Some punishments fit the crime, while others spiral out of proportion. We get it, there are actions that deserve to be cancelled, but for some people, the slightest slip-up can be life-ruining. With Cancel Cancel Culture, Refinery29 will examine the implications of "cancelling" public figures whose fuckups — major or minor — were put on trial in the court of public opinion. We'll also pose the question: Is it finally time for cancel culture to be cancelled, too?
Mel Gibson was cancelled — twice — before we even had a word for it.
In 2006, an arrest report detailing Gibson’s anti-Semitic and sexist tirade against Los Angeles police officers during an arrest on suspicion of drunk driving was leaked to TMZ. The public outcry was swift. Everyone from Jewish community leaders to Barbara Walters condemned Gibson, prompting him to go on an apology tour. He appeared on Good Morning America and told Diane Sawyer that he was “ashamed” of his remarks. He also sought treatment for alcohol abuse.
Apocalypto, Gibson’s movie about the decline of the Mayan empire circa 1502, which he had co-written, directed, and produced before the incident, was released in December 2006. It got mixed reviews, but grossed more than $120 million at the box office, and was nominated for three Academy Awards for makeup and sound. Still, industry leaders essentially declared the Oscar-winning actor/director persona non grata. There seemed to be no way for him to appear in front of the camera again. His marriage to wife Robyn disintegrated, and after 28 years together, the two separated in July 2006. (She filed for divorce in 2009, citing "irreconcilable differences".) For a while, it appeared as if Mel Gibson might be kicked out of Hollywood once and for all — with the additional wallop of his personal life crumbling.
Nevertheless, by 2010, Gibson was on the cusp of his Hollywood comeback, with a role in mystery crime drama Edge Of Darkness and a planned cameo in The Hangover II, when Oksana Grigorieva, his then-girlfriend and mother to one of his nine children, claimed that he had attacked her while in a drunken rage. Tapes of an altercation between the two in which Gibson can be heard viciously threatening Grigorieva were also leaked to the press. The cameo was pulled, and Gibson was once again a pariah. But this time, he didn’t exactly go away. In a 2011 interview with Allison Hope Weiner, he defended his reputation, and claimed he no longer cared about acting.
His resume says otherwise. Gibson acted in five films between 2011 and 2016. His career had slowed down from his heyday as a swarthy leading man, but he was working. And far from shying away from the spotlight, he announced in 2011 that he was planning a movie for Warner Bros. about the Maccabees, prompting further outrage from the Jewish community. (The film has not gone forward.)
And then, in 2017, there he was again, grinning in the front row of the Dolby Theater, as the director of Hacksaw Ridge, nominated for six Oscars (including Best Director). Fourteen years after his inflammatory comments against Jews and women, and nearly a decade after he pleaded no contest in the domestic abuse case, it looks like Gibson has mostly been rehabilitated — in the eyes of Hollywood, at least.
This isn’t exactly breaking news. I have written about Hollywood’s blindspot when it comes to Gibson before, for this very website, when he starred in Daddy’s Home 2 in 2017. Some explain his return as an inevitable result of time passing. “We kind of did cancel him before cancel culture was chic,” Danny Deraney, head of Deraney PR and celebrity crisis communications expert, told Refinery29 in a phone interview. “We weren’t seeing his movies, and he wasn’t around anymore. He did the wise thing, which was to go away, [and] no matter what you’ve done, time kills most things.”
But is time really a good enough reason for Gibson to have been able to return to the money and perks of Hollywood? An interesting aspect of his situation is that he has weathered two distinct storms. The first, and arguably the one that had the biggest impact on his career, involved hate speech. The second, more in line with the current wave of #MeToo-related cancel culture, revolved around allegations of domestic abuse. As Constance Grady over at Vox wrote in 2018, his story provides a rough blueprint for how to rise from the ashes of cancel culture. The question isn’t so much should he be cancelled, but why he, like so many celebrities who have done wrong, has been allowed to return time and time again?
The biggest argument used by those who oppose cancel culture is that a trial by public opinion can condemn someone to a lifetime of shame without proof. But the truth is, very few cancelled celebrities are exiled for long. Louis C.K. is back on tour, Matt Lauer clowns around on TikTok, and even Harvey Weinstein is giving interviews about how much he’s done for women in Hollywood even as he’s on trial for rape. (He denies all allegations of nonconsensual sex.)
Since Gibson's despicable behavior didn't take place in professional settings, he has a lot more in common with other so-called male auteurs, whose fans continue to defend them because of the belief that their bad actions shouldn’t be conflated with their art. Until very recently, when Amazon pulled U.S. distribution on A Rainy Day in New York, Woody Allen was able to make films relatively unencumbered by Dylan Farrow’s allegations that he molested her as a child. (Allen continues to deny the allegations.)
Many actors — like Cate Blanchett, Scarlett Johansson, Kate Winslet, and Jeff Goldblum — still publicly defend him and state that they would work with him again. Roman Polanski, who pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor in 1978 and fled to France to escape jail time, won a Grand Jury Prize at the Venice International Film Festival in 2019. The subtext of his film, An Officer and a Spy, centering around the 1894 Dreyfus Affair, is not subtle: A wrongfully convicted man seeks justice from the mob who framed him.
The debate over what to do with the art of bad men is a complex one, and I won’t pretend to have an easy answer. But in Gibson’s case — as with Allen, whose nebbishy protagonists with a passion for very young women are deeply uncomfortable to watch in hindsight — that distinction between art and creatorman has always been fuzzy. Passion of the Christ, released two years before his anti-Semitic comments were leaked to the press, was slammed by the Anti-Defamation League. In her review for The Atlantic, headlined “The Protocols of Mel Gibson” (a reference to “the protocols of the elders of Zion,” a dangerous conspiracy theory that Jews control the world economy), Katha Pollitt called it “a movie that could safely be shown at the Leni Riefenstahl Memorial Film Festival.”
And yet, Gibson’s high-profile friends have largely stood by him publicly. In 2011, Jodie Foster cast Gibson in her directorial debut The Beaver, and his quiet and committed performance was praised by critics. "It's not my job to adjudicate his behavior," Foster told the New York Times in 2016. "He's certainly not sexist and certainly not racist. I know the guy I know, somebody who's really emotional, who I can have long, long conversations with, who's trustworthy, who shows up for me."
Robert Downey Jr., whose career Gibson helped bring back from the dead after Downey’s multiple drug arrests and prison sentence, has also stressed his desire to see his friend get a second chance. In 2014, he told Deadline that he’d make Iron Man 4 only “if Mel Gibson directs it.”
Hope Weiner, who befriended Gibson after she interviewed him in 2011, published a piece in Deadline calling for an end to his “purgatory.”
Significantly, Gibson’s infractions took place before social media — and Twitter especially — took off as a medium for public shaming. Gawker (RIP) certainly did its part to keep him accountable with a detailed timeline of every single problematic thing Gibson has ever said on the record, but even that didn’t have the kind of reach and impact of a viral hashtag. And even when he is trending now, his story is old news.
But as we’ve seen time and time again, being cancelled on social media doesn't always lead to permanent real-world impact. Johnny Depp, accused by ex-wife Amber Heard of abuse, is still leading a major Hollywood franchise. (He denies all allegations.) Liam Neeson’s shocking admission that he once stalked the streets in search of a Black man to murder out of revenge didn’t stop Hollywood from casting him in at least four upcoming projects. (Neeson has since apologized for his remarks.) Kevin Hart may have been fired as host of the 91st Academy Awards for refusing to apologize for past homophobic tweets, but his acting and producing career hasn’t suffered because of it. Scarlett Johansson is nominated for two Academy Awards despite her tone-deaf comments about trans actors. Gina Rodriguez is heading to Sundance after apologizing for saying the N-word. (Johansson and Rodriguez’s infractions were perhaps less injurious, but the point is that all enjoyed a similar frenzy of public condemnation that eventually led to few professional consequences.)
As journalist Yashar Ali pointed out on Twitter recently, cancel culture actually has far more drastic and far-reaching effects for those who don’t have the kind of support system and network that comes with fame — and are known only for the thing they faced public ridicule for. “Ordinary folks who don’t have fame and money to insulate them are the ones who really get cancelled and deal with significant consequences,” he wrote in a thread.
Gibson’s comeback has been a slow-burn, with a little more ground gained back every year. In 2020, he seems to be starting a new chapter, professionally, which could once again endear him to the public. His career is gaining more steam, and projects that used to trickle down once a year — in 2018 he starred in Dragged Across Concrete (a police brutality movie with Vince Vaughn), and in 2019 came The Professor and the Madman (a movie no one saw co-starring Sean Pean, yet another problematic Hollywood personality) — are now pouring in.
Gibson’s IMDb profile lists one completed project — Joe Carnahan’s Boss Level, about a retired cop forced to relive the day of his death over and over again — and two in post-production: the Michael Polish-directed Force of Nature, about a heist gone wrong because of a cop, and the Tim Kirkby-directed Waldo, about a retired reclusive cop who returns to investigate a murder. Deadline also reports Gibson has been cast in Leo from Toledo, about a former mob killer hiding in witness protection, also directed by Carnahan. To the internet’s ire, he was also cast in alongside Shia LaBeouf in Rothchild, a fictional family of Jewish bankers that Gibson’s rep has claimed has nothing to do with the real-life Rothschild family. His casting as bad Santa character in the upcoming Fatman prompted Seth Rogen to tweet: “Ho Ho Holocaust Denier.” On January 29, it was confirmed that Gibson would reprise his role in the fifth installment of the Lethal Weapon franchise alongside Danny Glover.
Most of these movies involve some brush with law enforcement, which is ironic given Gibson’s past dealings with the police. They also star well-known celebrities, including Charlie Hunnam and Morena Baccarin (Waldo); Naomi Watts, Annabelle Wallis, Ken Jeong, and Michelle Yeoh (Boss Level); and Kate Bosworth and Emile Hirsch (Force of Nature). (In 2015, Hirsch was sentenced to 15 days in jail and 90 days probation after pleading guilty to physically assaulting a female film executive at Sundance. In 2019, he starred in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood.)
Gibson is also in pre-production to direct a remake of The Wild Bunch for Warner Bros., with Michael Fassbender, Jamie Foxx, and Peter Dinklage attached. In 2016, while campaigning for Hacksaw Ridge, he appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to announce that he was working on a sequel to his 2004 box office behemoth Passion of the Christ. Titled Passion of the Christ: Resurrection and starring Jim Caviezel, it is tentatively slated for 2021. In 2018, the Hollywood Reporter reported that he had been tapped to direct Destroyer, another World War II movie, this time centering on the war in the Pacific.
As time has gone by, the list of people supporting his career has only grown. The Academy clearly had no problem nominating him for Best Director, knowing full-well he’d show up to the ceremony (although they also nominated Polanski for The Pianist, so maybe it’s not all that surprising). Major studios are hiring him to direct massive projects, and high-profile celebrities no longer seem to have much of a problem sharing a screen with him, or starring in a movie he’s directing.
The public can of course express their outrage by not seeing his films. Box office numbers matter, and if Gibson’s projects continue to tank, a reasonable person could conclude that Hollywood would no longer hire him. But Gibson appears to be targeting a specific market with these new films, and giving them exactly what they want: a strong white man action hero. So, even if market reports show a flop when viewed holistically, it’s likely his films will have reached exactly who they were supposed to.
But all of this is just conjecture. There's no way to be sure why Gibson, and others like him, continue to forge enviable careers. Even people like Deraney, whose job revolves around managing celebrity crises, don’t have the answer. “It’s hard to say why some people get a pass and other people don’t, especially when, like with someone like Mel Gibson, there’s documented proof,” he said. “He was temporarily cancelled, he found some sort of redemption, and now he’s just hanging in the zeitgeist.”
The thing is though, Gibson is no longer laying low. And though there will certainly still be those who take issue with his past rhetoric, Hollywood clearly has faith that many will overlook his misdeeds. And to be honest, that’s probably true. Gibson has always had his defenders, but now they can be more vocal, with fewer consequences. Time has been on his side.
“Ten years in social media is a lifetime ago,” Deraney said. “Even O.J. Simpson getting a Twitter account wasn’t as bad as it should have been knowing what we know.”