19 July 2010

The Wrong Man: A Retrospective

Monuments from Ancient Times:
Mark Lee and Mel Gibson

In the early 1980s, when I was an officer of the Brown Film Society, we booked what I billed as the world’s first Mel Gibson Retrospective, two movies highlighting the young actor’s early work (Gallipoli), as well as his even earlier work (Mad Max). At the time, of course, he’d made hardly any other movies at all, and he was little-known in America. To most fans of Mad Max, I daresay he wasn’t even known by name: he was just “Max.” But fans of Gallipoli knew who he was, or thought they did.

For many of us, Gallipoli was only in part a meditation on the romance of the British Empire, and how it misled and betrayed young Australians like the two heroes, Archy and Frank. Likewise, for many Americans, the film’s analysis of the Australian concept of “mates” probably didn’t connect: what we saw was a love story between men in wartime.

In the film, Gibson, as Frank, and Mark Lee, as Archy, are a matched set, phenomenally beautiful and gorgeously photographed. There’s nothing overt about their love, but in that era before the New Queer Cinema, what we saw was enough: theirs was a love that did not need to speak its name. Together, Frank and Archy entered our fantasies, because, make no mistake, Mel Gibson’s first fan base in America was gay. We discovered him first, and we were probably the first to realize what a pig the man is.

Gibson rewarded our affection with crude, bigoted remarks that revealed not only ingratitude but a complete disregard for us — notably in an infamous interview with the Spanish newspaper El País in 1991. The resulting backlash probably explains why it’s nearly impossible to find a clear copy of the publicity photo below: we didn’t keep Gibson’s pin-up, we threw it out, and that’s why nobody has a copy to scan and upload to the Internet today.

“With this look, who’s going to think I’m gay?”
The hell of it is, not only does he look like us,
but many of us were trying to look like him.

Since 1991, he’s made similarly offensive remarks about other groups, notably blacks, women, and Jews; and in both his films and his private life he’s displayed a lurid conflation of violence and sex.

Thanks to his latest outburst, the general public (including two op-ed columns in The New York Times this weekend) seems to be paying attention at last to what a messed-up lout Gibson is. But gays are saying, “What took you so long?” We were wise to him two decades ago.

The more demanding role

In Gallipoli, Gibson had the more demanding role, particularly in the harrowing final sequence, when he must explore extremes of emotion that Mark Lee is never called upon to approach. This explains part of our disappointment: it’s not merely that an early crush has betrayed us, but that a genuine talent has been squandered. For a long time — believe it or not — Gibson took his work seriously, and in several films there are scenes that suggest that he could have become a fine actor.

In the mutiny scenes in Bounty, for example, he taps into a seemingly uncontrolled desperation and fury that hoist the whole picture into another realm, and it’s interesting to watch him opposite Anthony Hopkins. You can see Gibson studying the superior actor, trying to rise to that higher level, much the way he studies Linda Hunt in The Year of Living Dangerously. In Hamlet, Gibson gives an intelligent, conscien­tious performance, though he’s clearly out of his depth. While he often seems uncomfortable as “just a pretty face,” he exploits a feline, teasing sexuality in many of his early films, notably and homoerotically so in scenes with Mark Lee, Hopkins, and Hunt.

Macho Max: A taste for leather.
Nothing cuir about that.

And yet these are his characters, not his character. When we came to see the distinction between the two — and worse, when we came to see how his personal character informed his work (in Braveheart, for example, to say nothing of his later films) — we gave up on him.

We look back and wonder what went wrong, how someone so sensitive and, yes, beautiful could have turned out so rotten. Manifestly, success went to his head. He’s got father issues, too, and given the nature of the senior Gibson, that’s understandable to a degree. By his own admis­sion, many of his foulest remarks have been made under the influence of alcohol. And for a long time, he’s seemed excessively concerned with proving his macho credentials, onscreen and off, though it’s not clear who was disputing them.*

But while we’re looking back, we return inevitably to Gallipoli, and we look at the other guy once again. Mark Lee came to that film with limited experience (he was a model, not an actor), and while in middle age he’s still a striking figure, he’s no longer the beauty he was. He never became a star, but he kept working where he could, never making a fuss. If he holds noxious views on women and minorities, he’s kept them to himself.

In short, we fell for the wrong man. And it’s past time to move on.

Would it have been wrong to give our hearts to him?
A recent photograph of Mark Lee

*From the El País interview: “With this look, who’s going to think I’m gay? I don’t lend myself to that type of confusion. Do I sound like a homosexual? Do I talk like them? Do I move like them? What happens is when you're an actor, they stick that label on you.”

George Miller, who directed Gibson in Mad Max,
often works with pigs.
Here, James Cromwell joins Babe, who is a valiant pig,
as opposed to that other kind.


Mikebench said...

Since when does having a beautiful physique or even being sensitive mean that you have a beautiful mind? There were men who ran concentration camps who cried when they heard beautiful violin playing... Mel Gibson is and will probably remain a very troubled man in spite of his charm, good looks and what he could have become as an actor.

William V. Madison said...

Exactly! It's been many years since we who first admired Mel Gibson renounced any hope that his personal character might ever match (or even approach) the level of his physical beauty.

(And aren't we glad that even Mel Gibson's enablers in Hollywood never gave him a concentration camp to run?)

William V. Madison said...

… Of course, according to Gibson's father, there was no Holocaust, so there's really nothing to discuss, is there?

Mikebench said...

Of course there wasn't... That's why the German government had to pay my mother and grandparents a pension for the rest of their lives for what they had done to them during the war.


William V. Madison said...

Christopher Hitchens, in Slate, is a good deal more direct and detailed than I was in examining Mel Gibson’s “father issues,” which include adherence to an extremist strain of Catholicism.

The article can be found here.

C. Lee said...

Have just come across this site, dont often use the computer, being 75 and computer illiterate, but my husband and I have taught our children to embrace all humankind, whatever religious belief, creed, colour or sexual prediliction.
After all we are all God's children.
Subsequentially Mark has played "staight" and "gay" roles.
He has perhaps not attained the heights that Mel has, but we are proud of him.

His Mum.

William V. Madison said...

Delighted to hear from you, Ms. Lee! Please extend our greetings to your son. I hope he knows how fondly -- and honorably -- he's remembered even by those of us who haven't seen him in a while, and we look forward to his next appearances.

Meanwhile, there's a lesson here: if you feel the impulse to say something nice about someone, do it, because you never know when that person's mother will see it.