MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

The Road To Mel is Paved With Good Intentions…

My chronology may be slightly askew but, if memory serves, sometime toward the end of 1983 when I lived in Canada there was a bit of a media frenzy when actor Mel Gibson was picked up for drunk driving. The actor was in Toronto filming Mrs. Soffel with Diane Keaton.

Obviously the context back then was far different from the events of recent memory. Gibson was an up-and-comer who’d made an impression with critics for such Australian films as the original Mad Max and the Peter Weir films Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. He was being groomed for stardom that was several years away in the guise of Lethal Weapon.

The press coverage had a provincial tilt. He wasn’t really an actor that the public knew so, earned or not, he was painted with the bad boy persona of a hard drinking, slightly hayseed macho Australian. Not many knew that he was American-born or that his father had transplanted the family during the Vietnam War era. Even that tidbit initially carried the implication of greater political than religious weight.

There was a faint sense of indignation about the reporting. Toronto had yet to arrive as a popular filming location and the term runaway production hadn’t been inscribed in our lexicon. At that particular moment the sense of novelty informed a degree of high dudgeon that viewed the incident as typical but unfortunate Hollywood behavior. These guests had decamped in our fair city and failed to cover themselves with glory. They were, in the eyes of the press, spoiled children.

The post script to the tale was, as I recal,l not terribly sensational. Months after filming Gibson had to return to the city and face a judge. His wrists were slapped and a fine was levied but he didn’t have to serve jail time or partake in a community service program. In that respect, past and present are likely to be close to mirror images. The fine will likely be stiffer and the actor will either hire someone or redefine a current employee’s role to include personal transportation duties for the next six months.

However, in other respects the landscape has changed radically. That fun loving, puckish actor that hadn’t quite turned 30 has had a career trajectory few in the industry can equal. For close to two decades he’s been one of the few performers that can get a film made solely by his presence in a movie. He’s segued into film production and made some unusually idiosyncratic movies. He’s directed a film that was named best picture of the year at the Academy Awards and earned him an Oscar for his work behind the camera. Another film – The Passion of the Christ – was financed out of his pocket and became a lightning rod of controversy and a phenomenally successful box office hit.

Decades in the spotlight have also given us an impression of Gibson that sends out mixed messages. Reports from the set have presented him as good natured and a hard worker. Collaborators have spun yarns about him as a practical joker but never at the expense of the production. The hell raising days that prefigured Mrs. Soffel are a distant memory and presumably that long ago incident was significantly sobering to put him on the straight and narrow.

It certainly wasn’t general knowledge that he was an alcoholic and by the code of AA there was no reason other than a personal confession to have that information. He hasn’t been one to trot out his personal life. The tabloids don’t overflow with photos of his wife or seven children though the odd positive anecdote has appeared from time to time. There have also been stories about his work and donations to charities but never foisted for promotional purposes.

One implication from the recent DUI arrest is that an aspect of Gibson’s personal privacy stems from the demon that he’s wrestled with all his adult life. Alcoholism is an unmerciful addiction. The people I know that suffer from it struggle with it on a daily basis. None have been able to consistently maintain sobriety and from time to time have confided shame, remorse and frustration. I don’t begin (or may just begin) to understand what makes alcohol a refuge, even temporarily, for someone that cannot sustain either the physical or psychological toll of drinking. For some, having a grasp of what it allows them to escape is helpful to their sobriety; for others it’s an area they don’t want to address.

My experience has yet to encounter anyone as cheerful or benign as Elwood P. Dowd or Arthur. I’ve seen a mild mannered person become uncharacteristically aggressive and the soul of diplomacy unleash a stream of venal invective. Some recall their bad behavior, others only remember that they did something they aren’t proud of and still others have not the remotest sense of the night before. It is a Jekyll and Hyde relationship without the rationale of advancing the knowledge of mankind. The shame seems to come from unleashing those bestial aspects of one’s personality that otherwise one keeps in check. It is the darkness within that one recognizes of themselves, but doesn’t necessarily believe or condone. It puts the concept of in vino veritas in question. Perhaps, as with the saga of some fallen clergyman, the burden of goodness is too much for certain sensitivities to sustain.

I tried to find statistics about alcoholism that related to what people did for a living and found everything but the reason for my search. Eight percent of adult Americans are deemed alcoholic; there are more incidents of it among the poor; fewer among people with degrees; those of Asian ancestry have a lower incidence than those found within the domestic Hispanic population. Nonetheless, there’s no area it does not touch and it’s a rare bird who has not encountered it within their immediate family or close circle of friends.

I can’t cite statistics but I know I’ve seen reports that indicated a disproportionate incidence of alcoholism in the medical community and among law enforcement officers. We can all spin the reasons why that might occur. I’ve also read that for biological reasons in a strict sense its signs are less evident for someone under the age of 25. The occasions for those working in the arts or professional sports aren’t significantly different than the national average. However, because of the elevated profile of those arenas, when someone falls off the wagon it can be pretty spectacular.

In the nascent days of Hollywood when someone fell from grace it buttressed a belief that the movie industry was a generally godless group. I’ve talked to people that recall that time and how ill prepared many of the early icons were for success and adoration. Some simply never believed they had a talent worthy of such fame. Others went from earning $5 a week in vaudeville to salaries that put them in the top 2% of the nation’s wealthy overnight. They didn’t know what to do with this bonanza and those willing to help them allocate spending didn’t always have their best interests at heart.

The fact that many of these early artists came from poverty and had little formal education was perhaps significant to their vulnerability. Nonetheless, the ability to keep one’s head in the face of celebrity has crippled many since that time. The sense that such lavish good fortune is undeserved is understandable, and for those incapable of working that out or finding a personal path for repayment the toll can be devastating.

Around the time that Gibson was making Mrs. Soffel I was told a story about an Oscar winning actress that had been advised by her publicist to become involved with and become a spokesperson for a social or political cause. The hot issue presented for the performer’s consideration was nuclear disarmament. Though it sounds like an embellished story, be assured that some truths are indeed like a bad movie plot. The actress mentioned this to a close friend that strongly advised her against that particular issue and suggested she look instead to education as it was already an area of concern because of her two young sons. The good advice ended the friendship and the star went on to earn media ridicule during a brief stint as an anti-nuke crusader.

To the best of my knowledge the actress in question had neither a drug nor alcohol problem. Though she ought to have known better, she allowed herself to be convinced that her fame and acclaim went hand in hand with an innate understanding of the world. The fact that she found success out of high school and had been cocooned within the movie industry for close to 20 years didn’t enter her consciousness.

It’s best not to elevate movie stars too high unless one has a desire for heroes held erect on clay feet. Gibson, unlike some of the other current bonafide movie stars, is an actor both willing and capable of stretching beyond a familiar screen persona. Though he attended drama school, there’s no indication he has more than a standard academic background. His process is his secret but it works and there are no sour notes whether he commits to Maverick or Hamlet.

The cacophony from his corner has invariably occurred when he’s responded to questions of social, political or religious import. He is not simply a devout Catholic but one that refuses the advances of Vatican II. He financed the building of a church near his home in Malibu and is a “true” believer having stated that his wife will go to hell because, unfortunately, she’s an Episcopalian. Yet, he’s repeatedly said that he’s neither a bigot nor specifically an anti-Semite because these are tenets that go against the basic beliefs of his church. And for someone that considers they are open minded about someone’s religious choices, I find it difficult to accept that one would both embrace another’s rights to a different persuasion and simultaneously condemn them to eternal damnation. In a diplomatic fashion one could argue that these seeming antithetical precepts would drive a rationale person to endlessly grapple with his faith.

While I can’t recall the actor having singled out Muslims for derisive commentary, he’s certainly come under fire for comments about women and homosexuals. Again, what is fascinating about past observations is Gibson’s conviction and an abiding sense that he’s following religious dicta. Therefore what he says is not intended for debate, it is the bedrock of his belief system. Short of renouncing his church, I don’t see an apocalyptic awakening in the future.

When the Los Angeles magazine profiled Variety editor Peter Bart several years back, the piece included his penchant for using scurrilous epithets toward women, homosexuals and a host of races and ethnicities in the newsroom. While industry eyebrows were raised several inches, his bosses simply tut-tutted and announced that he would have to take part in a sensitivity training program. It was never made clear how long a process it entailed and the suspicion was that, like driving school, one might sign up for an all-day session and have the appropriate demerits removed from one’s license.

Going through the motions and having one’s record wiped clean is a nice enough process as far as state records and insurance rates are concerned. It doesn’t guarantee the participant won’t run a green light or exceed a posted speed limit in the future but it assuages legislators concerns that miscreants are at least being presented with the consequences of their actions. If they choose to ignore that information in the future they are at peril if caught in the act.

Similarly, whether Gibson or Bart runs off at the mouth at some future date and is observed or not is merely the tip of the iceberg. That’s simply the external manifestation and in the former instance a tragic reminder that therapy, education or resolve hasn’t sufficiently altered conduct we and they have agreed is unacceptable in the social contract. The more crushing question is whether they maintain the appearance of good behavior but covertly cling to the very things that got them into trouble. That is the true heart of darkness.

August 6, 2006

– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon