Mel Gibson had a miserable week. Arrested early on July 28 for driving drunk--he was doing more than 85mph in a 45mph zone in Malibu, Calif., with an open bottle of tequila in the car--the star ranted to police, "F---ing Jews . . . Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." The Web site TMZ.com broke the news, and it created a media maelstrom. Gibson had been accused of--and had denied--anti-Semitism in his 2004 film "The Passion of the Christ," and his father, Hutton, has been widely characterized as a Holocaust denier. For many, Gibson's outburst proved what they had long suspected. By midweek, Gibson, an alcoholic who had been in recovery since the early '90s, had begun an unspecified treatment (his publicist says he "is not just being treated at home, but he hasn't checked in to a full-time facility, either") and issued two apologies. The second read, in part: "I am asking the Jewish community, whom I have personally offended, to help me on my journey through recovery. I know there will be many in that community who will want nothing to do with me, and that would be understandable. But I pray that that door is not forever closed."
It remains to be seen what the effect will be on Gibson's career. "It's bad," says a top studio exec, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive subject. "I'm not so much of an idealist that I think people won't do business with him now--if he announced he was going to make 'Braveheart 2' tomorrow, the line would form--but 25 years from now people in Hollywood will still be outraged by this."
But has Gibson's behavior damaged him with the Christian audience that made "The Passion" a $612 million hit worldwide? "Christians in America will not abide anti-Semitism on any level," says Jonathan Bock, president of Grace Hill Media, which specializes in marketing films to Christians. "But they're also a forgiving bunch, and I suspect that if his apologies are sincere his fans will stick by him." If they like his movies, that is. Gibson's next project, "Apocalypto," which he directed but does not star in, is an action adventure concerning ancient Mayans, and never seemed likely to mobilize Christians. Disney says it will still release the movie Dec. 8, but the conventional wisdom is that the studio will eventually drop it or push it to 2007.
How did Gibson come to this? It's a question insiders are puzzling over. "What happened to him?" asks the studio exec. "George Clooney, today, is what Mel Gibson used to be: handsome, witty, star of hit movies, acclaimed director, Oscar winner. At some point, Mel went outside the system. Something ruptured."
History suggests that stars can weather scandals as long as the public never thought they were pure in the first place. Meg Ryan's affair with Russell Crowe would not have hurt her career if she hadn't been America's Sweetheart. Instead it all but destroyed it.
Last week Gibson's popularity didn't seem particularly diminished. A CNN poll found that 58 percent of people still considered themselves his fans. Wyatt Duncan, a Baptist youth minister in Boise, Idaho, said that while he's disappointed in Gibson's behavior, it won't stop him from seeing his movies. "I still have great respect for the man," he said. "If he's honest and is getting help, who am I to judge?" That may be the best news Gibson got all week.