Monday, December 04, 2006

Mel Gibson

Though introduced to American audiences as Australian, the strikingly handsome, blue-eyed Mel Gibson actually hailed from Peekskill, New York. (He and his family had emigrated Down Under in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.) After a season onstage with Sydney's South Australian Theatre Company where he portrayed both Oedipus and Henry IV, he made his name as the leather-clad, post-apocalyptic action hero of George Miller's "Mad Max" and in the radically different "Tim" (both 1979), for which he picked up his first of two Australian Film Institute Awards as Best Actor, playing a retarded handyman in love with Piper Laurie. Peter Weir's World War I drama "Gallipoli" and "Mad Max 2" (both 1981), Miller's transcendent follow-up to "Mad Max" (released in the USA as "The Road Warrior" since American audiences knew nothing of the barely-released earlier movie), established Gibson as an international star. "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982), Weir's film about the political upheavals of 1960s Indonesia, gave him his first romantic lead opposite Sigourney Weaver and launched him as a sex symbol.

After a turn as a reluctantly mutinous Fletcher Christian opposite Anthony Hopkins' Captain Bligh in "The Bounty", Gibson made an inauspicious American debut in "The River" (both 1984), playing a character so coldly stubborn that few could empathize. The well-made but gloomy "Mrs. Soffel" (also 1984) followed quickly before he returned to Australia to wrap up the "Mad Max" series with "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" (1985), a cumbersome satire with less action, a bigger budget, Tina Turner and Max, mostly on foot, looking like a wandering prophet. Gibson then took two years off to concentrate on his family, returning to the screen in "Lethal Weapon" (1987), for which he created perhaps his most popular character, Martin Riggs, an explosive homicide cop paired with the long-suffering Danny Glover. The film propelled Gibson to superstardom, spawned three sequels (to date) and allowed him to incorporate his innate playfulness as part of an unusually rich characterization for a modern action hero. Called at various times "practical joker", "eternal adolescent" and "fun-loving fourth Stooge", Gibson has remained a "regular guy" who doesn't take himself or his work too seriously and consistently comes across as relaxed and natural.

Gibson sandwiched the meandering "Tequila Sunrise" (1988) and even more disappointing "Bird on a Wire" (1990) around a blockbuster "Lethal Weapon 2" (1989), and his patented swagger could not save the alleged action-comedy "Air America" (1990) from the inadequacy of its script. Next, in a surprising career move, he opted to take his shot at Shakespeare's Melancholy Dane in Franco Zeffirelli's "Hamlet" (1990). While the film was problematic, Gibson turned in a finely rendered portrait of the famed prince in the first project produced by his Icon Productions. He continued in a more sentimental vein with the sudsy "Forever Young" (1992), scored another huge hit with "Lethal Weapon 3" (1993), then made his directorial debut with "The Man Without a Face" (1993), a drama in which he hid his good looks behind the heavy makeup of a burn victim. After this mildly popular effort, Gibson returned to rowdy commercial fare with "Maverick" (1994), teaming for a fourth time with "Lethal Weapon" director Richard Donner for a 90s adaptation of the 60s TV Western-comedy series, which shrewdly parlayed his dashing rogue qualities into more box-office bliss.

Gibson returned to the director's chair for "Braveheart" (1995), a project far bigger than any with which he had been previously involved in any capacity. Clad in a kilt, sporting blue war paint and wielding a big sword, Gibson starred as Sir William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish nobleman persecuted for his efforts to free Scotland from English rule. Wags dubbed the film "Mad Mac", but the Academy deemed it worthy, voting it five awards including Best Picture and honoring Gibson as Best Director. Later that same year, in addition to providing the speaking voice for John Smith in Disney's "Pocahontas", Gibson made his screen singing debut. His collaboration with Ron Howard, "Ransom" (1996), another box-office hit that earned $35 million its first week, preceded "Conspiracy Theory" (1997), his fifth film with Donner and a surprising commercial dud compared to their previous work, especially with Julia Roberts starring opposite Gibson. The actor-director pair rebounded with "Lethal Weapon 4" (1998), its healthy box office reaffirming Riggs-Murtaugh (in reportedly their last outing) as a bankable team.

Gibson next starred as a murderous thief bent on getting his "Payback" (1999), a loose reworking of the same Donald Westlake novel that had inspired John Boorman's 1967 classic thriller "Point Blank". Playing to Gibson's strengths, the urban Western veered problematically from dark and sinister to comic and whimsical but still managed a respectable box office. His star power could not make Wim Wenders' "The Million Dollar Hotel" (2000) a mainstream success, and though the director's visual skills were on display, the underdeveloped, not very interesting story made it a tough sell at the art-houses. Gibson then joined "popcorn" specialists Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich for Emmerich's Revolutionary War drama "The Patriot" (also 2000), scripted by Robert Rodat. Essentially a Western, "The Patriot" cast him as a retired "gunslinger", still spooked by his memories of the French and Indian War, who clings fast to his pacifism until his son falls into enemy hands, triggering his course of revenge. After voicing Rocky the Rooster in the animated "Chicken Run", a sort of feathered "Great Escape", he rounded out the busy year as star of Nancy Meyers' romantic comedy "What Women Want" (both 2000).

Aside from making Gibson vehicles, his Icon Productions has produced projects like the Beethoven biopic "Immortal Beloved" (1994, directed by Bernard Rose), the remake of "Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina" (1997, also helmed by Rose), the black comedy "Ordinary Decent Criminals" (a fictionalized version of the life of Irish thief Martin Cahill) and the above average ABC biopic "The Three Stooges" (both 2000).

In 2002, Gibson appeared in the war film "We Were Soldiers," directed by Gibson's "Braveheart" scribe Randall Wallace and in "Signs," the much anticipated M. Night Shyamalan movie about crop circles. The actor was almost unrecognizable behind wig of thinning hair and bulbous prosthetics in the 2003 film adaptation of Dennis Potter's acclaimed "The Singing Detective," and while the film did not burn up the box office reports Gibson, who also produced, earned personal kudos for employing his old "Air America" co-star Robert Downey, Jr., to play the lead, despite Downey's prior difficulties with drug arrests. Gibson next ignited a wildfire of controversy with his third directoral effort "The Passion of the Christ" (2004), a hard-hitting, highly bloody depiction of the Gospels in which Gibson, a devout Catholic who was inspired to make the film after struggling with his own personal demons, wanted to illustrate the severe suffering and selfless sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Long before the film was released, it came under intense scrutiny from religious groups and was criticized early on for intimations of anti-Semitism in the way Jews were shown to contribute to Jesus' persecution--an element that was not aided by some injudicious, intolerant-sounding comments made by Gibson's father, Hutton. Critics were polarized by the film, many citing the violence and gore as excessive, while others praised Gibson's unflinching portrayal--With interest in the controversial film at a fever pitch when in opened, "The Passion of the Christ" debuted to box office blockbuster-sized grosses.

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