For most of us, 2016 has been a Westworld-esque nightmare loop we’ve tried—and failed—to wake up from. But much like Vladimir Putin, and Air Canada, director Mel Gibson is having the best year ever. On Monday, Gibson’s latest film, Hacksaw Ridge, earned Golden Globe nominations for Best Director and Best Film (Drama), as well as a Best Actor nod for Andrew Garfield. And these come on the heels of Hacksaw being awarded two Critics’ Choice awards over the weekend, including Best Action Movie. The movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who enlisted as a battlefield medic during World War II. Of course, any drama that Gibson directs pales in comparison to his own behind-the-scenes odyssey: the story of an odious individual who, after years on the outskirts of Hollywood, has somehow managed to fight his way back into the mainstream.
Gibson’s uphill road back to respectability has nothing to do with prejudices or obstacles outside of his control. Instead, Gibson earned his enemies the old-fashioned way: by being a terrible person who says atrocious things. In 2004, people started asking questions about the celebrated director, tied to his arresting, deeply polarizing film The Passion of the Christ. The unlikely blockbuster was immediately accused of anti-Semitism, due to its callous depictions of bloodthirsty, villainous Jews. When asked why, exactly, he chose to produce some of the most two-dimensional, unlikable Jewish characters since Shylock, Gibson defended his directorial vision, insisting, “I’m subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man.”
The persecution of Mel Gibson—a famous white man with a fortune well over $400 million—only intensified. Two years later, he was arrested for drunk driving in Malibu. Doubling down on his bad decisions for the day, Gibson took this opportunity to unleash a trigger warning-worthy tirade of word vomit. He called a female police officer “sugar tits,” and told another arresting officer, “I own Malibu… I am going to fuck you.” Most famously, he pulled out this anti-Semitic gem: “Fucking Jews... The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world… Are you a Jew?” The drunken comments seemed to echo the views of Gibson’s father, who is a Holocaust denier.
Like so many meninists, Gibson didn’t just talk the talk of aggressive misogyny—he also hit his girlfriend. In 2010, leaked audio recordings revealed Gibson hurling disgusting insults at former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. The audio included Mel telling her, “You’re an embarrassment to me. You look like a fucking pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n***ers, it will be your fault.” Then another tape surfaced, in which Gibson admitted to hitting Oksana while she was holding their baby daughter. During the recording, Oksana cries, “What kind of a man is that who would hit a woman when she is holding a child in her hands, hitting her twice in the face? What kind of man is that?” Mel responds, “You know what? You fucking deserved it.” A year later, Gibson pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery, and received three years probation. In a sworn statement, Gibson admitted that he slapped Grigorieva “with an open hand” because she was allegedly shaking the baby, while Grigorieva claimed Gibson flew into a violent rage, striking her and delivering a concussion as well as chipped front teeth.
Of course, behaving badly towards women is no major career impediment for a man, whether he’s looking to direct mainstream movies or be the next President of the United States. What differentiates Gibson from other “Hollywood bad boys”—misogynists, accused abusers, rapists, etc.—is the sheer number of identity groups he’s managed to offend. In addition to his infamous anti-Semitism, Gibson also has a history of on-the-record homophobia. In 1991, he shared his opinions on gay men with Spanish newspaper El Pais: “They take it up the ass. [laughs, stands up, bends over, points to anus] This is only for taking a shit.” He continued, “With this look, who’s going to think I’m gay? I don’t lend myself to that type of confusion. Do I look like a homosexual? Do I talk like them? Do I move like them?” Four years later, when asked if he intended to issue a GLAAD-recommended apology to gays and lesbians, Mel insisted, “I’ll apologize when hell freezes over. They can fuck off.” And when Frank Rich violated the eleventh commandment by criticizing The Passion of the Christ, Gibson came after the columnist, saying, “I want to kill him…I want his intestines on a stick…I want to kill his dog.”
From women to gays to Jews to New York Times reporters, Mel Gibson has crossed just about every group off his bigotry bingo card. Naturally, his prize has been a slew of nominations and accolades. Hacksaw Ridge was enthusiastically received at the Venice Film Festival, and has an 87 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes. So what has Gibson done to warrant this Hollywood redemption?
Basically, he showed up.
The implied argument is that after 10 years in the doghouse—that’s 70 in dog years! —it’s about time we started showering Mel Gibson in money and metal statuettes. This argument is “implied” because Gibson doesn’t actually ask for forgiveness, or attempt to justify his actions. Instead, he’s decided to gaslight America by simply acting like he has nothing to apologize for. Gibson showcased this strategy during his Hacksaw Ridge publicity tour, all but avoiding any discussion of his unsavory past.
During a Late Show With Stephen Colbert appearance, when the host persistently pressed him for a comment, Gibson mustered this up: “It’s a pity that one has to be defined with a label from, you know, having a nervous breakdown in the back of a police car from a bunch of double tequilas, but that’s what it is. Now, you know, this is not—that moment shouldn’t define the rest of my life.” In addition to a distinct lack of humility and shame, Gibson is also making the deliberate decision to boil all of his bad behavior down to one “moment in time”—his 2006 DUI. And while blaming the Jewish people for all the wars in the world would have been most celebrities’ low point, Gibson actually has a whole lot more to answer for. When a reporter from The Globe and Mail similarly tried to interrogate Gibson, the director blew him off, saying, “That was, like, 10 years ago. It’s old, Barry, it’s so old. I’ve moved on, and I wish everyone else would.”
Has Gibson’s wish come true? In the thick of the audiotape controversy, Gibson became something of a persona non grata in Hollywood, with super-agent Ari Emanuel and then-Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal publicly condemning him. Apparently, that’s all water under the bridge. According to Gibson, “I talk to Ari on a regular basis, we email each other. We sorted it all out. There’s a lot of posturing and a lot of media sensationalism that goes on when someone has a nervous breakdown, drunk in the back of a police car. I made the necessary apologies at the time. People can either accept them or they don’t have to. But I’ve done my part.”
Technically, this isn’t Gibson’s first attempted comeback. In 2011, his portrayal of an unstable character in The Beaver flopped. Either 2011 was simply too soon, or audiences can temper their guilt by hiding abusers behind the camera. After all, if we can’t see the misogynistic, anti-Semitic homophobe, are we really helping him turn a profit? (Yes.) This pattern explains the continuous employment of another beloved male auteur, Woody Allen, as well as the fact that many Hollywood heavyweights publicly support and defend Roman Polanski, who raped a 13-year-old girl.
So what makes white, male directors so gosh-darned forgivable? In addition to the fact that we don’t have to watch directors on the big screen, our amnesia may have something to do with director tropes. We envision directors as predominately male, but also as slightly manic. Like all artists, we’re inclined to make excuses for their bad behavior. While female directors like Catherine Hardwicke are routinely denied future work for refusing to kowtow, being impossible to work with has somehow become a point of pride for male auteurs. Take, for example, David O. Russell, who was borderline abusive to star Amy Adams on the set of American Hustle. Through the Sony hacks, it was revealed that Russell “grabbed one guy by the collar, cursed out people repeatedly in front of others and so abused Amy Adams that Christian Bale got in his face and told him to stop acting like an asshole.” By forgiving these directors, we are simultaneously stealing opportunities from up-and-coming artists. We are reticent to chastise male auteurs, and incapable of resisting the call of the comeback story.
Of course, directors aren’t the only celebrities getting a free pass. Performers like Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, and Chris Brown have all emerged more or less unscathed from public opinion purgatory. But there’s something about the timing of Gibson’s comeback that makes his predictable Hollywood redemption feel particularly icky.
Beginning with The Passion of the Christ, Gibson has been cast as a sort of Trumpian figure—a lone wolf, condemned by the politically correct media, voicing the (bad) opinions that people are generally reticent to share on the record. While many read Gibson’s offensive actions and statements as unhinged, others saw reason and bravery in his outbursts and his eventual Hollywood estrangement. The fact that some people actually agreed with the director’s vitriol makes his refusal to further rescind those comments even more deplorable. If being a domestic abuser isn’t enough to discredit Mel Gibson, his status as an ultra-conservative hero should give Hollywood second thoughts. At the last Golden Globes, Mel Gibson appeared onstage as a punchline. One year later, is the Hollywood Foreign Press really going to hand the “alt-right” apostle an award for Best Director?