Is 'Passion' a destroyer?

How will the film affect Gibson's reputation in Hollywood?
By Tracy Connor
Daily News Staff Writer
Saturday, February 21st, 2004 New York Daily News -

With the opening of "The Passion of the Christ" this week, Mel Gibson is casting himself in a new role - and the movie industry is wondering if he'll ever recover. In a matter of months, the 47-year-old actor-director has gone from heartthrob to holy roller before the public's eyes.

Gone is the lovable rogue of "Lethal Weapon," the regular-guy action hero, the sex symbol who melts women with piercing blue eyes and a raffish smile.

Now he's the wild-eyed fringe Catholic who risked his reputation and the wrath of Jews to bring the Gospel according to Mel to the big screen.

It's a transformation that has some insiders whispering that Gibson has lost it, committed Hollywood heresy, turned box office gold into radioactive waste.

"I think this whole thing is going to be quite harmful to his career," said Lloyd Leipzig, a 50-year veteran of the film business and retired studio executive.

"I don't think you can put him in the same roles anymore. All of a sudden he's a different person and, accordingly, you're not going to find a lot of people who will take chances with him."

Gibson poured $25 million of his own money into "The Passion," but the gamble could cost him - and the studios - far more than that.

In the past decade, films starring Gibson, including blockbusters such as "Signs," have grossed more than $100 million each on average.

If he kept up his pace of at least one big production a year, the industry could expect to rake in a billion bucks from him in the next 10 years.

Gibson, who commands a top-end salary of $25 million per picture, would collect a quarter of a billion dollars himself.

But while some pundits think "The Passion" will crush the Mel money machine - there are big shots who say privately they'll never work with him again - others aren't so sure.

"Hollywood is not the most religious society on Earth," said James Ulmer, author of the "Hollywood Hot List." "Their faith isn't in God, it's in money. It's profits over prophets."

"If Mel brings home over $100 million at the box office for a film in Aramaic and Latin - believe me, he will get hired again."

The story of Gibson's climb to the top of the A-list - and the emotional journey that led him to make "The Passion" - begins in 1956 in Peekskill, Westchester County.

He was the middle of 11 children raised by Hutton and Anne Gibson. His father was a disillusioned World War II vet, an archconservative Catholic who worked on the railroad.

When Hutton Gibson injured his back at work, the family fell on hard times, and in 1968, he took $21,000 in winnings from the game show "Jeopardy!" and moved the clan to Australia.

It wasn't long before Mel, who was 12 when he left New York, discovered acting.

High school plays led to a spot at Sydney's acting academy. Theater gigs begat 1979's "Mad Max," the postapocalyptic cult film that catapulted its young star to fame in Australia.

"Mad Max" sequels and Aussie flicks like "The Year of Living Dangerously" and "Gallipoli" followed, but it wasn't until 1987 that Gibson conquered American audiences with the smash hit "Lethal Weapon."

He became one of America's most bankable leading men; even stinkers like "Air America" couldn't dim his luster.

Offscreen, the married-with-kids superstar enjoyed the reputation of an affable rascal. Co-stars recounted his practical jokes and scatological stories. His nights of drinking and carousing were legendary.

"Oh man, back in the mid-'80s, I was frenetic," he said in a 1999 interview. "One thing after another. It didn't matter what it was, I just had to keep moving."

By Gibson's account, by the end of that decade, he was filthy rich but spiritually bankrupt.

"I got to a very desperate place. Very desperate. Kind of jump-out-a-window kind of desperate," he said recently. "And I had to use 'The Passion of Christ' to heal my wounds."

That was 12 years ago, and Gibson has been engaged in a religious reawakening since, embracing the traditionalist Catholicism his father practiced.

He has spoken out against the reforms of Vatican II, promoted his anti-abortion and anti-divorce views, and bankrolled a Malibu church that offers Mass only in Latin.

His film choices also took a turn.

While Gibson still churned out crowd pleasers such as "Maverick" and "What Women Want," he was drawn to characters with an evangelical edge: the heroes of "Braveheart" and "The Patriot."

Finally, his production company tackled "The Passion."

Early odds on the movie - starring unknowns and shot entirely in dead languages - were that it would tank.

But the debate over Gibson's theology, particularly whether he blames Jews for the Crucifixion, stirred interest.

When his father mouthed off about Holocaust myths and Jewish conspiracies, Gibson lashed out at the media.

He talked about divine signs that told him make the movie, and gave interviews about how the New Testament rescued him from the brink of suicide.

The publicity, combined with a tireless Christian-geared marketing effort, now has "The Passion" poised to break records.

With theaters sold out for opening weekend, there's no doubt Gibson will make money from his pet project, but the question is: Can his career survive the success?

In the past, Gibson has been attacked by gays and feminists for impolitic comments, with no repercussions, but filmdom's discomfort this time is different.

"I was sitting with someone in the Sony commissary who got very upset when Mel Gibson walked by," said Premiere writer Anne Thompson. "A lot of the sentiment runs very deep."

Paul Dergarabedian, president of the box office tracking company Exhibitor Relations, said there's no doubt the "public perception" of Gibson will shift.

"He's now opened up a very personal part of his life to the world, and that will change his image," he said. "But he will remain one of the most popular stars."

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