Image Credit: Angela Weiss/Getty ImagesListening to the rage and ugliness and incipient boiling violence of Mel Gibson’s eight-minute-long over-the-phone rant at his former girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, that was made public Monday on RadarOnline.com, I had a reaction that, I suspect, mirrored that of many others. I was horrified — and I was mesmerized. I cringed, sometimes visibly, at everything he was saying; I also hung on every hideous, seething, bottled-up, paranoid, vengeful word. The sheer drama of the tape is staggering — for eight minutes, it just about stops time. It’s likely that there has never been a public breakdown this awful and spectacular by a modern celebrity. (The conversation in question may technically have been private, but its leaking is just another demonstration that there no longer is a private.) Coming on the heels of the recent Gibson audiotape, with its tangle of threats and racial slurs, and four years after his infamous anti-Semitic rant at police officers during a DUI bust, Monday’s domestic-tantrum-tape-from-hell — with another tape having just leaked — feels, in a scurrilous way, like a deliverance. The full seething anger of Mel Gibson is now on display, for all time, and no one is ever going to be able to put that frothing genie back in the bottle. Mel has made his bed of red-hot nails, and now he’s going to have to lie on it.
Can his career as a movie star, which was already in mid-slide, recover? It’s seriously doubtful. Apart from the sheer shameful stigma of it all (how many people are there left who will now work with him? produce his movies? distribute them? go to see them?), who could Mel Gibson now conceivably portray in a movie? If he tries to play someone smiley and nice, it would look like a bad joke. But if he takes on the role of someone brutish and mean, a walking-tall cauldron of righteous payback — in other words, a typical Mel Gibson character — it will put the scandal of his domestic explosion front and center all over again. A lot of actors have demons, but Mel Gibson’s demons, it’s now clear, are bigger than he is. Those demons now dwarf and engulf him. For all his range as an actor, he has been playing Mad Mel, in one form or another, for more than 30 years (going back to Mad Max, in 1979, and up to and including Edge of Darkness, his thriller from earlier this year). But there’s a difference between doing variations on a big-screen persona, having that persona leak, dangerously, into your public life (as happened to Russell Crowe during his phone-flinging hotel blow-up), and having “Mad Mel” branded forever onto your forehead.
Am I the only one who, as I listened to Gibson’s phone rage, heard echoes of other actors? I don’t mean their private lives; I mean their performances. At full righteous boil, Gibson sounded like some walking, sputtering fractured-man psychodrama from the 1970s — Pacino’s Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon (1975), say, or De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980), railing away at the arm-candy wife who he thought had trampled on his soul. I don’t mean that to be a glib comparison. Life is life, and movies are movies — I get that. But a number of those fabled ’70s films have lasted because they were such memorable studies of the pathology of male rage, and the twisted forms that that rage can take in a society where men feel — rightly or wrongly — that their power has been leeched away.
Throughout the tape, Gibson, like the veteran actor-director he is, orchestrates the situation like a piece of threatening theater, only with himself as the tormented and “victimized” protagonist. For let’s be clear: In every gasping, panting, fulminating breath, in every weirdly articulate epithet-spasm (“You need a f—ing doctor! You need a f—ing brain transplant! You need a f—ing soul!”), Gibson expresses the conviction that he is the one who has been wronged. That’s what makes the tape so perversely gripping: the sick grandeur of Mel Gibson’s self-delusion. On the other end of that line, Gibson, a powerful celebrity, acts out the warped drama of his perceived lack of power, his spiritual impotence, his need to control. It may have been a rant, but like so many rants, it’s really a kind of ultimate personal Method performance — the sound of a Raging Bull gone over-the-top. One of the things we want from actors, or at least that we used to want from them, is to see and hear them bare their souls. But now that we’ve heard the full madness of Mel Gibson’s Method, he may finally have ended up baring too much of his soul to bear.
So what’s your reaction to the Gibson tape? How is hearing it different than reading excerpts from it? And how, if at all, does it influence your feelings about Gibson the actor and filmmaker?