Can Mel Gibson ever be rehabilitated?

Gibson was finished after a run of racist and antisemitic outbursts. But will the second world war drama Hacksaw Ridge prove that there are second acts in Hollywood lives?

It may be hard to believe at the moment, but there was a time in the US when spouting racist and misogynistic hate speech would damage your career, rather than propelling you to its highest office. Just ask Mel Gibson.

In 2010, recordings surfaced on the internet of Gibson berating his then-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, in the most repulsive terms. Hollywood wasnt happy. Even though the films Gibson had starred in and directed had made more than $2bn worldwide, as well as earning him an Oscar, his talent agency jettisoned him the day the recordings were made public.

The lead actors in The Hangover Part II rebelled against his casting as a tattooist, and the cameo went to Nick Cassavetes. Gibsons friend Jodie Foster stood by him, but when the film they shot together, The Beaver, was released in 2011, it was an abject flop. Gibson, it seemed, was all washed up.

Not any more. Gibsons grisly new war movie, Hacksaw Ridge, has just opened in the US to decent box office takings ($18.5m so far) and a raft of strong reviews. You may have issues with the stars past history of anger and intolerance, wrote Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. But youll have no issue with Hacksaw Ridge, a movie about a different kind of brave heart. Could an Oscar nomination be next? It is certainly possible: on Sunday, Gibson received the best director trophy at the Hollywood film awards. Hollywood is officially back in the Mel Gibson business.

It is worth remembering at this stage that Gibsons invective against Grigorieva was no aberration. There were his homophobic comments in a Spanish newspaper interview in 1991. There was the party in the 1990s at which, according to Winona Ryder, he made a really horrible gay joke about a friend of hers, and then, when he heard that she was Jewish, said something about oven dodgers. There was his arrest in 2006 for speeding along the Pacific Coast Highway with an open bottle of tequila in his car, whereupon he yelled at the arresting officer: Fucking Jews ... the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. And thats before we get to the controversial statements he has made in the name of his religion, Sedevacantist Catholicism. He once said, for example, that he would go to heaven but his then-wife, an Episcopalian, wouldnt: Its just not fair but that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it. How is it that the left-leaning, liberal Hollywood elite we keep hearing about has accepted him back into the fold?

Hollywood is quite good at forgiving, one publicist and former 20th Century Fox executive tells me, on the phone from Los Angeles. You can see that again and again. If the work is strong enough, then the inclination to forgive the artist becomes stronger, too. And people are really, really liking Hacksaw Ridge.

Gibson (centre) on the set of Hacksaw Ridge. Photograph: AP

It is easy to understand why. Gibsons new film tells the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), a deeply Christian pacifist from rural Virginia who volunteered to serve as a medic in the second world war. Ironically, the gruesome combat scenes in Okinawa are its best part: people will go to see Gibsons tribute to pacifism primarily so they can watch faces being blown off and intestines flying. The non-combat scenes, on the other hand, arent great. The Disneyfied opening sequences in Virginia are so obviously shot in Australia that I kept expecting to spot a wallaby hopping by. But thats just quibbling. What matters about Hacksaw Ridge is that it proves that Gibson isnt chewing through my restraints, to use his own phrase. He is still an eminently competent director of big, traditional Hollywood entertainment. And his films can still make money.

I dont think people like Hacksaw Ridge for cynical reasons, says the publicist I spoke to, but this is Hollywood at the end of the day. It is a business.

There are also hints in Hacksaw Ridge that Gibson wants to redeem himself. The peace-loving Doss has been taken by some critics as the noble soul whom Gibson aspires to be, while Dosss violent, angry, alcoholic, obsessively Christian father (Hugo Weaving) can be seen as a self-flagellating self-portrait. Indeed, most of Gibsons films contain some reminder of his not-very-private private life. His only recent acting role, in the pulpily entertaining Blood Father, was as an alcoholic ex-con struggling to atone for his criminal past. The character was even a tattooist a reference, perhaps, to the role he won and lost in The Hangover Part II. Whether or not Gibson views Blood Father or Hacksaw Ridge as a mea culpa, it is no stretch to read them that way.

Gibson in Blood Father, in which he plays an alcoholic ex-con struggling to atone for his criminal past. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

He has been penitent in his life as well his art. After his antisemitic outburst, he met Jewish community leaders. After his homophobic outburst, he appeared at an event organised by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. He has also donated millions of dollars to charity, gone to Alcoholics Anonymous, and apologised on chatshows to everyone from Diane Sawyer to Stephen Colbert. In 2011 when Gibsons star was at its lowest he was profiled by Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair, and Lynda Obst, a producer, had this to say: I think he can come back, but time has to pass, and he has to perform one of these rituals of expiation that are de rigueur in America He has to do time like Martha Stewart and Mike Tyson, or go into AA and emerge a new person, or go on Oprah. The specifics may not have been exactly right, but that, essentially, is what has happened.

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