“Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” Mel Gibson, drunk and angry, muttered to a police officer on the evening of July 28, 2006. It was a comment that would make the famous man, for several years, infamous, but it was by no means the only evidence that darkness might lurk behind that wide Gibsonian grin. The actor and Oscar-winning director has also been recorded making disparaging remarks about Latinos and African Americans (guess which words he used for each?) and about gay men. He fumed, after the journalist Frank Rich criticized his film The Passion of the Christ, that “I want to kill him … I want his intestines on a stick … I want to kill his dog.” Gibson called a female police officer “sugar tits.” He referred to an ex-girlfriend as a “pig in heat.” He hit her. And then he told her, “You fucking deserved it.”
Gibson, on the occasion of his new film, Hacksaw Ridge—his first directorial effort in 10 years, and the one meant to mark his official re-entry into Hollywood’s warm embrace—is currently engaged in the publicity tour that any such movie will demand. Only this one, under the circumstances, doubles as an apology tour, one designed not just to generate buzz for the film, but also to test the American public’s vaunted capacity for forgiveness.
One strategy, it seems, that Gibson and his long-suffering PR team have come up with to lubricate public pity is to emphasize the role that forgetfulness plays in the “forgive and forget” equation: to wash away the lesser-known of Gibson’s offenses, distilling his mistakes down not to the violence or the racism or the misogyny or the homophobia, but rather to the thing on display that night in 2006: the anti-Semitism. “One mistake” and “one bad night”—indeed, one “nervous breakdown”—have run like refrains as Gibson has embarked on his tour. They echoed even as Gibson made an appearance, on Tuesday, on the late-night show of his fellow affable charmer, Stephen Colbert.
In Colbert, Gibson might have had a particularly sympathetic audience. Colbert, like his guest, is Catholic; the man who teaches Sunday school in his spare time has been known to use his nationally broadcast platform to discuss matters of theology and dogma—and, with them, matters both of sin and forgiveness. And Colbert, indeed, went out of his way to offer Gibson a chance to publicly wrestle and reconcile with his past, and, in that, to demonstrate the ways he has made himself worthy of the public’s forgiveness. During “Big Questions with Even Bigger Stars,” a cheeky introductory segment that called to mind Colbert’s skit with Michelle Obama—this one featured the host and the star lying down and talking as they stared dreamily up toward the heavens of the Ed Sullivan Theater—Colbert asked Gibson, “Hey, Mel-Mels? When you look back on your life, do you think you’ll have any regrets?”
“No,” came the reply. “Not one.”
The audience laughed at this, knowing enough about Mel-Mel’s past to understand that it was meant to be a laugh line.
“Really? Not one?” Colbert persisted.
“No, not one,” came the reply. The audience laughed some more.
Soon, though, they moved on to the real “elephant in the room.” After an obligatory joke about the bushy beard Gibson has been sporting of late (it’s for another movie he’s shooting, The Professor and the Madman, because Hollywood has already, it seems, forgiven him on behalf of everyone else), Colbert turned to the matter at hand. “How are you doing?” the host asked his guest, gently. “You had some rough patches over the last 10 years.”
“Yeah, rough patch,” Gibson said. He used the singular.
“And how was that?”
“Not my proudest moment,” Gibson replied, again singularizing. “Not my proudest moment, Stephen. But, you know, 10 years go by, I worked a lot on myself, I’m actually happier and healthier than I’ve been in a long time. So that’s cool. And”—Gibson barely took a breath between the two thoughts—“I’m fortunate, you know.”
“How are you fortunate?”
“I get to do what I love to do,” Gibson replied. “I get to do that—I’m grateful. I get to tell stories. So that’s good.”
This was not the kind of response you might expect from someone who’s had 10 years to think about what he might say to the world on behalf of his many well-documented mistakes. So Colbert tried again. “Now, you’re a Catholic, and I’m a Catholic,” the host said, going on to explain their shared religion’s conviction that suffering can, in its way, offer a means to self-improvement. “Did you learn anything from that,” came Colbert’s extremely leading question, “and”—here Colbert actively goaded his guest into self-reflection—“did you become a better man in any way?”
And then things got weird. Very, very weird.
“Yeah,” Gibson replied to the question of whether he had become a better man through the scandals: “gravel-rash suffering. Well, less time in the meat rack after it’s all done, right?”
“I don’t know what that means,” Colbert replied.
Gibson laughed, rather maniacally. He offered no clarity on the matter of the meat rack.
“That must be Australian Catholicism,” Colbert said. Then he tried again: “What does ‘less time in the meat rack’ mean?”
“Meat rack in another realm,” Gibson replied, purring his words dramatically.
“Oh, like purgatory,” Colbert said.
“Yeah, that’s it!”
“Oh, temporary suffering before we have the presence of God.”
“Yeah,” Gibson said: “temporal punishment before the main course.”
Colbert tried to give Gibson yet another chance to do what he had come there, ostensibly, to do: to express regret, to demonstrate self-improvement, to make a case for pubic forgiveness. To, at the very least, recite the talking points his publicists must have provided for him. “Was there a moment,” Colbert asked, trying a different tack, “when you thought, ‘Okay, I’m gonna get through this’?”
“Yeah!” Gibson replied. He did not elaborate.
Colbert followed up: “What was that moment, Mel Gibson? Was there a moment where you could say, ‘Okay. this is gonna be okay’? People are going to accept the apology and we’re going to move forward’?”
“Just when I apologized, I think,” Gibson said, rapidly stroking his beard, and referring ostensibly to the statements he made in 2006, to the Jewish community. “And, you know, you take a hiding. And that’s okay. But it’s interesting—”
“You’re saying you took to hiding?”
“No, you take a hide-ing.” At this, Gibson pantomimed a whipping motion over his chest and back.
“Oh, you take a hide-ing.”
“Yeah. A beating!”
“Oh, okay,” Colbert said. “Yeah.”
“So, you know, you take the shots. You try not to yell too much. You be manful about it. Don’t react too much. You know, it’s interesting. But it’s a moment in time. 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.”
And there it was again. “A moment in time.” “That moment.” Singular. Softened. Evidence not of repeated bigotry and violence, but rather, simply, of one bad night. And who, come on, hasn’t had one of those?
And, at this, the crowd erupted into cheers. It was the closest thing to an apology, they seemed to realize, that Mel Gibson was going to give them.
Colbert seemed to realize the same. “No, I don’t believe any person—no person is their worst moment,” the host replied, as the crowd cheered again, and the notion of the single mistake settled even more neatly into the narrative.
Colbert was right, of course. The crowd was right, too. We are all better, certainly, than we are at our worst. No one deserves to have a lifetime of human interaction distilled down to individual mistakes. But it’s remarkable as well that, 10 years after the fact, Gibson has undertaken what would otherwise seem to be a classic apology tour without seeming to have any intent of actually apologizing. Instead, he defended himself. He pitied himself. He has never taken any action, he insisted to Colbert, that “ever supports that label they put on me.” He added: “It’s just not who I am, so.”
That, at least, was a well-worn talking point. As Gibson told USA Today in an interview this week,
None of my actions bear that sort of reputation, before or since. So it’s a pity, after 30 or 40 years of doing something, you get judged on one night. And then you spend the next 10 years suffering the scourges of perception.
One night. And then you spend the next 10 years suffering. Note who the victim is in Mel Gibson’s assessment.
People are tired of petty grudges about nothing, about somebody having a nervous breakdown (after) double tequilas in the back of a police car. Regrettable. I’ve made my apologies, I’ve done my bit. Moved along. Ten years later. Big deal.
It’s a sentiment he has suggested before. (To The Hollywood Reporter, in 2014: “It’s behind me; it’s an eight-year-old story. It keeps coming up like a rerun, but I’ve dealt with it and I’ve dealt with it responsibly and I’ve worked on myself for anything I am culpable for.” He added: “All the necessary mea culpas have been made copious times, so for this question to keep coming up, it’s kind of like ... I’m sorry they feel that way, but I’ve done what I need to do.”)
He makes a fair point. What more can he do but apologize?
And yet that, in the end, is precisely the problem: Mel Gibson hasn’t, really, apologized. He has given statements. He has said some words. He has, to his credit, checked into rehab. But Tuesday’s appearance, with all its talk of “meat racks” and “hide-ing” and, ultimately, Mel Gibson’s own suffering, was a reminder of how little sorry-saying the star has actually engaged in.
Gibson sat down with a host who, perhaps like many Americans, seemed desperate to forgive him. If only he would just—truly, actually, fully, honestly—apologize. And Gibson, finally, would not. In common Catholic practice, the sacrament of Penance requires one first to list, vocally, one’s sins, the idea being that even that most transcendent of transactions—divine forgiveness—demands that most human of things: simply admitting that you screwed up. But Gibson, depicter of the crucifixion of Jesus and, perhaps sometime soon, also of the resurrection, could not, on Colbert’s easy chair, enact his own version of that sacrament. Instead, the disgraced star underplayed his mistakes, wallowed in his own suffering, and then offered that classic answer of those who are, finally, #sorrynotsorry: I apologize that you are upset.