In 2016, Mel Gibson hit the publicity trail for his new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, a biographical war drama that was his first directorial effort in 10 years. The film was received warmly at the Venice Film Festival and got a November release date, indicating serious Oscar potential. But Gibson, one of the biggest actors in the 1990s, had been tainted by scandal. There was his 2006 drunk-driving arrest, where he was recorded making anti-Semitic remarks. Then there was the abusive, virulently racist phone call he made to his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva in 2010, in which he admitted to hitting her and said she had “deserved it.”
My colleague Megan Garber wrote about Gibson’s “non-apology tour” in 2016, centering on an interview the actor-director did with Stephen Colbert, where the Late Show host asked about their shared Catholic faith. Gibson referenced his 2006 apology to the Jewish community over his comments, but offered no other mea culpa. Of his arrest a decade earlier, he said “that moment shouldn’t define the rest of my life.” The appearance was, at best, a limited accounting of his horrifying behavior, but it appeared to work. Hacksaw Ridge was a hit, grossing $175 million worldwide. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards; even more tellingly, Gibson was nominated for Best Director. Now, two years later, it seems Gibson has completed his Hollywood comeback: Deadline reported Monday that he was just hired by Warner Bros. to remake Sam Peckinpah’s Western classic The Wild Bunch.
How did Gibson land such a big job with a major studio? Mock the power of the Oscars at your own peril—the Best Director nod for Hacksaw Ridge was the clearest sign that, for many in the industry, the dust had settled on Gibson’s past and he was welcomed back into the fold. Aside from the awards attention the film garnered, Hacksaw Ridge was also a kind of institutional stepping stone for Gibson on his way to larger projects. The movie was distributed by Summit Entertainment, a subsidiary of Lionsgate (which is smaller than the traditional “big six” studios but bigger than indie distributors). Summit had also distributed Jodie Foster’s The Beaver, a minor 2011 film that was one of Gibson’s only major recent acting roles (Foster passionately defended Gibson’s casting then and stuck up for him again in 2016).
After Hacksaw Ridge’s Oscar nominations, Warner Bros. came knocking, first trying to hire Gibson last year for the comic-book sequel Suicide Squad 2, and then announcing this week that he’d write and direct a remake of The Wild Bunch, which will begin shooting next spring. Gibson has been making his mark in Hollywood in other smaller ways, too: In addition to The Beaver, he filmed a supporting role in Daddy’s Home 2 in 2017, has indie movies such as Dragged Across Concrete and The Professor and the Madman on deck, and is also prepping a war thriller called Destroyer as a potential directing project.
When rehabilitating one’s reputation and celebrity, a huge factor is, of course, time. The shocking revelations of Gibson’s behavior are currently several years old. Gibson himself appears to understand the effectiveness of framing his actions as part of the distant past, thus downplaying their continued relevance. Though he did express regret over the content of his taped conversation with Grigorieva in a 2011 interview, he also treated it as an isolated incident, as “one terribly awful moment in time,” and referred to Grigorieva’s secret recording of him as a “personal betrayal.” As Gibson later put it to Colbert, “Ten 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.”
As Gibson has worked to fully restart his career, he has also—like many celebrities—praised the #MeToo movement. Last November, he called #MeToo “a precursor to change,” saying of the sexual-assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, “Things got shaken up a little bit and there is a lot of light being thrown into places where there were shadows, and that is kind of healthy.” But the heightened sensitivity in the industry toward allegations of abuse seems to have spared Gibson. In January, Grigorieva claimed in a court filing that she was experiencing post-traumatic stress because of the violence she suffered during their relationship. Gibson pleaded no contest in 2011 to a misdemeanor count of domestic violence in 2010 and was sentenced to three years’ probation, counseling, and community service; he claimed at the time that he had slapped Grigorieva to stop her from shaking their baby.
Not long ago, Gibson was virtually unemployable for mainstream projects. In 2010, he was set to make a cameo in The Hangover Part II, but that move was abandoned after protests from the cast and crew. A few years later, Gibson was nabbing roles in movies like The Expendables 3. What changed? Gibson had simply fallen off the radar for a little while and had shown the barest hint of contrition. He also, crucially, received some institutional support: The super agent Ari Emanuel (who denounced Gibson in 2006 and fired him as a client in 2010) apparently went to bat for Gibson, as did his Daddy’s Home 2 co-star Mark Wahlberg.
The Hollywood redemption machine is always ripe for satire, since its formula is so depressingly simple. Take one once-beloved artist, add a bottled statement of apology, give him just long enough for his worst misdeeds to fade somewhat from public memory, and combine with the industry’s never-ending desire to use great artistry as an antidote to past sins. Gibson may have gotten an Oscar nomination, and Hacksaw Ridge got good reviews, but should that automatically grant him reentry into the studio establishment? As the #MeToo movement rolls on, the industry is continuing to reckon with what kind of contrition and rehabilitation it might seek from people brought down by charges of misconduct. One question Hollywood might have asked was whether to embrace someone who has seemed more upset about being recorded in one of his darkest moments than about his actions in the moment itself.
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