Liking the Unlikable…What Do We Do With Mel?

I always remember professing my love for Roald Dahl during a conversation about children’s literature, only to have a friend shoot me down with a pointed, “He was an anti-Semite, you know.” Well, no, actually I had no idea. After reading almost all of his work for children and quite a few of his short stories for adults, I had no clue that this man had any problem with the Jews. If it was there in his work, it was not obvious to an unsuspecting reader (i.e. me) and therefore had no power to influence my beliefs. To this day I don’t even know if this revelation was true. I never pursued it, never googled it, never really wavered in my affection for stories about Big Friendly Giants and chocolate factories, but I’m left with the stinging words of that friend, words that implied I should know better than to align myself with the work of someone whose personal beliefs I did not share.

Which brings me to Mel Gibson. I discovered Mel when I was twelve years old and promptly fell head over heels in love. I had never seen a more beautiful, vulnerable, or badass man in my life, and with those stunning blue eyes, he even blew my third grade crush on Sylvester Stallone out of the water. For months he was all I could think about, and then a girl at school dropped a bombshell, “He’s got six kids and is super religious.” After I told her to stop lying to me, I began to wonder, “What if he’s nothing like I imagined?”

As time went on and I began to see more of Mel, I quickly learned that he was nothing like I imagined, and that the same things that made him hot as Martin Riggs might not be quite so attractive in real life…things like alcohol and cigarettes and a temper. As seventh graders my neighbor and I wrote stories about our future husbands, and the ones about Mel weren’t always pretty. Even twenty years ago, his self-destructive impulses were evident to a pair of junior high girls (which makes me wonder how any grown woman could become involved with him without an inkling of a dark side), and it wouldn’t be long before his alarming views of women, gays, etc. came to light.

The point is that liking Mel has always been problematic, and the window of time where his work and his personal life could be separated was woefully short. The question is: should a person’s personal life inform the way we view their work, or should the work be taken at face value? People may have avoided Edge of Darkness because Mel’s reputation is in the toilet, but that doesn’t make it a bad movie or detract from his performance in it. Even now he remains a compelling actor, and there’s a significant body of work behind him that confirms the same. For all of the awkward, fidgety, foot-in-mouth energy he emanates in interviews, his performances seem to epitomize the old Oscar Wilde quote, “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” How can someone convey such pain and vulnerability onscreen without having some genuine understanding of the human condition?

As a movie-going public, I don’t think any of us are in a position to judge Mr. Gibson or guess at what makes him tick. It’s entirely possible that he doesn’t even know, but as an audience we do have to make a decision. Do we keep embracing the movies we have loved regardless of recent developments? Is it still okay to drool over Lethal Weapon and swoon over Forever Young and cry our way through Signs? (And don’t tell me you didn’t cry at that last supper scene or when Morgan almost died.) Is it okay to see his next movie in the theater (presuming it’s somewhat appealing), or is it better to save our pennies than to line the pockets of someone who may not exactly be deserving of the level of power that accompanies extreme wealth? (Off the top of my head, I’d rather just mail a check to Bono or some other charitable organization than fuel Mel’s belief that he owns Malibu.) Moreover, I wonder how future generations will view him. At some point it seems as though the face you tried to present to the world should be given more consideration than the blemished one you wore in private.

Discuss.

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