The downfall of Mel Gibson is inextricably tied to the rise of TMZ. When the fledgling tabloid media company broke the news of Gibson’s drunk driving arrest and subsequent anti-Semitic outburst, it indelibly put them on the map. A decade later, however, Gibson’s apparent comeback dovetails nicely with the rise of another questionable dispenser of news: Donald Trump.
For years, Gibson toiled outside the realm of social acceptance. He appeared in movies like The Beaver, directed by his constant defender, Jodie Foster, which nobody saw who wasn’t paid to see it. The closest he came to the mainstream was appearing in villainous roles in high-profile schlock like The Expendables 3 and Machete Kills, which capitalized off the novelty of Gibson’s horrendous reputation. But with his first directorial effort in ten years, Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson has found himself re-embraced by Hollywood’s upper-echelon. It feels cosmically appropriate that the film’s six Oscar nominations were announced just days after Donald Trump was inaugurated as president; proof that modern America’s permissiveness has hit a new high. Since then, the keys to the kingdom appear to be jingling. Just this week, Gibson is is reportedly in talks to direct Suicide Squad 2, and he’s landed a key role in the sequel to the Will Ferrell hit, Daddy’s Home, his most mainstream projects since the scandals hit. This comeback isn’t set in stone, though, and now’s the time to remember why it’s worth resisting.
Few things are as associated with one word as Mel Gibson is with “sugartits.” It’s the hilariously offensive (or offensively hilarious) word the star directed to an arresting officer the night he was pulled over for drunk driving. He may have said some more memorable things that night, but “sugartits” rolls off the tongue in a way that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world” does not. It’s his greatest hit, the word Ricky Gervais used to taunt him during an appearance at the Golden Globes last year. But Gibson said so much more than “sugartits,” and unlike fellow alleged woman-abuser and 2017 Oscar nominee, Casey Affleck, we’ve actually heard him say it. And worse.
Just about four years after the sugartits/Jews Are Responsible for All Wars rant, came that other rant. You know the one. It’s the Mel Gibson rant absent of a single word encapsulation because the content is so brutally vulgar that it’s just more pleasant to not even think about at all. But let’s think about it now, because it’s perhaps more relevant than ever. Mel Gibson’s second captured rant (who knows how many were NOT caught on tape) was gleaned from a collection of voicemails to his former girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva. It’s also a perfect storm of some of Donald Trump’s more odious qualities. It’s a rich bouillabaisse of toxic masculinity, entitlement, misogyny, verbal abuse, a persecution complex, and of course racism. Serious, dead-to-rights, step-away-from-the-microphone-FOREVER racism. Considering the temporally skewed multiverse of Hollywood, though, forever didn’t last very long.
Painting oneself with the racist brush used to be a surefire career-killer. It’s hard to talk about Mel Gibson, for instance, without mentioning his compatriot in disgrace, Michael Richards. The former Seinfeld star was the second high-profile lightning rod on TMZ, nailed for his egregious racism in an infamous comedy club rant. If Mel Gibson kept a relatively low profile after his scandalous exposure, Richards has kept a subterranean profile. One of his rare roles since his freakout was on the seventh season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in 2009. There, he played himself, and he did it in a way that owned up to his previous inexcusable behavior. A later appearance on Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee, though, seemed to suggest that his seclusion was at least partly self-imposed and that he was not yet done atoning.
What’s Mel Gibson done to even attempt to atone? He wrote a letter to the Jewish community soon after his arrest in 2006, but it was widely seen as more of an apology for getting caught, as well as a prelude for impending alcohol rehab. After his second taped rant came to light a few years later, he seemed beyond the healing power of apologies. Instead, his strategy seemed to be to just vanish for a while and wait it out. Let the moment pass and act as if people have forgotten what happened. It’s a strategy that should feel familiar to anyone who witnessed last year’s election.
Unlike other politicians, Donald Trump wouldn’t allow scandals to stick to him. So many revelations about his past and present would have stopped any candidate with even an ounce of shame dead in their tracks. Instead, Trump refused to apologize, acted unfazed, provided several distractingly bonkers remarks, and somehow remained afloat. His campaign yielded moments of flagrant racism, hypocrisy, misogyny, endless lies, and of course both admitting to sexual assault and getting accused of it by a dozen separate women. He only apologized for one of these incidents, and when he did, he used the apology to go on the offensive. The fact that Trump won with this playbook is a signal to everyone else that what were once career-killing offenses don’t necessarily matter anymore.
It feels prescient that Mel Gibson made his prestige comeback film in the lead-up to the presidential election. He signed on to direct in November of 2014, when Trump was still mulling over his potential run. Over the course of production of Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson would have seen Trump’s campaign gaining steam despite the candidate’s accumulation of previously unforgivable sins. Suddenly, it was ages since Zach Galifianakis reportedly got Gibson booted from a cameo in Hangover 2. The director must have wondered why Trump was getting a free pass while he himself was still persona non grata in Hollywood. By the time Trump won, just days after the release of Hacksaw Ridge, there was tangible proof that he no longer had to be. Maybe nobody does. Within the week, Bill Cosby reportedly started sniffing around for comeback opportunities too.
Considering that martyrdom is at the core of several Mel Gibson movies, including Braveheart, The Passion, and now Hacksaw Ridge, one imagines that Gibson sees his personal narrative as the world being unfairly aligned against him. Viewed in those terms, Hacksaw Ridge’s success and the unfolding opportunities are part of a redemption arc. Hacksaw Ridge is currently nominated for six Academy Awards, including two of the top honors: Best Director and Best Picture. It would not be fiscally responsible to bet on Gibson or the producers winning either award. The movie seems destined to be remembered as a particularly gory war movie that runner-ed up at the Oscars one year. It doesn’t have to herald a full-scale comeback, though. The honor of these nominations was the Academy’s decision. What happens from here is up to us.
Mel Gibson will keep making movies. Bill Cosby may return to comedy. R. Kelly might make another album. The gatekeepers who smell money will keep giving tainted talent more chances, the same way that congressional Republicans will seemingly put up with anything Donald Trump does as long as they get to repeal the Affordable Care Act. And the debate on whether we should separate the artist from the art will continue to argue itself in circles on social media. Hollywood is now floating Mel Gibson test balloons to see what audiences will put up with. All it takes to pop those balloons is somehow resisting the allure of Daddy’s Home 2. Few filmgoers have the power of Galifianakis to allegedly bounce Gibson from Hangover 2, but together we have the kind of power that lets Hollywood know to never make Hangover 4.