Was Mel Gibson an anti-Semite showing his true colors early Friday? Or was he just a drunk saying something offensive, as some observers suggested?
Hollywood insiders and religious leaders speculated yesterday on how Gibson's career would be affected by his drunken tirade during a traffic stop, in which he reportedly blamed Jews for "all the wars in the world" and asked the arresting deputy, "Are you a Jew?"
"When Mel Gibson gets pulled over by an officer ... and starts ranting about Jews around the world, it begins to look like a very dark character defect," says film historian Pat McGilligan, author of a forthcoming first biography of pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. "The movie industry and movie fans accept all sorts of flaws and stupid behavior, but abusing people and practicing or espousing racism and anti-Semitism finally disturbs most Americans, and should. Maybe it will disturb people at the highest levels of Hollywood, then filter down."
Since the 2004 release of his The Passion of the Christ, other observers note, Gibson has become a favorite of the religious right, and nothing he says during a drunken traffic stop - anti-Semitic or not - is going to change that.
"I think that alcohol sometimes literally goes to your head," says the Rev. Louis Sheldon, head of the California-based Traditional Values Coalition. "You do things that you shouldn't do, and you say things that you shouldn't say." What Gibson said, Sheldon adds, "doesn't make me think any less of The Passion of the Christ. Sometimes brilliant people do weird things."
"His real audience, an audience of evangelical Christians - to that audience, I don't see how this can be in any way, shape or form hurtful to his career," says Neal Gabler, author of An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood. In fact, Gabler believes, that audience, of Christians who believe their conservative faith is scorned by the media and most of Hollywood, will quickly rally to Gibson's defense.
"The idea of Mel Gibson as someone being persecuted is clearly how he views himself and how he promoted his last film," Gabler says. "It's something that resonates with his audience."
Gibson was pulled over in Malibu, Calif., shortly after 2:30 a.m. Friday. The official police report plays down Gibson's tirade, but an earlier version obtained by the gossip Web site TMZ.com - and later verified by the Los Angeles Times - included details of what Gibson reportedly said. Los Angeles police are investigating the discrepancy.
James Mee, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy, told the Associated Press yesterday that he considered it a routine arrest and didn't take seriously any comments that Gibson made.
"I don't take pride in hurting Mr. Gibson," said Mee, a 17-year deputy who is Jewish. "I don't want to defame him in any way or hurt him."
In a statement released Saturday, Gibson apologized for being abusive, saying the deputy who arrested him was only doing his job. While not mentioning his comments about Jews specifically, he also apologized for saying "things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable. I am deeply ashamed of everything I said, and I apologize to anyone who I have offended."
The actor is "participating in an ongoing program to deal with" alcohol abuse, Gibson's publicist, Alan Nierob, told the Associated Press yesterday. "The guy is trying to stay alive."
Gibson, 50, became a darling of Christians, especially Christian fundamentalists, with The Passion, a retelling of the story of Jesus' crucifixion and death. The film was embraced as an unflinchingly accurate depiction of events by many Christians, who took going to see it as an act of faith. Many Jewish leaders objected to the film, however, saying it laid the blame for Jesus' death squarely on the Jews - a position explicitly denounced by the Catholic church in 1965.
Gibson dismissed those objections, insisting the film was in no way anti-Semitic. But events of the past weekend, some Jewish leaders believe, prove they were right to be skeptical of Gibson's denials.
"This is exactly ... what many people were saying about him when the movie came out," says Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. "Mel Gibson appears to be an anti-Semite."
The Passion brought in more than $370.6 million at the American box office, however, making Gibson both a controversial filmmaker and one who can make a lot of money.
"If producers think they can make a movie with him that makes $300 million, I suspect they will," says cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who worked with Gibson on The Passion.
Adds director Philip Kaufman, "Mel Gibson's a talented guy who's taken to doing harmful things. He should do three things instead: He should stop driving drunk, he should shut the heck up and he should stick to what women want, not what bigots want."
Gibson's next movie, the self-financed Apocalypto, set at the time of the ancient Mayan civilization and told in native dialect, is set for a December release. The film will be distributed by the Walt Disney Co., which also - through its ABC television network - has a deal with Gibson's production company for a miniseries about the Holocaust.
Disney, through its representatives, declined to comment on either project. The company, however, has abandoned controversial projects before. Two years ago, then-President Michael Eisner decided against releasing Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. The movie eventually was distributed domestically by IFC Films.