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.
Now, there is nothing wrong with finding redemption, particularly when struggling with addiction. There certainly is something wrong with blackballing someone, in any profession, for a scandal and offering no road to clearing their name. However, unlike other stars who have had their careers declared dead for offensive tweets, Gibson has engaged in serious acts of violence – for which he did not go to prison. Despite a couple of flat apologies, the success of Gibson’s comeback relies on persistent vagueness and keeping his face away from the controversies that surround him, explained culture writer Constance Grady.
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Gibson did not seek out redemption; he waited out a distraction. He never has shown a commitment to unlearning violent misogyny or procuring the safety of women. Yes, he issued a 2006 plea to meet with Jewish leaders for a discussion to discern the appropriate path for healing and has been a generous donor to The Survivor Mitzvah Project, which provides financial aid to Holocaust survivors. Although those steps are commendable – even admirable – they are undermined by Gibson’s.
In the press, Gibson has been committed to portraying himself as the real victim. Who anticipates being recorded? he told Deadline in 2011. Who could anticipate such a personal betrayal? He carried that talking point on his 2016 redemption tour, griping about how he felt exposed rather than addressing the behavior that was leaked. Imagine the worst moment you have ever had being recorded and broadcast to the world, and it wasn’t meant to be public, he repeated in 2016. The Atlantic dubbed his Oscar campaign as a non-apology tour, referencing Gibson’s actions as a guest on The Late Show. Stephen Colbert asked, Hey, Mel-Mels? When you look back on your life, do you think you’ll have any regrets? No, Gibson replied. Not one.
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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.
Gibson has even referred to criticism of his violent, hateful history as petty grudges about nothing. Rather than make amends with those he’s hurt, Gibson called in favors from his Hollywood friends. It was not active, apparent growth that brought Gibson back to glory, but rather Jodi Foster and Robert Downey Jr. vouching for him.