Was there a more reviled man in Hollywood than Mel Gibson after his night of drunken racial slurs? Pulled over for being drunk behind the wheel, having fallen off the wagon after years of being sober, Gibson launched into a tirade of racial attacks, making an utter fool of himself. Rumors circulated of his temper, his explosions on sets; was anyone more despised at this time in the business? Likely not, and the press loved it because they love to see giants fall. The Academy Award winning Best Director fell hard from grace, and the climb out of the hole he dug himself has been a difficult one. Not even the millions he can generate at the box office has been enough for a studio to forgive him. So hard did he fall he was forced to take a role in The Expendables (2012), a franchise devoted to former action heroes whose careers are in decline.
Always a movie star, never really a great actor –though he grew– very good sometimes, he exploded as a star in Lethal Weapon (1987) as the possibly deranged cop Martin Riggs, teamed with Murtaugh, played by Danny Glover. Their chemistry was terrific and Gibson put everything he had into the character, winning over audiences, with his wide-eyed performance. The two likable but unorthodox cops became a franchise and along the way Gibson expressed interest in directing, and began to do just that. He made some good movies as an actor including having a go at Hamlet (1990) for director Franco Zeferrelli, though they did cut pages of the text. Gibson did not shame himself as the tortured Dane, in fact, he was pretty good, and audience began to take him more seriously.
Gibson emerged out of Australia as Mad Max (1979) for director George Miller in three films before finding superstardom as an actor in the Lethal Weapon franchise. Strong performances in films such as Ransom (1996), directed by Ron Howard, The Conspiracy Theory (1997) with Julia Roberts, the fine noir thriller Payback (1999), the period piece The Patriot (2000) in which he gives one of his finest performances, and the science fiction thriller Signs (2002) showcased what he did well as an actor, and there was substantial growth as an artist through the years. His finest performance came in The Beaver (2011) as a man who allows his life to be governed by a hand puppet he cannot take off. Well directed by Jodie Foster, she gave the actor the role of his lifetime and he responded with a performance that should have been nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor. What could have been silly, was instead powerful and haunting, you can see the madness creeping into his eyes.
However it is as a director that Gibson has truly shone as a film visionary. On the strength of just four films, he has established himself as one of the most daring, brilliant directors working in movies.
The Man Without a Face (1993) was a fine, under appreciated film about a horribly scarred man, played with sensitive power by Gibson, and his relationship with a young boy. It was a tough movie, with charges of molestation alluded towards the scarred man, never going where you think it is going to go, and perhaps that put off audiences. However if audiences were prepared to take the journey they were going to see a profound study of friendship between a mentor and student. The final images are beautiful and haunting as Gibson’s character, the man without a face, moves through the boys life like a ghost.
His next directorial project won five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, and is beloved around the world. The story of William Wallace, leader of one of the Scottish clans, who wages war against England when his wife is violated then butchered in front of him. Set in the 13th century, Scotland is under English rule, and the King of England enjoys flexing his muscles to display his might to his Scottish subjects. One of his rules is that if a Scot marries, his master has the right to a night with the bride before the husband. Wallace marries in secret so they do not have to be part of that, which angers his master and he murders the girl. Enraged, Wallace marches into the village, deadly calm, his fury evident, and kills the master, along with several soldiers beginning a rebellion that will see him fighting alongside thousands for the freedom of his countrymen. The small group of rebellious Scots grows as they win and they march towards England, daring the King to come at them, and he does of course. Betrayed by a man he admires, Robert the Bruce, Wallace is captured and tortured before being beheaded. As the torture devices tears him apart the Englsih expect him to cry for mercy, but instead he screams with his last ounce of fury, “Freedom” before dying. In death he becomes even more powerful, a symbol of freedom and it is Robert the Bruce who leads his men against the English securing the freedom Wallace fought so hard to achieve.
Braveheart (1995) is a big, blustering film anchored by a fine Gibson performance, one of his best, but it was hardly the best film of the year, not in a year that included Apollo 13, Toy Story, Dead Man Walking and Leaving Las Vegas. However it was popular, it was historical and it was directed by a major star and often that was what the Academy admired. There was much to admire in Braveheart (1995), some beautifully directed performances and battle sequences, an excellent score, breathtaking cinematography and editing, but again this was not the years best film. It did earn Gibson an Oscar for Best Director, and a nomination from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) as well as the Golden Globe for Best Director.
It is for The Passion of the Christ (2004) that Gibson deserved the Academy Award for Best Director. One of the boldest ventures in the history of the cinema, he financed the film with his own money to the tune of thirty million dollars. With a personal wealth of more than three hundred million dollars, he knew he could pay for the film, but what he really wanted was people to see the film, to experience the last hours of Christ’s life. He took unspeakable risks, showing the horrors of crucifixion in all its horrific realism, not shying away from the terrors of a scourging or torture, it was the most violent Biblical film ever made. Gibson used dead languages, Aramaic for most of it, Latin for some, and at one point was NOT going to use subtitles, confident the world knew the story well enough and images would suffice. Though correct, he was however talked into subtitles but the distribution company, Newmarket, who came in to get the movie out into theatres. The only reasonably well-known actor he cast was Jim Cavaziel as Jesus, wanting to have actors with little or no baggage, leaving the only names attached to the film his own and that of Jesus Christ.
As the release date approached, the controversy surrounding the film began, and early screenings had walkouts, but also rave reviews. There were those who struggled with the film, and its violence, but most, even those who did not care for the film, praised the craft and daring with which it was made.
The Passion of the Christ (2004) is a demanding film to watch, difficult, challenging but a work of breathtaking art. What I found remarkable, not being a religious man, was no matter what they did to him, no matter how they wounded or broke his poor body he kept moving forward, he took that cross and marched towards his destiny.
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Gibson made it clear from the outset this was not a film about the life of Christ but a film about his death and how he died. Using historical documents and the Scriptures he boldly tells the story of the end of Jesus life, from the moment he was arrested in the Garden at prayer and being challenged by the Devil. The director choices were courageous, casting a woman as Satan, her scenes with Christ whispered, her rage barely concealed, trying to pull him away from his path and showing the violence in all its brutality. The scourging scene is easily among the most painful scenes I have ever witnessed, a sequence bathed in blood and pain, of Romans giggling and trying to do more damage, and of Christ taking it, knowing it will be over soon. There were of course the attacks of Anti-Semetism, which after seeing the film five times I can say are false in every way. Historical documents tell us the high priests among the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate for sentencing, and Gibson makes that clear, just as he makes clear it was Pilate who condemned him, however regretful.
The film made a fortune, a huge success, in excess of seven hundred million dollars, most of which went into Gibson’s pocket given his deal with Newmarket Films, who never thought the film would even make its money back. Audiences filled the cinemas week after week, keeping the film at the top of the box office for a month and a half. Nominated for four Academy Awards, the film deserved many more nods including Best Picture and Best Director. It was deserving of wins for at least cinematography and make up but the Academy proved cowards. The Passion of the Christ in so many ways ennobled cinema.
Two years later Gibson gave us a thrilling film entitled Apocalypto (2006) set during the time of the Incas in South America. A peaceful jungle dwelling tribe is torn apart by the Incas who take the captured souls to their massive city to be sacrificed to their Gods in hopes their deaths will help the crops grow. Jaguar Paw is a young father and warrior of the jungle people taken away, after placing his pregnant wife and child in a pit for safety. He vows to return. And he escapes the clutches of the vicious city people and flees into jungle, with them on his heels. The film is an extraordinary study of motion, as Jaguar Paw is constantly running, always on motion, always making his way back to his family.
This action thriller is an extraordinary work, as the director plunges us down in the lush jungles of South America hundreds of years ago, before Columbus ended up on these shores. You become entranced by the fact these people walk or run everywhere and it is really something to behold. Forward they move, tied together, running from a hungry panther right on his heels, running from a bloodthirsty group hellbent on killing, it is a stunning film that earned strong reviews and did well at the box office. Again Gibson employed a language not known to Americans, with subtitles, yet really because the director is so gifted with images we do not need the subtitles. A work of art.
And then his career fell apart with an arrest, some viciously racist comments and a dwindling audience who no longer were interested in seeing him. He made a handful of films and then The Beaver (2011) was a startling reminder of his talents, and Hollywood started to pay attention again.
This fall he will be on-screen in Blood Father, but the real interest in him is in the film he has directed Hacksaw Ridge a true story of a man portrayed by Andrew Garfield who fought a war without a weapon and would be decorated by the US Army. The inside word is strong and we could see Garfield a nominee for either this or the Scorsese film Silence. And Gibson could land his first nomination as Best Director since winning for Braveheart (1995) which considering his output is a crime. Like him or not he is back, and when they choose to do so Hollywood can be very forgiving. Welcome back Mel, look forward to seeing more daring work from you as a director.
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