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From crime time to prime time

By CNN's Barry Neild
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(CNN) - The audience is used to shocks at Fantastic Fest, an expo of sci-fi and splatter flicks held this month in Texas, but they could be forgiven for leaping out their seats at one sight: Mel Gibson.

Gibson, whose last public appearance was to apologize for his behavior in July when he railed against Jews during a drunk drive arrest, attended the event for a surprise screening of his upcoming movie "Apocalypto."

Perhaps the biggest surprise however, given that Gibson's image took a spectacular nosedive in the wake of his arrest, was that the Fantastic Fest audience (including influential Ain't It Cool News critic Harry Knowles) gave his film a standing ovation.

Or perhaps not. Movieland observers are already speculating that the star-turned-director's low-key appearance is the first phase of a carefully orchestrated rebirth that will culminate with Apocalypto's December release.

If events play out as predicted, Gibson's career will follow a path as predictable as any Hollywood script: Star goes bad, star seeks forgiveness, star becomes more successful.

No one is suggesting that the famous don't go unpunished. California's correction facilities are no stranger to celebrity, and Malibu Superior Court Judge Lawrence Mira has already performed her duty in frowning upon Gibson's misdemeanors.

But while ordinary criminals carry the stigma of their convictions long after punishment has expired, showbiz personalities seem to enjoy a more profitable redemption.

"I wouldn't say breaking the law is always a positive career move," says E! Online senior editor and gossip columnist Marc Malkin. "But it does increase their visibility, which is important in Hollywood.

"Whether you want to be known for something good or known for something bad, you always want to be known, you always want to be talked about."

It certainly hasn't done Paris Hilton any harm. The heiress shrugged of drink driving charges that could have landed her in jail this week, but instead landed her more of the headlines she thrives on. "Maybe I was speeding a little bit," was her comment on the incident.

Witness also supermodel Kate Moss's revival after a drug scandal cost her several lucrative fashion contracts. Moss, having shown penance with an obligatory spell in rehab, is now back on top, commanding higher wages than she ever has before.

Then there's Oscar-nominated Actor Robert Downey Jr. who apparently threw it all away when he was jailed for drug possession and served three years behind bars. He got it all back though as -- repentant, sober and brimming with the gravitas of a man who has lived on the edge -- the weighty roles came pouring in.

And we have Britain's Hugh Grant, who did that thing with that woman, then successfully eclipsed earlier romantic turns with a lauded bad boy act in the blockbuster Bridget Jones movies.

The list goes on: In July rapper Lil' Kim, who was released from serving almost 10 months in jail for lying about a shooting incident, was put straight on stage by MTV at its annual Video Music Awards.

But says Malkin, some lines should not be crossed, even by celebrities.

"In this day and age it hasn't been so bad to be caught drinking and driving, but it has been bad to be caught drinking and driving and spewing anti-Semitic remarks."

"Someone like Michael Jackson getting accused many times of inappropriate behavior with minors -- if you get tainted with that, it is going to be really hard to ever come back and be a big shot.

"You have someone like Roman Polanski (who fled the U.S. to avoid prison after pleading guilty to sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl) he can never come back to the United States. That said, people are continuing to give him work."

The contemporary showbiz world is undoubtedly more forgiving than earlier eras. Celebrated playwright, wit and possibly the world's first media personality, Oscar Wilde never recovered from his conviction for being involved in a then-illegal gay relationship.

Wilde died in 1900, three years after his release from jail, impoverished, reviled and virtually alone, a fate unthinkable today.

But while Gibson may be able to get his career back on track, Malkin believes his outburst will haunt him to his grave.

"Mel Gibson's going to be OK, but I think he will be tainted forever. When he dies, one of the first lines of his obituary is going to talk about how he got into a lot of trouble with his remarks. It's not going to be a footnote, it's going to be a major part."

Mel Gibson pictured in a police mugshot shortly after his arrest.

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