Tonight’s box office preview has been moved to tomorrow because of a couple of a films news items that just can’t quite wait. The first can be dispensed with in a second. Casting has been announced on “The Hobbit,” short, snub-nosed and talented Martin Freeman will face his inevitable hobbity destiny as Bilbo Baggins, as Peter Jackson again casts a bunch of people I’ve mostly never heard of in smaller roles who’ll probably all be great.
And then there’s this news of Mel Gibson being let go from “The Hangover 2 just a day after it was announced he’d been hired to play a supporting role. Oy.
I don’t how many of you are paying attention to the political/media firestorm du jour, but I sure felt grateful not to be a political blogger — well, at least not officially — this morning when I heard the news about NPR firing a commentator I’d long detested, Potemkin Fox News liberal and professional concern troll Juan Williams. The stated cause of his sudden dismissal were some religious/cultural remarks which were, to me, perhaps unpleasant and very wrong, or perhaps less so, depending on how one judges the context. I’m reserving full judgment for such time as I feel like watching the entire Fox News conversation with Williams and the malodorous Bill O’Reilly for myself, and that time may well never come.
In any case, as someone who’s disliked Williams for probably a decade or more and thought his pretense of sober, fact-based analysis was deeply dishonest, I just wasn’t sure what I thought about firing him over this particular matter and the message that it sends. It was nice not to be obligated to opine about it and risk being seen by liberals as either a mealy mouthed concern troll on the one hand, or by moderates and conservatives as an intellectually dishonest, hypocritical kneejerker, and by contrarian types (a group of which I’m sometimes a member myself) as any or all of the above. Some issues are just a minefield with no good answers. It was a pleasure to have the choice to simply evade this particular clusterfuck.
Just when I think I’m out, however, I’m dragged backed. Now, Warners goes and fires Mel Gibson — who I enjoy as an actor, mostly ignore as a filmmaker, abhor as a political/religious figure, and, like most other people, have serious suspicions over as a human being — from “The Hangover 2” pretty much as a direct result of his undeniably sexist, racist, antisemetic, and anti-sugartits remarks. It seems that, while director Todd Phillips was enthusiastic about Gibson, protest from fellow cast and crew members, perhaps particularly Zach Galifianakis, sparked the decision. In response, probably the two most accomplished and intelligent entertainment reporters extant, Mike Fleming and Anne Thompson, have invoked the B word: “blacklisting.” That’s an expression that always gets Hollywood’s attention.
Okay, then. Now, it’s actually my job here to opine about this kind of thing. Only here I have pretty much all the facts before me and I’m still not sure what to think. On the one hand, there’s absolutely no defense for Mel Gibson’s remarks — there are not the words of a good or even sane man, even when said with perhaps a drink too many and in private. On the other hand, while they clearly had legal import as Gibson’s domestic troubles including some pretty serious allegations of possible domestic physical violence, I’m not sure they would be played so loudly in the court of public opinion in a better world, but there they are.
Still, lots of people working very productively in the movie business — and all businesses — might or might not be easier to work with than Gibson but have done things that a lot of us consider as serious sins. That starts, of course, with Roman Polanski, who is — not matter how you slice it (and slice it, I sure do), is an actual criminal and a fugitive from justice. Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, John Landis, Elia Kazan, Victor Salva and I’m sure lots of other figures I can’t remember right now have either been guilty or accused of acts both comparable and/or arguably worse than Gibson’s while being welcomed to work after the controversies died down. (In Kazan’s case, his unpleasant actions actually allowed him to continue to work since he was avoiding the actual blacklist.)
While lots of people have sworn they’ll never work with X after X transgression, Allen, Landis, and Polanski have continued to produce sometimes great work, have no shortage of willing and often supportive coworkers, and I have no problem with that for the most part. I certainly have no problem saying all kinds of good things about their work and their obvious talent, despite their alleged or proven flaws or sins of omission or commission.
(By the way, I forgot to mention the news yesterday of the totally awesome casting of Polanski’s film of “God of Carnage.” Seriously, I’m so on board with that movie that if Polanski were Darth Voldemort Hitler, Jr., I’d check it out. Also, as a total side note, I actually tried to argue against Landis’s inclusion in the recent new class in the Bullz-Eye Directors Hall of Fame, but the controversy over the tragic accidental deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two young children on the set of “The Twilight Zone” was far from my mind. Instead of the allegedly negligent Landis, I argued for arguable sexual predator Woody Allen, likely antisemite Howard Hawks, or certain on-set sadist and dipsomaniac John Ford.)
On the other hand, if things had gone as planned, people like Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis would actually have to work with Gibson. Actors don’t all have to be in love with each other, but a certain degree of trust and/or non-hatred does grease the creative wheels. If their feelings are that strong, that could be a legitimate issue. On the other hand, they worked with Mike Tyson, who I don’t dislike at all but who I also would probably want to wear ear muffs whenever I was in close quarters with. [UPDATE: When I wrote this, I did not remember that Mike Tyson had been convicted of rape in 1992 though, I gather, under circumstances that are legally somewhat muddy. He served three years in prison.]
On the other hand, are some statements/beliefs/actions so bad they put certain people permanently outside what’s acceptable? Are Mel Gibson’s sins political or personal? Is deciding he’d be too divisive on a set comparable to blacklisting as was it done in the McCarthy era?
I don’t know. Compared to the blacklisted writers of the Hollywood Ten, Gibson certainly has it beyond easy and those writers never issued physical threats against anyone, nor did they speak hatefully or threaten anyone, as politically wrong and unpopular as some of their opinions were. Being enormously wealthy and able to finance his own movies, I’m not too sure we should be crying many tears for him and I certainly don’t think this is an attempt to stifle his right to speak freely via career intimidation, though he may disagree.
And, of course, there is a limit on how just far out your free speech can go before most people agree you’re not readily employable in a high profile job, it’s just tricky when we get to the matter of setting it. There is go guaranteed right to work in any field contained in the First Amendment. Publicly say or do something bad or unpopular enough, and you’re likely to have a hard time getting a big job. If we all found out that, say, Mr. “God Hates Fags” Fred Phelps had an ear for playing the violin, would we demand he get a seat on the New York Philharmonic? The Hitler-enabling but otherwise guiltless and hugely acclaimed director Leni Reifenstahl (“Triumph of the Will”) was a permanent post-war pariah and was certainly not going to get a job in a Hollywood founded by Jews. Was that wrong? I’m not sure it was. Was it a kind of blacklisting? Absolutely. If she had somehow managed to make notable post-war films would I have seen them? Absolutely. Would I prefer not paying to see them? Absolutely.
Unfortunately, I think we have to take all of these things on a case by case basis and just kind of muddle through and perhaps, even consider withholding our opinions in cases that seem extra-muddy. Mel Gibson said some horrible things and may or may not have done terrible things, and it appears that whether I or Anne Thompson or Mike Fleming like it or not, he’s got to do a lot more penance before he’ll be allowed back in polite Hollywood company. I don’t think it’s blacklisting in the same way that it was suffered by both real and fictitious communists in the fifties, whose only crime was exercising their right to an opinion, but I’m not sure it’s completely correct either. I’m not crazy about the idea of suddenly deciding there’s a moral test to getting cast in a movie.
On the other hand, I saw truly vicious anti-gay bias in Gibson’s “Braveheart” and that movie won a Best Picture Oscar, and probably got votes from numerous gay-friendly and actually gay Academy members who weren’t as bothered. He was nobody’s pariah then, though I thought perhaps he should be for making a film which, as far as I could see, made the murder of a gay man a laughing matter, and it was only supposed to be funny because the character was gay. Would I have worked with Gibson after that if he wanted to hire me for some reason? Hell, yes. Should I have? Maybe. Probably. Maybe not. I don’t know.