back where he belongs
Mel Gibson returns to your screens this week in Edge of Darkness, his first major acting role since 2002. After starring in two films that year, the war drama We Were Soldiers and M Night Shyamalan's supernatural thriller Signs, Gibson announced that he was no longer interested in being a movie star and would withdraw behind the camera to concentrate on directing and producing. But if his temporary retirement from acting was intended to remove him from the media spotlight, things haven't exactly worked out like that.
Over the last eight years he's attracted more attention with his private troubles than he has with any of his films.
There was that famous drink-driving incident in 2006, the international furore over his supposed anti-Semitism, his split from his wife of 30-odd years, and his relationship with a Russian woman some years his junior who has since given him a child.
During that time he has also directed two controversial but critically acclaimed and very accomplished films (Apocalypto and The Passion of the Christ). However, Gibson remains in the public mind primarily a 1000-watt movie star and seems destined to play out his life in the full glare of the flashbulb.
In Martin Campbell's Edge of Darkness, which was released here yesterday, he's back doing what some would argue he does best. Based on an acclaimed 1985 BBC drama series of the same name, Edge of Darkness stars Gibson as Thomas Craven -- a Boston police detective who becomes involved in a desperate search to find the people who shot and killed his daughter right in front of him.
A complex plot involving the CIA and nuclear conspiracy provides the backstory, but it's Gibson who dominates and holds together the film with a typically robust performance.
At 54 his face is lined with the signs of a life lived hard, but that if anything has only added to his screen appeal. He reminds you now of a Spencer Tracy or a Humphrey Bogart, and it would be great to see him tackling big roles as he gets older.
He's already agreed to star in a forthcoming film from Jodie Foster about a depressed man who rediscovers himself through the medium of a glove puppet, and hopefully there will be more roles to come. Because in an industry now peopled mainly by airbrushed, bland and forever young twits, Gibson is the kind of film actor who would have stood out in any age.
His involvement in the mainly mindless Lethal Weapon series has tended to diminish his standing as an actor, but he's a very accomplished player and most people forget that he started out playing Shakespeare and Beckett in Australia. Born in Peekskill, New York, on January 3, 1956, to an American father and an Irish-born mother, Mel Colmcille Gibson was raised in the US until the age of 12 then moved with his parents to Sydney. His father, Hutton Gibson, is an outspoken advocate of Traditional Catholicism who has questioned the Jewish Holocaust and described the Second Vatican Council as a "Masonic plot backed by the Jews". Gibson was raised in this ultra-Catholic fashion, but there's always been a conflict between the restrictions of his father's faith and his own more liberal instincts.
After leaving his Christian Brothers' school, Mel enrolled at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney where he studied the classics and starred alongside Judy Davis in a student production of Romeo and Juliet. His talent was instantly apparent, and before he'd even graduated he'd been offered the starring role in George Miller's low-budget futuristic action film, Mad Max. It and its sequel would help get Gibson's film career off the ground but he kept up his theatre acting for a time too, appearing in a Sydney production of Death of a Salesman as late as 1982.
By that time Gibson had starred in both Peter Weir's acclaimed war drama Gallipoli and in Mad Max 2, which proved a big hit in the US. And by 1984 he had relocated himself and his young family to Hollywood.
He did a creditable job as Fletcher Christian opposite Anthony Hopkins' Captain Blith in Roger Donaldson's The Bounty (1984), but seemed a little out of his depth later the same year alongside Sissy Spacek in the grim Tennessee farming drama The River. And it was Lethal Weapon (1987) that finally established him as a Hollywood star.
In Richard Donner's slick police thriller Gibson played Martin Riggs, a suicidal and reckless Los Angeles undercover cop who's teamed with a mild-mannered family man to track down a major drug dealer. It was silly but entertaining, and Gibson bought a real edge to his portrayal of Riggs. And little wonder, for he has since said that at that point in his life he was pretty suicidal himself.
Though he has always enjoyed a reputation for punctuality and professionalism, Mel was already wrestling with alcoholism and confided to Richard Donner during the Lethal Weapon shoot that he started each day with five pints of beer.
Lethal Weapon was a huge hit, and though it's unfortunate that Donner and Gibson subsequently flogged it to death in a series of dreadful sequels, its success made Gibson a real player and a very rich man.
In 1990 he surprised many by starring in Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet, leading a strong cast that included Glenn Close, Alan Bates, Paul Schofield and Helena Bonham Carter. The British press in particular was quick to sneer at the notion, but Gibson was surprisingly convincing as the dithering Dane. The Zeffirelli film aside though, Gibson's acting output became fitful during the early 1990s as he was already beginning to turn his attention to directing.
His first film as director was The Man Without a Face (1993), a gentle drama in which he also starred. And he followed it in 1995 with Braveheart, a stirring account of the life and times of 13th century Scottish hero William Wallace that won five Oscars at the 1996 Academy Awards including best film. For the rest of the 1990s he oscillated between directing and acting, and films like Ransom (1996) and Conspiracy Theory (1997) proved he was still a big box office draw.
He's appeared in very few films since the turn of the millennium, but now he's back. Will he still be able to draw the crowds at 54?
We shall see, but my hunch is that he still has more charisma in his little finger than most of the young pretenders.