It’s been less than a year since the post-Weinstein Time’s Up movement kicked off. But some of the men who left their jobs or stopped appearing in public after being accused of sexual misconduct are already beginning to make noises about a comeback.
Louis C.K. performed at New York’s Comedy Cellar. Matt Lauer is is reportedly telling people that he’ll be back on TV soon. Bill O’Reilly is reportedly in talks to host a new TV show. Garrison Keillor is touring. Charlie Rose is shopping a new show. Mario Batali is reportedly thinking about starting a new company.
All of this may seem overly optimistic on the part of the accused men. C.K., let’s recall, confessed to abusing his power in the comedy world and masturbating in front of multiple women without their consent. O’Reilly was forced to resign from Fox News after being accused of multiple incidents of sexual harassment. Rose was accused of sexually harassing eight women (he apologized but also claimed that not all of the accusations against him were accurate), and his plan is reportedly to just go around interviewing other accused men.
But history suggests that it’s not overly optimistic at all. All these men have a walking, talking reminder in front of them that the post-public disgrace comeback can be done. That you can be the most reviled man in Hollywood one minute and sitting pretty in the A-list section of the Oscars as a major nominee the next. That reminder’s name is Mel Gibson.
Gibson became persona non grata in Hollywood in 2006, after first spewing a string of anti-Semitic comments while he was being arrested on DUI charges and then pleading no contest to hitting the mother of his child.
“I don’t think I want to see any more Mel Gibson movies,” Barbara Walters announced on The View after that anti-Semitism scandal in 2006. Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel called for the entire entertainment industry to boycott Gibson.
But in 2017, Gibson appeared at the Oscars as a nominee for Best Director, grinning happily in the front section. And this week, the Hollywood Reporter announced that Gibson is set to co-write and direct a remake of The Wild Bunch for Warner Bros. He’s back in now.
Looking at how Mel Gibson has managed his comeback shows us how the men accused of sexual misconduct over the past year might plan to manage their own. Gibson is a case study in how a man who by his own admission did monstrous things can convince people that disappearing from the public eye for a few years makes up for those monstrous things, and how he can find his way back into polite society.
Please note that the following article contains excerpts from Gibson’s tapes, including graphic discussion of rape and domestic violence and the use of slurs.
Mel Gibson went from the heights of the Hollywood stratosphere to its nadir. Now he’s pretty close to the heights again.
By the early 2000s, Mel Gibson was a bona fide movie star/auteur at the top of his game.
He was hot, and he had industry clout: People magazine’s first Sexiest Man Alive in 1985; Forbes’s most powerful celebrity in 2004. He had prestige: 1995’s Braveheart, which he starred in and directed, won him two Oscars, for Best Picture and Best Director. And he could open a movie. Between 1989 and 2002, 10 of his movies brought in $100 million or more domestically. When he directed and produced The Passion of the Christ in 2004, he raked in $600 million on a budget of $30 million.
In our current post–movie star age, there’s no real equivalent to what Gibson was at the peak of his fame, but imagine that Chris Hemsworth decided to moonlight as a director and was successful at it, or that Christopher Nolan had a thriving side career as an action star, or that George Clooney was less polished and had more consistent box office clout. Mel Gibson was that big and that powerful.
Then in 2006, he was pulled over by a police officer for drunk driving and launched into an anti-Semitic tirade. “Fucking Jews … the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” he said. “Are you a Jew?” he asked his arresting officer, before addressing another (female) officer as “Sugar Tits.” The arresting officer recorded the entire encounter, and the tape was later leaked to the internet.
The DUI incident was damaging for Gibson, especially because it wasn’t the first time he’d flirted publicly with anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. The Passion of the Christ had been deeply controversial in 2004 for its depiction of Jews as bloodthirsty hordes calling for the death of Christ. “At every single opportunity, Mr. Gibson’s film reinforces the notion that the Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob are the ones ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion,” the Anti-Defamation League concluded.
In the wake of the DUI incident, more stories of anti-Semitism surfaced. Winona Ryder recalled that Gibson once called her an “oven-dodger.”
Other types of troubling comments from the past reemerged too. There was the homophobia. In 1991, Gibson infamously mocked gay men in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais (“Do I look like a homosexual? Do I talk like them? Do I move like them?”), and when GLAAD recommended that he apologize, he responded, “I’ll apologize when hell freezes over. They can fuck off.”
Gibson has also repeatedly said that women were not equal to men, telling Playboy in 1995 that women should not become priests because “men and women are just different. They’re not equal.” When the interviewer asked for an example of the difference between men and women, Gibson elaborated, “I had a female business partner once. Didn’t work. … She was a cunt.”
An entire career’s worth of bigoted quotes — decades of them — were suddenly in the news, and the enormous machine that was Mel Gibson, movie star and successful director, began to falter.
Amy Pascal, then the head of Sony, disavowed him; so did former Universal president Sidney Sheinberg and Ari Emanuel. (Emanuel was head of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, where Gibson’s agent Ed Limato worked, but Emanuel wasn’t able to get Gibson off the agency’s roster until just before Limato’s death in 2010.) ABC scrapped a miniseries Gibson was developing on the Holocaust.
Gibson announced that he was going into rehab and publicly apologized twice. “I acted like a person completely out of control … and said things I do not believe to be true and which are despicable,” he said.
“His career is over,” an insider told People magazine anonymously. “He’s going to become toxic.”
The negative press didn’t hurt Gibson’s ability to score at the box office too badly — Apocalypto, which he directed and released in 2006, grossed more than $50 million domestically on a $40 million budget. But the movie got middling reviews, and it turned out to be the last Gibson film to see a theatrical release for five years.
Then in 2010, Gibson’s girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, with whom he had a child, accused him of hitting her so hard that he broke her teeth while she was carrying their infant daughter. Tapes leaked of their confrontation:
Oksana Grigorieva: You almost killed us, did you forget?
Mel Gibson: (making fake crying noises) The last three years have been a fucking gravy train for you.
O: (angry) You were hitting a woman with a child in her hands. You. What kind of a man is that? Hitting a woman when she’s holding a child in her hands? Breaking her teeth, twice, in the face, what kind of man is that?
M: (sarcastically) Mmm, ooh, you’re all angry now …
O: You’re going to get to, you know what?
M: You fucking deserved it.
O: You’re going to answer, one day, boy, you’re going to answer.
M: What, what? What are you threatening me?
O: Nothing, nothing. I’m not the one to threaten.
M: I’m threatening, I’ll put you in a fucking rose garden, you cunt. You understand that? ’Cause I’m capable of it. You understand that? Get a fucking restraining order. For what? What are you going to get a restraining order for? For me being drunk and disorderly? For hitting you? For what?
Elsewhere in the tapes, Gibson informs Grigorieva that “if you get raped by a pack of ni**ers it’ll be your fault,” and threatens to burn down the house with her in it, instructing her to “blow [him] first.”
Gibson later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge for hitting Grigorieva; he served probation, underwent court-ordered counseling, and paid $600 in fines.
But if the legal consequences Gibson faced for his treatment of Grigorieva were minimal, the consequences in Hollywood were slightly splashier. His agency dropped him the day the tapes were released. (Emanuel finally had his opening to enact the boycott of Gibson he’d called for in 2006.) Leonardo DiCaprio pulled out of a movie Gibson was set to direct. A planned Gibson cameo in The Hangover 2 was scrapped after protests from the cast and crew. Get the Gringo, which Gibson produced, co-wrote, and starred in, never made it to a theatrical release in the US, instead languishing in video on demand upon its release in 2012.
There seemed to be a general consensus in Hollywood: No one wanted to see Mel Gibson’s face or have anything to do with him.
And so for years, he was silent.
But in 2016, the Gibson-directed Hacksaw Ridge grossed $175 million worldwide and $67 million domestically. It racked up six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director. In 2017, Gibson headlined the family comedy Daddy’s Home 2, which grossed $180 million worldwide.
Gibson, the New York Times concluded, “has found himself back in Tinseltown’s warm embrace.” He has successfully managed a comeback.
So how did he get here from there?
The success of Gibson’s comeback relies on persistent vagueness and keeping his face away from the controversies that surround him
There are four major tentpoles to Gibson’s comeback. It’s impossible to say that this four-part strategy is intentional on Gibson’s part — his publicist did not respond to a request for comment from Vox — but here’s what it looks like from the outside in.
First, Gibson rarely discusses either the DUI incident or the Grigorieva tapes in the press. Most of the interviews he grants are with friendly outlets — or, as Gibson friend and entertainment journalist Allison Hope Weiner phrased it in 2011 when she released Gibson’s first interview in years, with outlets where the editors are not “inclined to use this story to pursue their own agendas.” When he has to give an interview at a less friendly venue, he tends to do so with an associate who can run interference if the conversation seems to be trending toward any of Gibson’s scandals.
When Gibson does talk about his scandals, he suggests that if you really think about it, he was the wronged party, because his private moments of weakness were made public.
“Who anticipates being recorded? Who anticipates that?” he asked Deadline in 2011. “Who could anticipate such a personal betrayal?”
“Imagine the worst moment you have even had being recorded and broadcast to the world and it wasn’t meant to be public,” he said in 2016. “You didn’t stand on a soapbox and do it, but that’s what happens, you know.”
Gibson does not apologize. He does not express good wishes for the people he’s hurt. He maintains that he is the one who was really hurt. But mostly, he doesn’t say anything at all.
And he mostly doesn’t have to say anything. That’s the second tentpole of his comeback: He leaves the talking to his friends and allies, of which he has many, both in Hollywood and in the press.
“The fact that [Gibson] won’t jump to his own defense is part of his problem, but also part of why I have grown to respect him,” wrote Weiner for Deadline in 2014. (After publication, Weiner disclosed that Gibson was an investor in the media company at which she hosts two shows, but she maintained that “the suggestion that Mr. Gibson, or any third party, exercises influence over me or my shows is false.” Weiner did not respond to a request for comment from Vox.)
In her 2014 article, Weiner goes on to explain that she had become close with Gibson after covering him for years, and believed that he was not a bigot. He was just an alcoholic “with a frightening temper, capable of saying whatever will most offend the target of his anger.”
She cites the money Gibson had anonymously donated to Jewish charities, specifically lauding his secrecy, which, she says, was “in keeping with one of the highest forms of Tzedakah in the Jewish faith, giving when the recipient doesn’t know your identity.” (How secret those donations could possibly be when they’re being reported on in Deadline is not something Weiner discusses in the piece.)
As for the domestic violence charge? “From my own investigation of the incident, I am persuaded Gibson did not beat [Grigorieva] or give her a black eye,” Weiner writes. “I base this on interviews with her lawyer and the deputy district attorney who handled the case.”
She allows that Gibson has admitted to “tapping” Grigorieva, but argues that he was only reacting to Grigorieva shaking their infant daughter. The section of the leaked tape in which Grigorieva accuses Gibson of hitting her and he responds, “You fucking deserved it,” Weiner does not discuss.
Instead, she says, it was Grigorieva who was extorting Gibson for money. And anyway, she adds, Gibson was going through a really hard time back then, so it doesn’t even count. “He was depressed and lonely, his career in shambles as he apologized to anyone who’d listen,” she writes. “Those recordings revealed a man in personal turmoil.”
This general narrative — Gibson didn’t do it, and if he did, it doesn’t count, and if you think about it, he’s the real victim, and he’s actually very sorry and I’ll tell you all about it but you’d never know otherwise because he’d never say so himself — is one that has been repeated again and again by Gibson’s allies. When Peter Biskind profiled Gibson for Vanity Fair in 2011, he spoke to dozens of sources who were willing to spout the same talking points that Weiner trotted out in 2014 — including one anonymous friend who argued that the infamous DUI incident was secretly Gibson’s attempt at suicide by cop.
“I don’t think this was about being anti-Semitic,” the friend says. “I think he was trying to rile that guy into pulling out a gun and shooting him. Before he left the restaurant that night, he went to every single table and said good-bye. Why would you say good-bye to every table unless you think you’re never going to see them again? I believe that what was going on that night was a farewell.”
Even the friends of Gibson’s who aren’t willing to discuss his controversies will still come to his defense. Jodi Foster gave Gibson his first starring role after his DUI in 2011’s The Beaver, and then fought for the movie to be released after the Grigorieva tapes went public.
“God, I love that man,” Foster said of Gibson on the film’s publicity tour. “The performance he gave in this movie, I will always be grateful for. He brought a lifetime of pain to the character that we’ve been talking about for years, that I knew was part of his psyche and who he is. It’s part of him that is beautiful and that I want people to know, too. I can’t ever regret that.”
And Robert Downey Jr. pleaded with Hollywood to forgive Gibson. “Unless you are without sin — and if you are, you are in the wrong [expletive] industry, you should forgive him and let him work,” Downey said in 2011.
But the testimony of Gibson’s allies could only do so much. The comeback strategy needed a third tentpole: time. Gibson kept his head down and worked quietly in small genre movies for a few years, so that when he made his big push back into the mainstream with Hacksaw Ridge in 2016, 10 years after his DUI and six years after the domestic violence accusations, he could argue that he’d been out of play for a decade and that it was enough time.
“I’ve done a lot of work on myself these last 10 years,” he told Deadline. “I’ve deliberately kept a low profile. I didn’t want to just do the celebrity rehab thing for two weeks, declare myself cured and then screw up again. I think the best way somebody can show they’re sorry is to fix themselves and that’s what I’ve been doing and I’m just happy to be here. He who tries, gets.”
Hacksaw Ridge also added a fourth tentpole to Gibson’s comeback strategy. He was able to successfully break back into the mainstream as a director, not an actor, which meant he could keep his face out of the public eye while people got used to the idea of him being back in Hollywood. It was only after Hacksaw Ridge’s success legitimized Mel Gibson the director again that Mel Gibson the actor was able to make his triumphant reappearance in polite society with Daddy’s Home 2.
There was pushback to Gibson’s rearrival. “Hold on, how is Mel Gibson still a thing?” protested the feminist entertainment blog the Mary Sue.
“Is Mel Gibson really such an invaluable cultural figure that we should forgive or tolerate or willfully ignore this pattern of behavior?” demanded GQ in an article on Gibson’s “unearned” comeback. “Is anyone?”
The Daily Beast called for shame on Hollywood for allowing Gibson his comeback.
“Mel Gibson is unworthy of a ‘comeback,’ but he’s getting one anyway,” concluded Jezebel.
But Gibson seems to have gotten his comeback, regardless of any number of outraged think pieces. He’s doing fine. The four strategies worked.
Together, these four strategies create a kind of blurriness around exactly what Gibson did, and a mist of nebulous remorse around his subsequent behavior: Something happened, but it really wasn’t that big a deal, and now he feels bad, and anyway, it was all a long time ago. It gives his comeback a sense of vagueness — and that’s exactly what the men tarred by #MeToo will most likely try to create as they plot their own comebacks.
After all, Gibson’s career appears to be in full flower. He has signed on to direct the World War II drama Destroyer. He stars with Sean Penn in The Professor and the Madman, set to be released this fall. Reportedly, he is being eyed to star opposite Mark Wahlberg in Warner Bros.’ The Six Billion Dollar Man. If your goal is to convince the world to forget that you have been credibly accused of doing terrible things, and to find a way to once again work in the uppermost echelons of Hollywood, then Gibson is an admirable role model.
So as those disgraced men begin to put the pieces in motion to plot the next steps of their careers, the question that remains is whether the collective we are capable of holding on to the specific details of the dozens and dozens of horrific cases of sexual misconduct that came out last fall — or whether we’ll shrug and say that sure, something bad happened. But it was a long time ago and it really wasn’t that big a deal.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Mario Lopez, not Mario Batali, had been accused of groping women. Vox regrets the error.