What the Hell Happened to Mel Gibson?
For a long time, I debated whether or not to write-up Mel Gibson. On the one hand, the answer to the question “what the hell happened” is known by all. Gibson’s personal life and bad behavior exploded very publicly. I’m not sure if any celebrity has ever had such a public melt-down.
It’s easy to forget now, but not all that long ago Gibson was one of the undisputed kings of Hollywood. He was so popular and so beloved that he could do no wrong. Even if he made a cinematic turkey, his legion of fans practically guaranteed a hit. And while the hits rolled in, his eccentric behavior was portrayed as charming in the media.
Gibson had a long history of courting controversy. He had gotten in trouble with GLAAD for supposedly homophobic comments as well as some borderline offensive film roles (see Bird on a Wire – or better yet, don’t). His 2004 blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ, was seen by many as anti-Semitic. And Gibson was a drinker and a womanizer from way back.
Eventually, that behavior caught up with Gibson. In 2006, he was arrested for a DUI. A drunken Gibson made matters worse with a series of anti-Semitic and sexist comments.
Amazingly, Gibson managed to recover from what many considered career suicide. However, in 2010 he imploded again with domestic abuse charges and a series of phone messages that showed his dark side. Every day, a new message was leaked to the press. And each one made Gibson look more and more like a monster.
So, right up front, the answer to “What the hell happened to Mel Gibson?” is that his inner demons spilled out on the public stage for the better part of a decade.
To the point where many of his fans can’t look at the guy anymore without seeing a despicable human being. But even though we know how the story ends (or do we?) it’s worth going back to the beginning and reviewing the fascinating career of Mel Gibson.
Gibson was actually born in Peekskill, New York. He was the 6th of 11 children. His family relocated to Australia when Gibson was 12. He began his film career in Australia and in 1979 he had the good fortune to be cast in George Miller’s apocalyptic action film, Mad Max.
Even today, Mad Max is kind of crazy movie. Most American audiences think of the post-apocalyptic sequel, The Road Warrior, when they think of Mad Max. But the original film was about gang warfare on the open road as society comes crumbling down.
Gibson didn’t actually go to the audition for Mad Max hoping for a part. He was there accompanying a friend who was reading. Gibson had been in a bar fight the night before and described his head as looking like a “black and blue pumpkin”. He was asked by the casting director to come back in three weeks to audition to play one of the movie’s post apocalyptic freaks. Instead, with his face healed, Gibson was asked to audition for the lead.
Mad Max has a very loose structure which can be hard to watch. The ending in which Max takes revenge on the gangsters is killer stuff. But getting to that point can be pretty brutal. When the film was released in America in 1980, all the dialogue (including Gibson’s) was redubbed. While the film was not a hit in America, it was a big hit over seas.
Gibson was a rising star in Australia. But in 1981, he had two films which crossed over to the US. The first was Peter Weir’s World War I drama, Gallipoli. Gibson played an Australian sprinter who signs up to join the ANZACs in World War I. They are sent to Gallipoli, where they must stand against the Tuskish army.
Weir described young Gibson as “full of beans and really with no grand career ambitions.”
Gallipoli was a huge hit in Australia. It was less successful in other countries. In the US, it grossed less than $6 million dollars. But it was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.
Later that year, Gibson returned to the Mad Max franchise for George Miller’s sequel, The Road Warrior.
The Road Warrior is all out action on the street. Gibson only had 16 lines of dialogue in the entire film, and two of them were: “I only came for the gasoline.”
Mad Max was not a hit in the US. So when The Road Warrior was released, Warner Brothers decided to change the title to The Road Warrior. The original marketing materials focused on the car crashes and mayhem rather than Gibson’s character.
The Road Warrior is one of those movies whose impact is bigger than the movie itself. It redefined the look and feel of sci-fi movies going forward. Almost every post-apocalyptic movie made since 1981 owes a debt to Miller’s Road Warrior.
Kevin Costner drove his career into the ground trying to make his own Road Warrior-esque post-apocalypse flick. He failed twice.
What strikes me the most about Gibson’s Australian film career is that in the span of 1979-1981, Gibson managed to work with the two most successful directors in his country’s film industry. Wier and Miller would both go on to have long, successful Hollywood careers. That’s some pretty amazing luck to get to work with two immensely talented directors so early in your career.