The book on Mel Gibson was reopened this week, and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy James Mee began the latest entry.
It was Mee who, in early hours of July 28, pulled over a drunken Gibson as the actor-director was speeding along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, Calif. And it was Mee who penned the arrest report that, among other things, recorded Gibson as having “blurted out a barrage of anti-Semitic remarks about ‘f—ing Jews,” including the claim that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Then, in a question that was at once paranoid and prophetic, Gibson asked Mee: “Are you a Jew?”
Word of Gibson’s misadventure sent Hollywood and those who follow it into a tizzy. (One Los Angeles Times article on the controversy carried 11 bylines.) The reaction in certain quarters picked up right where the debate over Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ” had left off. Many who at the time decried the film — a chronicle of Jesus’ final hours — as antisemitic found in the actor’s diatribe a form of vindication. Though relatively few in number, there were some “Passion” defenders, both Christian and Jewish, who rose to Gibson’s defense.
But in a number of ways the playing field has shifted since 2004, most notably for the Hollywood community, which largely held its tongue during the debate over the film. Though many remained silent this time, as well, a number of key industry figures did call for a Hollywood boycott of the actor — with some placing Gibson’s remarks in the context of the raging warfare between Israel and Islamic militants.
“There are times in history when standing up against bigotry and racism is more important than money,” agent Ari Emanuel wrote on the HuffingtonPost Web site as he called for Gibson to be blackballed.
The Web site’s founder, Arianna Huffington, also linked her condemnation of Gibson to the crisis in the Middle East, albeit from a different perspective. “Reading the horror stories of the survivors of the Qana bombing, any rational person’s instinct is to criticize the tactics Israel is using to take on Hezbollah. Then a thought arises: will this criticism come across as part and parcel of the anti-Semitic worldview of the Gibson crowd?” Huffington wrote. “Which is yet another reason Gibson needs to be ostracized: his lunatic ravings make it all-the-harder for legitimate criticisms of Israel’s methods to be expressed and to be heard with uncluttered ears.”
By late Tuesday, Gibson had issued two apologies through his publicist. The first, a single paragraph that made no mention of Gibson’s anti-Jewish slurs, was criticized by many for being insufficiently contrite. The second — in which he stated, “I am in the process of understanding where those vicious words came from during that drunken display, and I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery” — was more thorough and shifted the temperature of the discussion from roaring boil to quiet simmer.
One of Gibson’s foremost Jewish critics, Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, issued a statement praising the second apology and taking up the actor’s offer to meet once he completes the treatment he is reportedly undergoing for alcohol abuse.
Gibson’s other main Jewish critic, Simon Wiesenthal Center dean and founder Rabbi Marvin Hier, was among the first to speak out against the actor’s early morning tirade.
“There’s a classic Yiddish saying,” Hier told the Forward: “‘Vos iz bay a shiker af der tsung iz bay a nikhter inem mogn’ — ‘What a drunkard has on his tongue, the sober man has in his heart.’”
“He’s a man who obviously has a problem with Jews,” Hier said. “He’s a man who’s drunk, driving a car. He’s stopped by a policeman. There are no Jews around. What’s the first thing he says? He blames the Jews.” (Well, there was at least one Jew on the scene — the arresting officer — according to later reports.)
Hier’s first call to Gibson was that he abandon a planned ABC miniseries based on the 1998 memoir of a Dutch Jewish Holocaust survivor. During the course of the debate over “The Passion,” Gibson was criticized for not distancing himself from the writings of his father, Hutton Gibson, a Holocaust denier. The television network announced Monday that it was dropping Gibson’s Holocaust project.
When reached by the Forward soon after news of Gibson’s arrest began to spread, Catholic League President William Donohue, one of the film’s most vocal supporters, expressed surprise. “I was really taken aback by this,” he said. “I think he owes the Jewish community a better explanation.” But as time wore on, it was less Gibson’s wrongs that concerned Donohue and more those of the actor’s critics. “Mel’s enemies will never cut him a break,” Donohue said in a statement released by the Catholic League. “Their real goal is to discredit ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ and that is why their propaganda machine is in full gear.”
Some in the press called on Jewish defenders of “The Passion” — chief among them rightwing commentators Michael Medved and Rabbi Daniel Lapin — to account for themselves in light of Gibson’s antisemitic outburst.
Lapin, president of the educational organization Toward Tradition, found little reason for contrition. “It is all too easy to join the circling hyenas and denounce Gibson while he is down,” he said. If anything, Lapin found occasion to praise the actor. “A balanced and reasonable view would be that if indeed he really does hate Jews, then he deserves respect for his self-control when not drunk,” he said.
David Klinghoffer, a Forward columnist who defended the film, also saw little reason for remorse. “No regrets,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “My point at the time wasn’t that Gibson is a swell guy but that Jews were doing ourselves no favor by beating up on him for being anti-Semitic…. What did the ADL think was going to emerge from their attacks that would be the least bit positive for anyone — other than for the ADL’s fundraising efforts.”
Medved did not respond to a request from the Forward for comment.
Notable for their silence were evangelical Christian leaders — Focus on the Family founder James Dobson and others — who had championed the film.
“Frankly, I’m not too happy with people on my side,” Donohue said, “my side meaning the people who defended him on the movie. Where the hell have they been? You’re supposed to reach out to someone who’s fallen.”
Within Hollywood, the tone was, to an extent, set by Emanuel’s post. People in the moviemaking community, he said, need to “demonstrate they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him, even if it means a sacrifice to their bottom line.” Emanuel, brother of Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel, is allegedly the inspiration for the hard-charging super-agent Ari Gold on the HBO series “Entourage.”
Emanuel’s call was answered, to a degree, in the August 1 edition of the Los Angeles Times, which carried an article titled “Critics Find Voice in Gibson Drama.” The piece featured a number of prominent industry figures lambasting Gibson for his remarks.
“It’s incredibly disappointing that somebody of his stature would speak out that way,” said Amy Pascal, chairman of the Sony Pictures movie division, “especially at this sensitive time.”
New York Times columnist Frank Rich, a central figure in the debate over “The Passion” — Gibson famously said that he wanted not only to kill Rich but also to have his “intestines on a stick” — saw some of Hollywood’s protestations as belated and insincere. “Even before this incident, there was a feeling in Hollywood that Gibson was damaged goods, particularly as a movie star. People may say that they’ll never work with him again, but they probably wouldn’t have worked with him anyway,” Rich told the Forward.
That said, there is at least one Los Angeles figure looking to give Gibson some work. According to the Web site TMZ.com, which broke the drunk driving story and carried the arresting officer’s report, David Baron, founding rabbi of the Temple of the Arts in Beverly Hills, has extended an invitation to Gibson to speak at the synagogue on Yom Kippur. “In our faith we are commanded to forgive when the offending party takes the necessary steps and offers an apology from the heart,” Baron wrote in a letter to Gibson.
Gibson’s spokesman would not comment on the rabbi’s offer.