Mel Gibson was always haunted by demons that neither money nor religion could keep at bay. Nicole LaPorte charts the rise and spectacular downfall of the star with the baby-blue eyes. Plus, Tina Brown says Mel’s rant makes the case for celebrity leaks.
Just before the release of Braveheart, the intensely bloody, 1995 bio-pic of Scottish warrior William Wallace, which Mel Gibson both directed and starred in, Gibson remarked, "I know I'm gonna get crucified."
Yet Braveheart was hardly the end for Gibson—the film went on to win a Best Picture and Best Director Oscar, and make $210 million at the worldwide box office.
In fact, it would take another 15 years for Gibson's self-fulfilling prophecy to be realized.
"I don't believe that Mel is racist," said one Hollywood player. "Nothing in conversations with him about any of the issues that have come up I can relate to, I think and it's not my experience. I think Mel has certainly never been politically correct, but he has always been humane and kind." And this person noted: "I'm a Jew!"
In the last week, he's been slapped with a criminal investigation for alleged violence toward his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva; dumped by his Hollywood talent agency; and become the gossip topic du jour over tapes in which he's heard telling Grigorieva that if she was "raped by a pack of n------s" it would be her own fault.
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For a man who began his career as the hunky, baby-blue-eyed star of the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon films, and who, privately, was known as a consummate family man, living a low-profile life with his wife of more than two decades and brood of seven kids, this has been a spectacular fall.
But Gibson's downfall hasn't been one of those overnight flame-outs we've seen recently with figures like Tiger Woods or Elliot Spitzer. Rather, his descent has been more gradual, fueled over the years by substance abuse addictions, and a career that went from A-list actor to controversial filmmaker and crusader, thanks to The Passion of The Christ, which was released in 2004. Not long after that film awarded him new levels of financial success and independence, combining his work as an entertainer and his religious faith, Gibson went on his infamous anti-Semitic tirade, and his family life deteriorated.
Yet even before Passion, there were shades of darkness in a man who at times has seemed a lot like Sergeant Martin Riggs—Gibson's wild-eyed Lethal Weapon character who at one point puts his gun in his mouth and looks ready to pull the trigger.
As Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner told the Guardian in 2000: "There's a lot of anger and hostility under Mel's surface."
Some believe there are clues to be found in Gibson's family history. His father, Hutton Gibson, is an outspoken religious zealot who has said the Holocaust never happened.
"To me, the reason this instability exists has always been, number one, his father is a really important shadow over his life," said Peter Bart, editorial director of Variety. "And secondly, he's sort of a man with an identity crisis. He doesn't identify with a country, a nationality, a religion, or anything. I've always felt that part of his obvious neurosis was that he was really adrift."
Many stories about Gibson, who was born in New York and moved to Australia when he was 12, have a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde quality. Executives and producers who have worked with the actor describe him as a consummate professional with a searing intellect. While making Mrs. Soffel with Diane Keaton, Gibson was "always on time, supportive of his director—a class act," said Bart, who at the time was an executive at MGM. "Unlike some stars, he's a real pro."
And in the early days, reports that Gibson was drinking five beers before breakfast seemed the kind of less-than-serious vices shared by other bad boy stars such as Russell Crowe. The 1984 arrest in Canada for drunk driving and reportedly almost missing the audition for Mad Max—his breakout film—because he'd been involved in a bar fight the night before seemed, well, almost amusing. (When Gibson showed up looking like a "black and blue pumpkin," as he described it, the casting agent told him: "We need freaks.")
But the demons lurked just below the surface.
The house that MGM rented for Gibson while he was shooting Mrs. Soffel was found "ripped apart—obviously there had been some kind of alcoholic rage," Bart said. "That's always been a problem for him, going back to his youth. He doesn't handle alcohol well."
Through those years, there was his devoted wife, Robyn Moore, a former dental nurse whom Gibson has called his "rock of Gibraltar" and a "saint." A petite brunette with a pixie-style haircut, she stayed out of the spotlight, instead devoting her life to raising their kids in Malibu and keeping Gibson in line. She was the woman who knew Mel before he was Mel, the one who cared less about movie premieres and Hollywood parties.
As Gibson became more successful, however, he started to talk more openly about his religious beliefs. His extremely conservative Catholic views stood out in Hollywood, and his pronouncements seemed at times downright batty.
In 2003, Gibson started a traditionalist Catholic church in Agoura Hills, and soon after came Passion of the Christ, which some say was the moment when things started to go wrong. Although the film about the final hours in the life of Jesus alienated him from many in Hollywood who found it anti-Semitic, the movie transformed him into a religious spokesman—an icon even—among Christians. It also made him an incredibly wealthy man. Passion, which he financed and produced, grossed $370 million worldwide on a shoe-string budget of $30 million.
But in gaining the glories of the world—power, fame and fortune—Gibson seemed to lose himself.
As Christopher Noxon, who wrote about Gibson's church for The New York Times Magazine in 2003 said about Passion: "More than a movie about Christians, it looked like a movie about a man in an enormous amount of pain."
And Gibson's reactions were becoming wildly disproportionate. After Frank Rich wrote a column in the New York Times saying that Passion could do real harm abroad "where anti-Semitism has metastasized since 9/11," Gibson told another reporter: "I want to kill [Rich]. I want his intestines on a stick…I want to kill his dog."
Then, of course, there was the 2006 DUI incident and Gibson's most serious public-relations implosion, and one that not even the saintly Robyn could overlook. Soon after, Gibson started a relationship with Grigorieva, and in 2009, after 28 years of marriage, Robyn filed for divorce when it was made public that Grigorieva was pregnant.
Last December, at the press junket for Edge of Darkness, his first big publicity tour since his arrest, he was visibly anxious. While fielding questions from reporters, Gibson picked at his arm hairs and rocked back and forth in his seat. His jumpiness, he said, was caused by quitting smoking cold turkey. (This was also around this same time that Grigorieva claims Gibson punched her in the face, while she was holding their newborn baby.)
To write Gibson off as a bigot seems all too easy—in addition to charges of anti-Semitism, racism and misogyny, Gibson made comments in 1991 that some viewed as homophobic. But those who have worked with him express confusion rather than outrage.
"There's a real schizophrenic split," said one Hollywood power player who's worked with Gibson for many years. "The guy that I know—I can't relate it to any of what I read in the papers. I don't believe that Mel is racist….I think Mel has certainly never been politically correct, but he has always been humane and kind." And this person noted: "I'm a Jew!"
"I'm so confused by this stuff because in 30 years of knowing him, I've never seen him be anything other than the sweetest, most loving guy," said another Hollywood pal of Gibson's who is Jewish. "Every time I read something like this about him, I go 'Where does this come from?'"
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.
Additional Reporting By: Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. Previously, he was a features writer at WWD and W Magazine. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.