Two weeks ago, on the L.A. set of his new film, The Conspiracy Theory, Mel Gibson settled down to a simple lunch that could have turned into a food fight. The event was a filmmaking seminar organized by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), a media watchdog group that for years has angrily accused Gibson of homophobia. Joining Gibson was Conspiracy’s combustible producer, Joel Silver, who sat across from out-of-the-closet celebrity daughter Chastity Bono, GLAAD’s new entertainment media director. But also sharing in the modest spread of chicken fajitas and fresh fruit were nine up-and-coming lesbian and gay directors selected by GLAAD to meet Gibson and talk about whatever they wanted.
The lunch was shadowed by a series of past incidents. In 1990, GLAAD chastised Gibson for what it called his ”demeaning” characterization of a hairdresser in Bird on a Wire. The rancor really flowed a year later when El Pais, Spain’s biggest newspaper, published a controversial interview with Gibson. ”Who might think that with this demeanor I could be gay?” Gibson said. ”Do I talk like them? Do I move like them?” The actor, raised a staunch Catholic, also made an off-color joke about the inappropriateness of anal sex. He subsequently maintained that the quotes were misinterpreted. Soon, one of Hollywood’s box office giants was knuckle-rapped by Liz Smith, who wrote, ”It is awful to find out that mentally he lives in the Dark Ages.”
After that, Gibson could do no right with the gay community. His 1993 directorial debut, The Man Without a Face, was criticized because his character in the novel — a gay teacher involved with a 14-year-old student — was changed in the movie to a presumably straight teacher wrongly accused of child molestation. No matter that this overhaul was made before Gibson signed on to the project.
The ill will boiled over with 1995’s Braveheart. GLAAD organized protests in nine cities against Gibson’s acting-directing tour de force, calling its portrayal of Edward II a ”typical homophobic caricature.” One scene, in which Edward I throws his son’s lover out of a window, seemed filmed in a way that invited hurrahs from the audience. However, Gibson’s depiction of a weak, craven Edward II doesn’t stray far from history books. ”This type of interpretation was very much in place within 10 or 20 years of his death,” says Charles T. Wood, professor of history at Dartmouth. Wood, however, knows of no chronicle of an incident in which Edward I kills a lover of Edward II. ”But it would be perfectly consistent,” he says. ”Edward I certainly had a reputation for a fierce temper.”
Gibson’s response to the Braveheart criticism was equally fierce. ”I’ll apologize when hell freezes over,” he told Playboy in July 1995. ”They can f— off.”
So it was all the more surprising to find the actor cordially talking shop in a Jan. 27 forum sponsored by his detractors. The first steps in this pass-the-peace-pipe meeting — organized by Chastity Bono — were taken last spring when GLAAD contacted Gibson directly, looking for a way to defuse the tension and demonstrate the group’s new effort to educate, not alienate, celebrities.