For movie stars as for politicians, a thick hide and a flexible sense of shame are often essential tools of survival – and few practitioners of either of these dark arts have fallen as fast and as far from glory as Mel Gibson yet survived.
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Mel Gibson accused of abusing photographer
The Oscar-winning Australian actor has been accused of pushing and verbally abusing a photographer in Sydney on Sunday evening.
In Gibson, the superstar who once turned Jesus Christ into a box-office sensation, we have a man apparently able to tap miracles beyond those of the Bible. He turned 60 last Sunday. A week later he is about to turn another page forward from a disgrace-laden decade of living dangerously, taken back into the movie-star fold as a presenter at Sunday's Golden Globes (airing on Monday, Australian time). As he takes the stage many viewers will be asking why – even as Hollywood, land of the second chance no matter how badly you blew your first one, shrugs and says: why not?
Why not, you ask? Well, where to start?
How about a decade ago this July, when Gibson lit the fire that seemed certain to incinerate his reputation in a drunk, sexist and anti-Semitic encounter with the Malibu police department, one of whose female officers was christened "sugar tits", while a male officer was told: "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?"
Or how about in 2010, when Gibson seemed to seal his perdition after he split from girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his child and a woman whose secret recordings of their conversations revealed such an avalanche of misogyny, rage and racism it was hard to know what to be shocked by the most – the use of the word "nigger" or the threat to bury Grigorieva in the rose garden? Or perhaps Grigorieva accusing him of beating her and Gibson responding: "You deserved it"? And much, much more.
The memory of those tapes is chilling still. Or at least it should be. But memories can be conveniently short, and not just in Hollywood. There, turning a blind eye to a black eye is in keeping with the air of moral ambiguity that has sustained the film business since before movies could talk.
But what of us here in Australia, which has played host over the past six months to Gibson's campaign to return to public respectability. Have we turned a blind eye, too? You bet we have – and it hasn't just been the local film industry aiding efforts to airbrush his sins from the record.
Here's the truly astonishing thing about the second coming of Mad Mel: that it took place under our noses with the backslapping support of the Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the gushing of NSW government ministers who came to Gibson bearing gifts – from you the taxpayer, in the form of funding to help this extravagantly wealthy man make a movie.
This was all gobsmacking enough. But when you look at the pictures of Malcolm beaming alongside Mel at NIDA a few weeks ago – the Prime Minister declaring Gibson "fabulous" – take a minute to rewind a little.
Think of a year that began with Rosie Batty named Australian of the Year; of a national debate often dominated by the domestic abuse crisis and broader issues of respect for women and sexism. Think of Malcolm Turnbull's first major act as prime minister.
That came on September 24, when the Prime Minister announced $100 million to combat the "un-Australian" epidemic of violence against women. That day, Turnbull and Minister for Women Michaelia Cash also chimed in on whether it was right for Australia to grant a visa to a big American star with a notorious domestic abuse conviction. Not Gibson of course, but singer Chris Brown. Cash led the charge to have Brown declared persona non grata, a stance the Prime Minister said "brilliantly expressed the thoughts of the government".
Three days later, Brown was duly banned. That same week, another visiting American star – albeit one with permanent residency – was busy starting to dispose of his undisclosed handout from the NSW government as filming began on the movie Hacksaw Ridge. For the first time in a decade, Mel Gibson was back in the movie directing business, with a roster of local talent including Rachel Griffiths and Sam Worthington on the cast list.
The local industry was delighted to have him back, especially in the year the Mad Max sequel, Fury Road, had inspired nostalgia for the films that set him on the road to global stardom. At the AACTA awards in December, Gibson presented best director trophy to George Miller. He was beaming, perhaps still glowing from Turnbull's embrace two days prior.
What a time he'd had. Little wonder Gibson looked chuffed. Apart from one media flurry involving an alleged clash with a photographer at a Sydney cinema – claims Gibson denied and said he would sue over – he was ending 2015 in his best public shape for a decade. Glowing reports were hitting the press about his work on Hacksaw Ridge. He had Christmas coming up, then an early January birthday.
Hollywood had a present for his 60th – that invitation to take the stage at the Golden Globes, the latest move in what would be perhaps the most remarkable resurrection from disgrace in movie history.
But is it really time to forgive and forget?
It's a moral dilemma you can bet awards host Ricky Gervais will throw at the celebrity audience on Sunday in his tradition of holding the worst of Hollywood up to itself for awkward inspection. It's a pity we can't rely on Gervais to do the same here in Australia. But perhaps our long list of recent Gibson glad-handers could use the occasion to do Gervais' job for him and ask themselves the question: what were we thinking?