When Stars Implode: Gibson and The Beaver

May 9, 2011

Great movie stars have to be wonderful actors, yes, but they also have to be excellent judges of scripts and directors. Huge stars like Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep have made very few poor decisions in their careers; however, the history of the film business, Old and New Hollywood alike, is replete with the sagas of movie stars who have destroyed their own careers by making poor business and personal choices…and I have known some of them. Sometimes, they make a comeback. Sometimes, they don’t.

My “godfather” Frank Sinatra was a huge star in the early and mid-1940s, then declined rapidly for a few years. As he explained to me on my 18th birthday, his career had “gone into the toilet” over some bad film choices, including a notorious clinker called The Kissing Bandit. Thanks in part to my father S. Sylvan Simon, Sinatra got the part in From Here To Eternity that completely turned his careeer around again. (I detail that controversial experience in Bringing Back The Old Hollywood.)

Smokey and The Bandit, my very first film as a film executive, was a monster success for Burt Reynolds, propelling him into mega stardom. Unfortunately, Burt made a huge career mistake by seemingly starring in the same movie over and over again. Finally, after a few “gems” like Stroker Ace, he wore out his welcome and goodwill and, other than a couple of supporting character performances, his career never recovered.

After his meteoric rise on the heels of Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Urban Cowboy, John Travolta’s career also floundered so badly for many years that he was considered box office poison. One movie, then completely turned his career around and he has been a star ever since.

In recent movie business history, no one seems to have crashed and burned cataclysmically  as Mel Gibson. As we noted with John Travolta and Frank Sinatra, among many others, poor career decisions can be overcome but personal self-destruction is another matter altogether.

As we all know, Mr. Gibson was a huge, incredibly bankable movie star and director for many years. The Lethal Weapon films, Braveheart, and many others catapulted Mr. Gibson into a career  stratosphere that very few people ever even approach.

Then….after the unexpected and huge success of The Passion of The Christ, Mr. Gibson began to self-destruct.

In interviews at the time, Mr. Gibson was adamant that all people, including his own wife, were condemned to eternity in hell if they didn’t share his strict religious beliefs. Telling your audience that it is going to hell is not exactly an endearing trait.

Then, he gets arrested for drunk driving and explodes in an anti-semitic rant that further alienated him from the public.

Then, he engages in a very public divorce from the wife who had been with him before he was even an actor and an even uglier set of rants at a girlfriend who is also the mother of his newest child.

Movie audiences can be extremely forgiving, but ugly misogynistic outbursts and vicious religious bigotry have combined to make Mr. Gibson persona non grata not only in the film industry itself but now, rather spectacularly, at the the box office as well.

Mr. Gibson’s latest movie, The Beaver, opened this past weekend in about 100 select theaters nationwide. Despite the fact that the movie costars and was directed by Jodie Foster, and despite some glowing reviews for both the film and Mr. Gibson’s performance, The Beaver grossed only $104, 000 in those 22 theaters for a miniscule per theater $4700 average. Audiences seem to have simply decided that they have no interest whatsoever in seeing a Mel Gibson film.

This is not to say that Mr. Gibson can never rehabilitate himself with film audiences, but my sense is that such a comeback could only happen after several years of exile and genuine remorse.

In the meantime, a cross-country tour as the opening act for Charlie Sheen would not be advisable.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Asha Hawkesworth May 9, 2011 at 11:02 am

Poor Mel. He really is a terrific actor, but ah, not one I would invite to dinner. I have wondered if there isn’t something organic going on that is causing him to “lose it.” Early onset dementia, who knows? It’s very sad.

I’m actually curious to see this movie, and I’ll probably rent it when it’s available. I get so few chances to go to an actual theater any more, that I pick and choose very carefully. I want it to be really good. (Are we just too busy to go to the theater any more?)

All of the actors you mention are quite good, and of course, Kate Hepburn was herself box-office poison once, and she’s one of the great old movie stars! She was incredible in the “The Glass Menagerie” and so many others… It’s incredible now to think of Ingrid Bergman creating a scandal for being an unwed mother. Times change, but good manners don’t.

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Stephen Simon May 9, 2011 at 11:21 am

You know, Asha, I too have thought of the Gibson “trigger” It just seems that he imploded after Passion of The Christ. No one would finance that film, he wound up doing it himself, risking everything, and the film did huge, huge business worldwide. Somehow that experience seems to have been his undoing, mentally and emotionally. Interesting.

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Dale Allen Hoffman May 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm

By far my favorite blog of yours yet! Very real, very quoteable and a ton of fun!

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Stephen Simon May 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Thanks so much, Dale!

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