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The many faces of Mel Gibson

By Todd Leopold, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Recordings purportedly of Mel Gibson causing controversy
  • As actor, director, Gibson drawn toward intense characters, storytelling
  • Gibson also a joker willing to send up his image
  • Can he recover? He "has a future," says PR expert, but should take "a long vacation"

(CNN) -- Mel Gibson can do comedy, as he demonstrates with his pratfalls in "What Women Want" and his humorous con-artistry in "Maverick." Mel Gibson can do romance: as a time-traveling pilot in "Forever Young" and a prisoner in "Mrs. Soffel."

But when people think of Mel Gibson, the images are generally of an angry warrior ("Braveheart"), a suicidal cop ("Lethal Weapon"), a vengeful father ("Ransom"), a righteous punisher ("Mad Max"), a viscerally forceful Prince of Denmark ("Hamlet") -- or, as a director, a portrayal of a blood-drenched Jesus Christ ("The Passion of the Christ").

Now, given recent tapes allegedly featuring Gibson's voice -- a voice that alternately threatens, rages, recoils and aches -- the edgy, borderline fury often embodied by Mel Gibson the artist is all too closely entwined with the image of Mel Gibson the person.

That's a problem, says Ronn Torossian, whose public relations firm has represented celebrities including Snoop Dogg and Pamela Anderson as well as organizations like The Zionist Organization of America and American Jewish Congress.

"I think the Mel Gibson brand is forever scarred," says Torossian, the founder and president of 5W Public Relations. "Over the last few years, Mel Gibson has definitely made a statement for himself -- whether it's about his 'Passion of the Christ' movie, or whether it's about his previous comments about Jews, or whether it's now his alienation of women. There's no obituary of Mel Gibson which will be written which won't include these scenarios."

But, he says, "Don't write Mel Gibson's professional obituary just yet."

Indeed, Gibson's brand has been scarred before.

His 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ," a graphic retelling of Jesus' last hours, drew protests from Jewish and interfaith commentators for its violence and perceived anti-Semitism.

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But Gibson worked his way back into the public's good graces and "Passion," which was marketed to religious groups, was also a hit with broader audiences, grossing more than $370 million in North America. It remains the top-grossing R-rated film of all time.

Two years later, he was arrested for drunk driving and lashed out at Jews, saying, "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Powerful agent Ari Emanuel urged colleagues to "professionally shun" the actor-director.

After the incident, Gibson apologized twice, first saying, "I acted like a person completely out of control. ... I am deeply ashamed of everything I said." He also asked to meet with leaders in the Jewish community to discuss the "appropriate path for healing." At the same time he acknowledged battles with alcoholism.

Though the apology wasn't accepted by everybody -- the Anti-Defamation League called it "unremorseful and insufficient" at the time -- Gibson seemed to escape being ostracized.

The current recordings, allegedly of Gibson and former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, a Russian model, have dribbled out almost daily through the gossip website RadarOnline.com. (CNN has not independently confirmed the authenticity of the recordings.)

In the obscenity-laced rants, a male voice uses slurs against African-Americans, Mexicans and women, threatens to "burn the house up" and says he'll put the woman on the tape -- apparently Grigorieva -- "in the f***ing rose garden."

The audio tapes have been parodied by comedians and on YouTube and they've taken their toll on the actor-director. Gibson's agency, William Morris Endeavor -- of which Emanuel is co-chief executive -- dropped him earlier this month.

Passion and intensity

It's a long way from the man who was People magazine's first "Sexiest Man Alive," an actor known for off-screen practical jokes and self-parody as well as the polish of a seasoned leading man.

His early film career quickly made Gibson a leading man. Performances in "Gallipoli" (1981), "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982), the "Mad Max" films and "Lethal Weapon," coupled with Gibson's rough-hewn elegance, even prompted the James Bond producers to consider Gibson as 007, according to The New York Times.

But the actor had a comedic side, too -- seen on-screen in the "Lethal Weapon" series, in which he sometimes seemed to be channeling the Three Stooges, but also in appearances on such programs as a 1989 episode of "Saturday Night Live" (which featured a skit called "Mel Gibson, Dream Gynecologist") and Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" (for which Gibson danced in a kilt, "fell" from a helicopter and got in a cake-throwing fight with the host).

Mel Columcille Gerard Gibson was born on January 3, 1956, in Peekskill, New York, the sixth of 11 children born to Hutton "Red" Gibson and Anne Gibson. His father, a railroad brakeman and son of an Australian opera star, received disability after suffering a work injury, and then, in 1968, went on the old Art Fleming-hosted "Jeopardy!" and won its Tournament of Champions. He used the winnings to move his family to Australia.

Mel attended Australia's selective National Institute of Dramatic Art and started winning parts in local plays, TV shows and films. His star turn in 1979's "Mad Max" made him a name in Australia; standout performances in "Gallipoli," the "The Road Warrior" from the "Mad Max" series and "The Year of Living Dangerously" made him a worldwide star. His box office clout was cemented with "Lethal Weapon," which spawned three sequels.

The Oscar-winning best picture "Braveheart" (1995) -- which also earned Gibson a best director statue -- established his serious bona fides. Intensity is central to the Mel Gibson experience, says south Florida-based film critic Dan Hudak, who runs HudakonHollywood.com.

"He is really good in enveloping us in whatever world it is he's creating," he says.

Gibson's fame has been both an advantage and a hindrance. He's been willing to use it to take artistic risks, particularly as a producer and director: Along with "Passion," he produced and directed "Apocalypto," a film set in the 16th century with dialogue in the Mayan language; produced a film version of the complex BBC miniseries "The Singing Detective"; made a "Three Stooges" TV movie; and oversaw a documentary on musician Leonard Cohen.

But his high public profile has also made him a target, whether focused on the violence of his movies or the nature of his religious views -- he belongs to a conservative Roman Catholic sect that rejects the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. He's also no stranger to hyperbolic speech: In a 2003 New Yorker profile, he called for New York Times columnist Frank Rich's "intestines on a stick" after Rich wrote a column criticizing "Gibson and his minions" for "bait[ing] Jews and sow[ing] religious conflict."

"The thing you have to understand is that the distance between Mel's heart and his mouth is greater than the distance between his imagination and his mouth," Gibson's "Passion" marketer, Paul Lauer, told New Yorker writer Peter J. Boyer.

Risks and relationships

Can Gibson make another comeback? The challenge is great, says Thomas Schatz, professor of film at the University of Texas and author of "The Genius of the System," about the movie business.

Yes, Hollywood has often tolerated poor behavior. But the studios -- and now, the conglomerates that own them -- draw the line when marketability enters the equation. Ingrid Bergman didn't work in America for several years after beginning an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini in 1949. Other stars were blacklisted for alleged connections to the Communist Party, Schatz says.

Given the instant fury that can be fueled by online criticism, Gibson's situation has certain parallels with Tom Cruise's situation five years ago, Schatz says.

Cruise made tabloid headlines after jumping on Oprah Winfrey's couch to proclaim his love for then-girlfriend Katie Holmes. The headlines became darker when Cruise, a Scientologist, argued with Matt Lauer over the value of psychiatry and antidepressants.

Those public statements -- repeated constantly on the Web -- came along with disappointing returns for "Mission: Impossible III." A short time later, Paramount Pictures ended its deal with Cruise's production company. It wasn't until a comedic turn in "Tropic Thunder," two years later, that Cruise's career received a new spark -- though the returns of this summer's "Knight and Day" have called his comeback into question.

Gibson's latest film is "The Beaver," in which he co-stars with Jodie Foster and plays a man with mental problems who wears a beaver puppet on his hand. It's unclear how Gibson's recent problems will affect the marketing of the movie, which finished filming in 2009.

Could Gibson's behavior over the years make the Hollywood machine -- not just studios, but agents and exhibitors -- reluctant to work with him?

"There's a difference between somebody being a jerk or abrasive person who holds the purse strings, versus somebody who needs the money," says Leo Braudy, University of Southern California professor and author of "The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History."

"He still needs to make deals with exhibitors and people like that, and it's a risky business. They want to minimize their risks."

Gibson may not want the aggravation. In 2006, he was worth $850 million, according to the Los Angeles Business Journal. Even with his pending divorce to his wife of 29 years, Robyn, he should still be a wealthy man. Still, if there's one thing about Hollywood, it's that money trumps all, says Torossian.

"Hollywood is a town of very fickle people," he says. "You don't always do business with people you love. I think Mel Gibson is somebody who is wealthy enough and successful enough that if he wants to do something, and he puts his name behind something and he puts his checkbook behind something, people might do things with him and hold their nose while they're doing it."

After all, even Cruise has been more or less forgiven: Paramount recently announced the actor would be returning for "Mission: Impossible IV."

So never say never, says Torossian.

"I do think Mel Gibson has a future," he says.

"Do I think Mel Gibson can recover tomorrow? I don't. But if I were counseling him, I would tell him to take a looooong vacation where there's no paparazzi -- and preferably no Russian women."