Columnist Frank Rich brazenly celebrated the decline and fall of Mel Gibson and, in a related matter (if only in Rich's mind), the decline and fall of the social conservative movement in America in his latest Sunday column, "The Good News About Mel Gibson." Rich went further that criticism of Gibson's nasty audiotape assaults, going after not just the artist but his artistic achievement, "The Passion of the Christ," the bloodily authentic 2004 portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ directed by Gibson.
Rich washed his hands of the S&M reference he made at the time (when he called the movie "a joyride for sadomasochists"), instead passing on a similar insult from famously atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens. Rich also noted the movie's stellar domestic box office, $370 million, making it the third-highest-grossing movie of the year, but kept this infamous August 3, 2003 column prediction that the movie would be a flop stuffed down the media memory hole: "Indeed, it's hard to imagine the movie being anything other than a flop in America, given that it has no major Hollywood stars and that its dialogue is in Aramaic and Latin (possibly without benefit of subtitles)."
The Gibson tapes - in plain English and not requiring the subtitles of some of the star's recent spectacles - are a particularly American form of schadenfreude. There's little we enjoy more than watching a pampered zillionaire icon (Gibson's production company is actually named Icon) brought low. The story would end there - just another tidy morality tale in the profuse annals of Hollywood self-destruction from Fatty Arbuckle to Lindsay Lohan - were it not for Gibson's unique back story.
Six years ago he was not merely an A-list movie star with a penchant for drinking and boorish behavior but also a powerful and canonized figure in the political and cultural pantheon of American conservatism. That he has reached rock bottom tells us nothing new about Gibson. He was the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard then that he is today. But his fall says a lot about the changes in our country over the past six years. We shouldn't take those changes for granted. We should take stock - and celebrate. They are good news.
Rich portrayed "Passion" as a match to a cultural and religious powder-keg laid out by the "Bush-Rove machine," while criticizing other media outlets for being intimidated by the "ascendant religious right."
It was into that tinderbox of America 2004 that Gibson tossed his self-financed and self-directed movie about the crucifixion, "The Passion of the Christ." The epic was timed to detonate in the nation's multiplexes on Ash Wednesday, after one of the longest and most divisive promotional campaigns in Hollywood history.
Uninvited Jewish writers (like me) who kept raising questions about the unreleased film and its exclusionary rollout were vilified for crucifying poor Mel. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News asked a reporter from Variety "respectfully" if Gibson was being victimized because "the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people." Such was the ugly atmosphere of the time that these attempts at intimidation were remarkably successful. Many mainstream media organizations did puff pieces on the star or his film, lest they be labeled "anti-Christian" when an ascendant religious right was increasingly flexing its muscles in the corridors of power in Washington.
In the America of 2004, Mel Gibson, box office king and conservative culture hero, was invincible.
Once "The Passion" could be seen by ticket buyers - who would reward it with a $370 million domestic take (behind only "Shrek 2" and "Spider-Man 2" that year) - the truth could no longer be spun by Gibson's claque. The movie was nakedly anti-Semitic, to the extreme that the Temple priests were all hook-nosed Shylocks and Fagins with rotten teeth. It was also ludicrously violent - a homoerotic "exercise in lurid sadomasochism," as Christopher Hitchens described it then, for audiences who "like seeing handsome young men stripped and flayed alive over a long period of time." Nonetheless, many of the same American pastors who routinely inveighed against show-business indecency granted special dispensation to their young congregants to attend this R-rated fleshfest.
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