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Heaven and Mel

Mel Gibson is telling a story about how he turned the tables on one of his many accusers. It happened, he says, on live television when the interviewer told him that when the name Mel Gibson came up on the screen at the beginning of a film, everybody booed.

"I said, 'Really? That's funny because the credits don't come up until after the film is over, so they would have had to have sat through the film and then booed'. I busted him on TV," he says, laughing with satisfaction.

For the embattled Gibson it was a minor triumph, but for the most part he is unable to combat the tsunami of public condemnation that has descended on his personal life. Ever since he launched an anti-Semitic, sexist rant when he was arrested for drink-driving in 2006, things have gone from bad to worse for the 55-year-old Oscar winner.

He was excoriated for the graphic violence in films such as The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto and criticised for fathering a daughter by a girlfriend 14 years his junior, with whom he began an affair while still married to his wife of nearly 30 years.

Worst of all were the astonishing, rage-filled audio clips in which he was heard ranting and using racist and misogynist slurs at his girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, the mother of his youngest child, and threatening to murder her.

It was a final turning point that would have spelled the end of virtually any other actor's career in Hollywood, but Gibson doesn't need Hollywood. He is worth an estimated £700m and can finance his own movies.

However, he does still need an audience. Last year he co-wrote, starred in and produced How I Spent My Summer Vacation, which has not yet been released. He was due to make a cameo appearance in The Hangover Part II, but he was dropped when the stars, who had appeared with convicted rapist Mike Tyson in the original film, revolted and refused to work with him.

And The Beaver, a quirky, dark drama directed by his friend Jodie Foster, was due to be released last year but was put on hold when the audio tapes surfaced.

It's a strange-sounding story -- Gibson plays a despondent husband and father who begins communicating though a furry beaver hand puppet -- but his performance has won acclaim. It is now finally being released and Gibson has been reluctantly forced out of seclusion to give a few interviews.

Accompanied by his long-serving -- and long-suffering -- publicist, he strolls into a Los Angeles hotel room, an unlit cigarette in his mouth and a grin on his face. The cigarette, it turns out, is an electronic one and is his latest attempt to stop smoking, a crusade that has been going on for two years.

He toys with the cigarette throughout the interview, veering erratically between jovial good humour and suppressed defiance.

His dispute with Grigorieva is still in litigation, which prevents him discussing it in any detail, but he says he has "learned a great deal from this which I can't talk about".

Nor will he talk about other past problems, except to say: "I live my life the way I've always lived it, without a single act of discrimination against anyone. Don't believe anything you read and only half of what you see."

A devout member of a traditionalist Catholic group, he has built his own church in Malibu, where the services are all in Latin. He prays regularly and says: "Everyone does, no matter who they are. When people go through personal stuff, they get spiritual. There's no atheist in a foxhole, you know. You've heard that expression?"

Gibson, who won an Oscar in 1995 for directing Braveheart, may now be a pariah in Hollywood circles, but his performance as the severely depressed Walter Black in The Beaver deserves to be remembered at awards time.

Walter, formerly a successful toy-company executive, is plagued by his own demons and has hit rock bottom when he finds a beaver puppet in a dustbin and begins wearing it on his left arm. He starts speaking through it in a pronounced cockney accent, at first to himself and then to everybody else, and his life starts to turn around.

When the script was offered to Foster to direct, she turned to Gibson, with whom she had remained close friends since starring with him in Maverick 16 years ago.

"Jodie called me up and asked if I would help her out," says Gibson, "and of course I trust her and love her and I've wanted to work with her again forever so I said, 'Let's go'.

"There was no messing around. She's very decisive, very strong in her vision and pragmatic in her approach. Sometimes I had my doubts and I didn't think it was working, but she took all my shtick away -- all the goofy stuff -- and I'm glad she did because to go that way with the film would have cheapened it.

"She managed to not make it some goofy thing about a guy with a ratty hand puppet but to give it substance, make it believable."

It is impossible not to equate Walter's problems with Gibson's own, although he plays down the similarities.

"He is a very severe depressive, and I don't think I am," he says. "But, to some degree or other, we all have ups and downs, and we're all going to be afflicted by the same elements of stress that the planet has to offer."

The Beaver, he says, will be his last acting job, at least for some time, as he is currently writing what he says will be "the ultimate Viking story" for a film he plans to direct.

"It's hard to make a Viking story sympathetic, but I think I've finally figured it out," he says.

He is not ruling out the possibility of ever acting again, although, he says: "It's something I like doing but not as much as I used to like it. I'd much rather be behind the camera orchestrating a story. I've just moved on. I'll always apply myself to some artistic pursuit, some way or another. Even if I'm making a cake, I'm going to try and make it the best cake ever."

Then, unlit cigarette back in the mouth and publicist in his wake, he stands up and leaves.

The Beaver is released on June 10

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