His name has been more synonymous in recent years with volatility and vitriol than Hollywood glitz and glamour. He’s been one of the most powerful people in this town, but a series of rants and scandals has prompted some of the industry’s top players to say they won’t work with him.
And yet Mel Gibson is back this week in the dark comedy "The Beaver," directed by and co-starring his longtime friend Jodie Foster, as a man who falls into such a deep depression, he can only communicate with the outside world through a beaver hand puppet.
Reviews have been positive, yet can this risky picture restore the two-time Oscar winner’s reputation, and will it inspire the public to embrace him once more?
"They’re going to think his performance is extraordinary," said Rob Friedman, co-chairman and CEO of Summit Entertainment, which is releasing "The Beaver." "People have their own issues in their personal lives and for the most part they aren’t in the public eye the way a movie star like Mel Gibson is. They resolve them without the scrutiny and intense focus."
Gibson stars as Walter Black, a toy company executive who suffers from such heavy despair, his wife (played by Foster) kicks him out of the house and away from their two sons. After a botched suicide attempt, he finds an unusual method of returning to reality: by speaking through a beaver hand puppet he finds in a trash bin.
Gibson’s dramatic moments harken to his work in films like "Ransom," "The Patriot" and "Braveheart" — which earned him Oscars for best picture and best director. Yet his manic, comic scenes call to mind the charisma the 55-year-old actor made his name on decades ago in the "Mad Max" and "Lethal Weapon" pictures.
Both extremes serve as a reminder of how versatile and gifted Gibson can be as an actor, but viewers will surely look for ways in which art imitates life in this tale of instability and mental illness.
Last summer, as Foster was editing "The Beaver," a series of recordings surfaced of disturbing arguments that purportedly had occurred between Gibson and his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, Oksana Grigorieva. They were full of sexist and racist comments, and they simultaneously made Gibson a pariah and fodder for late-night comedians.
Last fall, Gibson had been cast in a cameo as a tattoo artist in the sequel "The Hangover Part II," but director Todd Phillips ended up cutting him when he received protests from some members of the cast and crew.
Earlier this year, Gibson pleaded no contest after being charged with misdemeanor spousal battery for a January 2010 fight he had with Grigorieva at his Malibu home.
But Foster stuck by her friend, with whom she co-starred in 1994’s "Maverick." She also stuck by Gibson in 2006, when he was arrested for drunken driving, and a deputy’s report revealed that he’d used anti-Semitic and sexist slurs.
"I’m not defending his behavior," she said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I’m defending the man that I know. And I know he’s kind and loyal and is an incredible professional."
Still, the timing of all these events made releasing "The Beaver" tricky. Summit originally planned to have it in theaters last fall, then moved it to this spring, and now it’s coming out in limited release on Friday before expanding May 20.
"It’s taken the focus away from what we wanted. That’s one of the reasons we moved the movie out of last year, at the height of the chaos that was occurring," Friedman said, adding that Gibson was supportive of the move.
"The Beaver" generated strong word of mouth when it premiered at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, in March. The festival’s producer, Janet Pierson, said she was intrigued by its premise, and that mattered more to her than any gossip about Gibson.
"With a lot of artists — a lot of really incredibly fascinating, incredibly talented people — one would not want to look too closely at a lot of their private lives," Pierson said. "I thought the film was so moving, just beautifully done and perfectly etched, and it’s about some real issues."
Early reviews for the movie, and especially for Gibson’s work, have been strong.
"With the dusky corners Gibson has revealed of his own psyche," wrote AP Movie Writer David Germain, "’ The Beaver’ is not only a showcase for a great performance, but also, an intriguing academic study of where Walter ends and Gibson begins."
Still, it’s impossible to tell just yet whether the positive response to "The Beaver" will help salvage Gibson’s reputation.
"It’s in the gutter right now. A lot of people don’t want to work with him, he’s in trouble," said longtime celebrity publicist Howard Bragman. "He’s got a movie coming out that, under the best of circumstances, would be a tough sell. It’s a very dark movie — a lot of people were afraid to make it. The buzz is great on his performance, and Jodie Foster is an amazing director. Nobody’s denying Mel’s ability as an actor. I think he’s good. But it’s not going to save his career."
Veteran Hollywood observer Tom O’Neil, columnist for TheEnvelope.com, suggested that Gibson has been too reticent and hasn’t appeared sufficiently contrite. Gibson’s representatives declined repeated interview requests from The Associated Press.
"Mel Gibson has gone from ‘Braveheart’ hero to tabloid hellcat, and ‘The Beaver’ seems like a ploy for sympathy: He’s setting himself up as the victim of depression," O’Neil said. "This man beat up the mother of his daughter and raged against blacks and Jews. These sins are so huge, and with The Beaver,’ he seems to be acknowledging this by taking on the movie role and then hiding behind the hand puppet."
Friedman, who’s been friends with Gibson for 30 years, said that’s not the man he knows. "He has a lot of very, very supportive friends who have been lifelong friends who come from various ethnic backgrounds and we support him. I don’t think anybody would support him if they felt he were racist or anti-Semitic."
Bragman suggested that Gibson, who’s directed and produced such films as "The Passion of the Christ" and "Apocalypto," should continue working behind the camera as a way to return to form.
"Mel should look for small parts in interesting movies and wind his way back in," he said. "He’s never going to get to where he was. Honestly, there are just some people who will never work with him. If Ari Emanuel, the head of one of the two most powerful talent agencies in the world, is saying he won’t work with him, that sends a message."