemental character traits and graft them on to a story that shows them to their most flattering advantage. In the context of 13th-century Scotland, that Gibson persona has box-office appeal. In the context of a private domestic row … well, Braveheart‘s actually a monster. That, in the end, is the magic of the movies, and Mel’s latest episode merely reminds us that it can feel rather uncomfortable when daylight is let in on it. — Guardian News & Media 2010