Mad Mel Gibson and the stars we have to hate
Another day, another tape exposing Mel Gibson as a wretch. In the latest recording his ex-girlfriend asks him what kind of man hits a woman with a child in her hands, “breaking her teeth twice in the face”. Gibson shouts back: “Oh, you’re all angry now? You know what, you f—king deserved it.”
Troubled artists are hardly a modern phenomenon but the ways in which their darker sides get exposed certainly are. Their worst character traits are amplified by “Hollywood enablement”, the destructive modern culture of the Thirty Mile Zone that allows stars to believe they can behave as they wish, supported as they are by coteries of flunkies and yea-sayers instead of actual friends. By the time this behaviour takes hold - as in the case of Gibson but also arguably in that of the much younger Lindsay Lohan - they have no fear of failure any more because their success is already secure.
In the best piece I’ve read on the affair since the first tape emerged, Tina Brown at The Daily Beast outlines how it makes a devastatingly strong case for celebrity leaks. She calls it a “high watermark in celebrity outing”, arguing the most unsettling aspect is not his racism - of which much has been made over his use of a particular word - but his vile misogyny. Amen to that.
She also suggests his next film, if it is even released, could flop. “Perhaps this one at last will do him in at the box office,” writes Brown.
“Perhaps” in this sentence is a telling word.
Its reflects the truth, appalling as will be to many, that Mel Gibson could be publicly exposed as an anti-Semitic, abusive, woman-hating racist, but that people might still go to see his movies.
Just as modern celebrity culture has changed what we expect to know about stars’ personal lives, to be a consumer of popular film and music is to know how to set aside a performer’s repulsive behaviour and accept their work as their work, and continue to consume it because it’s, well, popular.
It’s why Michael Jackson sold millions of records even after his skin-crawling antics with children at Neverland were revealed. It’s why Kyle Sandilands is still on the air after asking a girl if the time she was raped was the only time she had sex. It’s why Woody Allen’s artistic legacy will be intact despite him marrying the adopted daughter of his ex-girlfriend, and why Tiger Woods is the player every tournament wants to turn up.
George Michael allegedly driving a car into a shop doesn’t suddenly make Star People a terrible song, right?
And sure, a car crash that raises suspicions over a star’s character and self-control is a far cry from tapes that expose someone as a raging abusive misogynist. Of course the latest revelations will hurt Gibson’s earning power.
But what effect will it have on what people think of his previous movies? I suggest the uncomfortable answer is: very little.
In an age when consumers know more and more about the artist, how much does it take before a star’s character flaws destroy their artistic reputation?
Last week when Prince made his bizarre remarks about the internet being “completely over” and that it would get dated “like MTV”, I found myself wishing that artists could sometimes just shut up and work.
But I quickly realised: we’re used to this shameful madness, and Prince has just reinforced his position among the legion of creative titans of his generation who are utterly disconnected with how ordinary people live.
Bruce Springsteen once asked people to “Trust the art, not the artist”.
It is something that as consumers of popular music and film, we have little choice but to do.
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