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Film Mel Gibson is on the cusp of a comeback – but does he deserve a do-over?

The uncomfortable return of Mel Gibson

With his new war drama Hacksaw Ridge, the director is on the verge of a serious comeback – even if he doesn't want to talk about what, exactly, he's coming back from. Barry Hertz speaks with the most controversial man in Hollywood

Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge is enjoying a rapturous reception with critics. But his past controversies raise the question, it is finally time to draw a hard line over giving a clean slate to stars?

Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is enjoying a rapturous reception with critics. But his past controversies raise the question, it is finally time to draw a hard line over giving a clean slate to stars?

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

In the new Second World War film Hacksaw Ridge, a conscientious objector named Desmond Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) signs up for the infantry, eager to help his country in its hour of need – but he refuses to carry a weapon, or have anything to do with the theatre of war.

Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist, is not enlisting to kill; instead, he's there to heal, as a battlefield medic. As we watch Doss dodge both accusations of cowardice from his fellow Americans and gunfire from the enemy, we're asked not to judge the man based on his beliefs, but on his actions, his character, his compassion for humanity.

It's an admirable and empowering message, the kind of based-on-a-true-story drama that will tug at a million heartstrings – yet it is also one that doesn't square itself so neatly once you realize who directed Hacksaw Ridge: Mel Gibson. Because while Gibson is eager to recount the actions of Desmond Doss, he is all but silent on why he should be the filmmaker to tell that story – why he, of all those who have crossed Hollywood's ever-shifting red line, should be given a second (or third, or fourth) chance.

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Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, a based-on-a-true-story Second World War drama about a a conscientious objector who signs up for the infantry, but refuses to carry a weapon.

Andrew Garfield in Hacksaw Ridge, a based-on-a-true-story Second World War drama about a a conscientious objector who signs up for the infantry, but refuses to carry a weapon.

Mark Rogers/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

With Hacksaw Ridge, it's clear Mel Gibson is seeking redemption – but for what, exactly, he won't quite say.

What do we talk about when we talk about Mel Gibson? For certain moviegoers, it's a rich and varied career peppered with indelible performances, critical accolades and two Academy Awards. For some industry players, it's a bankable name responsible for pulling in more than $2-billion (U.S.) at the box office and spawning two huge franchises (Mad Max and Lethal Weapon), both of which are still somehow going concerns.

And for everyone else, it's a discussion that grinds to a halt at mentions of domestic violence, homophobia, racism and antisemitism.

For those requiring a refresher: Gibson's career first went under the microscope in 2004, when he released his bloody, brutal epic The Passion of the Christ. The perhaps unlikely blockbuster immediately sparked accusations of anti-Semitism, what with its virulent depictions of snarling, bloodthirsty Jewish characters. (Gibson defended his directorial vision, saying, "I'm subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man.")

Mel Gibson is as known for incidents involving domestic violence, homophobia, racism and antisemitism as his rich and varied film career.

Mel Gibson is as known for incidents involving domestic violence, homophobia, racism and antisemitism as his rich and varied film career.

Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for AIF

Two years later, the star was arrested for drunk driving in Malibu, Calif., where he unleashed a racist tirade toward the arresting officers, saying, among other things, "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."

In 2010, audio recordings leaked online in which the star hurled vile epithets at former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, criticized her for dressing provocatively and told her that if she was raped by African-Americans (whom Gibson referred to by using the N-word), "it will be your fault." (Gibson would go on to plead no contest to a misdemeanour battery charge of battering Grigorieva.)

And in between all of this, there is a long history of defaming gays ("I'll apologize [to GLAAD] when hell freezes over"), threatening journalists ("I want [New York Times reporter Frank Rich's] intestines on a stick … I want to kill his dog") and generally demeaning women ("Feminist, for Christ's sake … What does it mean? It's a term invented by some woman who got jilted").

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Recounting the incidents is difficult but necessary, if only to feel the full, toxic weight of them. But Gibson's latest flare-up was also six years ago – an eternity in Hollywood. Recently, certain corners of the industry began to allow Gibson re-entry, even if it was through the back door, with parts in such B-movies as Machete Kills, The Expendables 3 and this past summer's straight-to-video exploitation flick, Blood Father.

Andrew Garfield and Teresa Palmer star in Hacksaw Ridge. A screening this week at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences earned a rare standing ovation.

Andrew Garfield and Teresa Palmer star in Hacksaw Ridge. A screening this week at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences earned a rare standing ovation.

Mark Rogers/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

Yet with Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson's return threatens to become legitimate. The film is getting a major, awards-friendly release next week in the United States and Canada, after enjoying a rapturous reception at the Venice Film Festival this past September. Rotten Tomatoes currently ranks it at 94-per-cent fresh. A screening this week at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences earned a rare standing ovation.

It is a comeback narrative that not even the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood could imagine. But there is just one problem: Gibson is adamant that it's not a comeback at all.

"A second chance in Hollywood? What do you mean a second chance?" Gibson says, when asked whether he deserves another shot in the industry.

Director Mel Gibson on the set of Hacksaw Ridge.

Director Mel Gibson on the set of Hacksaw Ridge.

Mark Rogers/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

It is the second-last weekend of October, and I'm speaking with the director over the phone from Los Angeles, where he's in the midst of a Hacksaw Ridge publicity junket – a grinding few days of glad-handing and dutifully selling Desmond Doss's story. Observing from a distance via social media, it seems to be a mostly smooth ride for the director; the most popular topic is not his past, but his bushy salt-and-pepper beard.

To clarify my earlier question, I mention the 2006 arrest and the 2010 audiotape leaks, which so disgusted Hollywood that such power players as super-agent Ari Emanuel and then-Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal publicly disavowed him. Would such a boycott not naturally engender a comeback narrative now, given that he's releasing his first directorial effort in a decade?

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"Oh, yeah, well, oh, well. That's 10 or 12 years ago, man, and I certainly have forgotten about it, and I think everyone else has, too," Gibson says. "I talk to Ari on a regular basis, we e-mail each other. We sorted it all out. There's a lot of posturing and a lot of media sensationalism that goes on when someone has a nervous breakdown, drunk in the back of a police car. I made the necessary apologies at the time. People can either accept them or they don't have to. But I've done my part.

Vince Vaughn, Andrew Garfield and John Cannon in Hacksaw Ridge (2016).

Vince Vaughn, Andrew Garfield and John Cannon in Hacksaw Ridge.

Mark Rogers/Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

"You know, the last 10 years, I've worked on myself a lot and I feel really good, and I'm back doing what I need to do," he continues. "So you know, it's all okay. Do I deserve it? I don't deserve anything. I'm as venal as the next man, no better and no worse. But I'm certainly fortunate to have the opportunity to what I love doing, which is directing and telling stories. And I think I do it well."

There is little question Gibson does just that. Braveheart, Apocalypto, The Passion of the Christ and now, Hacksaw Ridge: These are films that, no matter how imperfect (and in the case of The Passion, nakedly offensive), contain moments of great cinematic power.

Which brings everyone – audiences, critics and the industry – back to the same immovable question we've been forced to confront over and over: Judge the art, or judge the artist? How many times must we come up against this moral quandary and walk away with no clear answer?

Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and this year, to an extent, Nate Parker – there is of course no one-size-fits-all argument, but at the same time, there are so few artists who get the chance to produce their visions that it can become unbearably frustrating to witness the industry continually succumb to the allure of a comeback narrative, of giving "masters" another chance, a do-over, a clean slate – a platform that might go to someone, anyone, else. Perhaps with Gibson, it is finally time to draw a hard line – especially if the man himself seems to care so little about his own actions.

Director Mel Gibson attends the red carpet for Hacksaw Ridge at the 73rd Venice Film Festival in Italy on Sept. 4, 2016.

Director Mel Gibson attends the red carpet for Hacksaw Ridge at the 73rd Venice Film Festival in Italy on Sept. 4, 2016.

Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

"Let's talk about the film, huh?" the director says, after I press on and ask what it was like to have members of the industry distance themselves from him. "That was, like, 10 years ago. It's old, Barry, it's so old. I've moved on, and I wish everyone else would."

I add that for some moviegoers, when they hear the name Mel Gibson, an unsavoury history comes to mind. For members of the Jewish community, the gay community, for every single woman, it's hard to move on – almost impossible.

"Well, there's nothing I can do about that, Barry. What, do you want me to address it or something?"

At this point, Garfield, also on the call, jumps in.

"Sorry, but we are missing an opportunity to talk about the man, Desmond Doss, who is an incredible symbol and figure, and with the state of the culture that we're in right now, we need to know his story," the actor says. "I'm excited to talk about him, and I know Mel is, too. I do think the questions that you've asked have been addressed."

Except they haven't, and they likely never will be, at least not in conjunction with Hacksaw Ridge's release. The rest of our conversation is mostly taken up by Gibson sidestepping his past and Garfield defending his director.

(When asked if he, as a Jewish performer, had any hesitation working with Gibson, the actor replies, "I had no hesitation at all – I know Mel in a very personal way and in a very deep way. My experience is my own experience. Added to which he is an incredibly compassionate, loving and empathic storyteller.")

It all seems to be a bracingly familiar strategy, the same one that was deployed back in 2006, and again in 2010. And with six minutes of a scheduled 15-minute conversation left to go, the call is curtailed by a publicist on the other end.

As the week rolls on, stories begin to trickle out of the Hacksaw junket – some focusing on Garfield's performance, others on Doss's inspirational story and a few on how Gibson is preparing for the birth of his ninth child, with 26-year-old girlfriend Rosalind Ross ("I'm too old to get nervous," the 60-year-old tells Extra).

The 20th annual Hollywood Film Awards announce Gibson as the recipient of the Hollywood Director Award, his first such industry-stamped seal of approval in years. The movie enjoys its red-carpet Los Angeles premiere. The Oscar hype builds. The comeback rolls on.

And all the while, you can trust that Mel Gibson will talk about anything – his film, his inspiration, his faith, his cast – except Mel Gibson.

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