When Mel Gibson appeared on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show in early November, Colbert asked him, “Do you ever look at Donald Trump and say, ‘How come I had to apologize and he might be president?’”
Until that moment, Gibson, in full Santa Claus beard, had appeared nervous under the soft and empathetic questioning from Colbert, who spoke to him as a fellow Catholic. But after that joke, Gibson threw his head back and laughed hard, even hooting a little and hitting the armrest with approval. He appeared to be about to answer when Colbert broke in and talked about what a long ovation Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge had gotten at the Venice Film Festival, and what glowing reviews the movie was getting.
On Tuesday morning, Hacksaw Ridge drew Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Andrew Garfield), Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing. It was validation for the movie, of course, but also for Gibson’s comeback.
After Gibson was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving in July 2006, he went on a tirade. To a female officer, he said, “What do you think you’re looking at, sugar tits?” And most famously, he said to a deputy, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” The world found out about all of this when a then-newly-born TMZ obtained the police report. In the weeks after, with his career seemingly in freefall, Gibson issued an apology to the Jewish community, blaming his alcoholism and saying in part, “…please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.”
Four years later, when Gibson was about to make his acting comeback in the Jodie Foster–directed The Beaver, Radar Online published a series of explosive recordings of Gibson fighting with his then-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, with whom he’d had a child. He called her a “cunt” repeatedly, and said, “You look like a fucking bitch in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of niggers it’ll be your fault.” When she asked him what kind of man hits a woman with a child in her hands, he said, “You fucking deserved it.”
Gibson lay low after the tapes were released. The Beaver was delayed after the bad publicity, and then died at the box office, making less than $1 million domestically. He acted occasionally — in Machete Kills (2013) and in Expendables 3 (2014) — but has mostly stayed out of the public eye for the past six years. (Apart from a strange appearance at the 2016 Golden Globes, during which Gibson and host Ricky Gervais engaged in uncomfortable banter.)
It was a strategy that worked, apparently, in that it had the effect of making people forget the tapes ever existed. During Gibson’s publicity tour for Hacksaw Ridge, he has been able to solely focus on the 2006 arrest, and not address the Grigorieva tapes. To Colbert, he said: “It’s a pity that one has to be defined with a label from, you know, having a nervous breakdown in the back of a police car on a bunch of double tequilas. That’s what it is. That moment shouldn’t define the rest of my life.” And to USA Today, he said: “Regrettable. I’ve made my apologies, I’ve done my bit. Moved along. Ten years later.”
What a difference 10 years makes. After all, after the Access Hollywood tapes were released in October, Trump said: “I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more-than-a-decade-old video are one of them.”
This year’s Academy Awards feature a historic number of black actors as nominees, and three black movies — Fences, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures — were nominated for Best Picture. And yet, to exemplify this divided country, there’s also the embrace of Gibson, who shows that demeanor matters. Apparently, the more you stick to your guns, the more successful you can be. You can even be president.