Will Mel Gibson Become A Late Player In This Oscar Race?

In these weeks leading up to Friday’s opening of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the showbiz media is treating Oliver Stone much like any other Hollywood director. There’s little lingering taint from that July newspaper interview where he complained about Jewish influence in U.S. media and foreign policy, and pinned remembrance of the Holocaust on the powerful Jewish lobby in America. Several apologies later, Stone (who is part-Jewish) is now back in the ADL’s and Hollywood’s good graces. And not only will Wall Street 2 do well at the box office this weekend ($20+M), but it also has Academy Award talk. Clearly, Hollywood forgives the man and doesn’t forget the moviemaker at Oscar time. Witness the recent embracement of Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Elia Kazan etc. Which brings me to Mel Gibson.

My Deadline awards columnist Pete Hammond has picked up on Oscar buzz for Mel’s performance in The Beaver, the Jodie Foster-directed feature which Summit Entertainment is still contemplating whether to release this year, next year, or ever. It’s a difficult dilemma for the studio given Gibson’s domestic disputes and the alleged racial slurs and sexist epithets and alleged physical and verbal abuse of his girlfriend that’s come out from behind closed doors. Plus, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences members are known to hold grudges for a myriad reasons even under normal circumstances. The voters are supposed to judge the merits of the performance and not the man behind it. But the Hollywood concensus now is that Mel’s a louse. But isn’t showbiz filled with louses who are also great moviemakers?

It’s long been my stated belief that, if a litmus test were given for behavior, nobody would ever work in showbiz again. Since past is prologue, even here where institutional memories are purposefully short, weeks before the 79th Academy Award nominations came out, moguls whispered to me that Apocalypto was the most artistically brilliant film “and I’ll deny it if you try to quote me”. Expectedly, the pic was blanked in the prestige categories. I’d predicted all along that Oscar voters would judge Mel the anti-Semitic drunk and not the moviemaker.

What didn’t help was that distributor Disney conducted a turd of an Academy campaign. Specifically, it asked Oscar voters “to look at Mel the artist and not Mel the man” and claimed that Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic ranting was not as bad as Polanski having sex with an underage girl, or Allen having sex with his step-daughter or Elia Kazan’s naming names before the Hollywood Un-American Activities Committee. Nevertheless, Oscar campaigning that underscores the character flaws of other film directors ain’t kosher.

The bottom line is that Gibson’s Apocalypto grossed $120.6M worldwide (and cost 1/3 that). Mel may be meshugginah, but he’s still a moneymaker. As an actor, he’s been responsible for over $2 billion box office and, since 1984, he’s never had a bomb. He also, as my colleague Pete Hammond points out, has 2 Oscars at home for directing and producing 1995’s Braveheart, but has never been nominated for his acting.

So I don’t understand why Summit is so reluctant to release The Beaver with an awards campaign for it. What’s the worst that can happen? After all, Disney didn’t suffer even when Saturday Night Live recut the Apocalypto movie trailer so all those Mayans were yelling “The Jews Are Coming. Run for your lives!” and other anti-Semitic stuff in the subtitles. (A small girl mouthed, “I smell bagels.”) And yet Mel’s Apocalypto not only won its weekend but had a bigger opening than his Braveheart — despite scandal, an R-rating, subtitles for an ancient dialect, rumors of walkouts on account of the violent content, no stars, and direct competition from Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz.

Disney was hoping that Mel’s The Passion of the Christ audience would reward him with their moviegoing loyalty, and they did. It was even Gibson’s unusual marketing strategy to place himself front and center in a series of Apocalypto TV ads meant to appeal directly to his Passion base. Trust me, Mel’s base is still out there. When I revealed that Gibson’s agency WME Entertainment had fired him because Mel allegedly used the “n-word” racial slur during a private domestic quarrel, 50% of all the comments flooding in to Deadline were willing to give Gibson the benefit of the doubt and defend him. But they don’t release movies or vote for Oscars.