Has Mel Gibson become a pariah in Hollywood? Or just for the time being?
Even though it wasn't until last Friday that WME officially announced that it was dropping Mel Gibson as a client, rival talent agencies had figured Gibson's days at WME were numbered when the agency took out trade ads paying tribute to Gibson's agent, Ed Limato, who died on July 3 after a lengthy illness. The memorial ads featured photos of Limato with his top clients, who included Denzel Washington, Steve Martin and Richard Gere. But there were no photos of Limato with Gibson, who had been Limato's client for years, staying with him through Limato's moves from William Morris to ICM and then back to Morris, remaining at WME after Morris and Endeavor merged last year.
"That's when we knew Gibson was gone," said a rival agency head. "They couldn't keep him after what he'd said." In case you missed the online coverage, Gibson, who'd been a subject of controversy after launching into a booze-fueled anti-Semitic rant in 2006, is in hot water again after tapes surfaced of him yelling obscenities and insults at his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, including a variety of vile racist slurs using what is known in polite society as the N-word. The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department has reportedly opened a domestic violence investigation into Gibson's actions against Grigorieva, who has claimed that the actor abused her on several occasions.
The whole Gibson affair has offered a fascinating glimpse into what you might call Hollywood situational ethics. After all, it was WME czar Ari Emanuel, when he was running Endeavor, who was one of the few leading industry figures who called out Gibson for his anti-Semitic insults, writing a piece in the Huffington Post arguing that what Gibson had done was beyond the pale.
As Emanuel put it: "People in the entertainment business, whether Jew or Gentile, need to demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him, even if it means a sacrifice to their bottom line. There are times in history when standing up against bigotry and racism is more important than money."
Of course, back then, Gibson was represented by a rival agency, so many veteran Ari watchers believed that he was standing up for an easy cause, since anything that would weaken one of Ari's competitors was good for Ari's ultimate cause--making Endeavor the most powerful agency in Hollywood. This assumption was only strengthened when Limato (who had fiercely defended Gibson after his anti-Jewish remarks) became one of Emanuel's close associates after the Endeavor-William Morris merger. Limato brought Gibson with him to WME, but Ari didn't shun Gibson, nor did he demand that Limato drop Gibson as a client. (I asked to speak to Emanuel, but a WME spokesman said Emanuel would have no comment.)
At the time, virtually no one in Hollywood, and for that matter, virtually no one in the media, made a stink about it. Gibson had apologized for his inflammatory statements, time had passed and, after all, he was still an enormously successful filmmaker and movie star, which is the sort of stature that allows time to heal all wounds. This time around, things were different. With Limato dead, Gibson no longer had a loyal defender. And once Limato passed, WME was faced with an even more difficult dilemma.
As befits his old-school approach, in which an agent dealt with all of his client's personal needs, Limato had clients who were loyal to him, not to his agency. This was especially true of Denzel Washington, who had become Limato's most valuable client, being, after Will Smith, the biggest African American star in the world. Even before Limato's death, Emanuel and WME co-chief Patrick Whitesell had been wooing Washington, being on hand when he won his Tony for his role in "Fences" and making it clear they would do virtually anything to keep him in the agency fold.
Once the extent of Gibson's racist tirade became clear, it was pretty obvious that there was no way WME could possibly keep Washington if it made any effort to keep Gibson as well. So Gibson was a goner. And as I've discovered from talking to the heads of other agencies in town, not to mention the heads of several studios, Gibson is a true Hollywood pariah right now. Every talent agency has a cadre of important African American clients who would be outraged--and rightfully so--if their agency made a play for Gibson as a client.
Of course, you could call these moral judgments extremely situational, since as one top agent succinctly put it: "If Himmler had a hot spec script, he'd find someone in this town to represent him." But Gibson is no longer a must-have-as-a-client movie star. His most recent film, "Edge of Darkness," was basically a programmer, actually making less money overseas ($35 million) than it did here in the U.S. ($43 million). His last big hit was "Signs," which was released in 2002. He still has credibility as a filmmaker, but no one believes that he could ever duplicate the runaway success of "Passion of the Christ."
I guess it's the situational part of the situation that amuses me, since even the agency chiefs who swore they'd never dream of pursuing Gibson as a client wouldn't say it on the record, since, well, things could change. I guess that means we have to give Ari a half-point for moral rectitude since he did put his name on his original declaration of abhorrence toward Gibson, even if he did eventually take Gibson as a client.
As for Ari's peers, they say--for now--it's impossible to imagine anyone, even one of the weaker agencies, making a deal for Gibson. But not just because he's made racist and anti-Semitic remarks. It's a little more complicated than that.
How complicated is it? Keep reading:
Since none of the high-level agency executives would speak on the record, I'll paraphrase their explication of their thought process: Based on what's happened, you have to assume that Mel is a total jerk, so why would you want to be in business with him, since it's not only bad for your soul--and probably makes you look sleazy--but if he's a total jerk to his ex-girlfriend and people around him, then why wouldn't he be that way to you too? You have to figure that working with him would be both financially and emotionally unrewarding. If it were just one or the other, maybe you could do it, but if it's both, you just say--Yuck!
In other words, to use a favorite Hollywood maxim: Life is too short.
If you want to be a stickler, there are still some double standards of moral relativism here. As the conservative novelist-blogger Andrew Klavan noted in a recent post: "To see Hollywood strike a condemnatory pose against Gibson (he was dropped by talent agency William Morris) while it tries to sanctify child rapist Roman Polanski is almost as disgusting as Mel’s rant." But even Klavan has concluded that Gibson is an embarrassment to his former supporters. And I suspect Gibson will remain an embarrassment for some time to come.
When you're a huge star in Hollywood, you are surrounded by enablers. But when your star has dimmed, you quickly discover that you have ardent detractors wherever you turn. There are plenty of tough jobs in the movie business, but right now it's hard to find any applicants for the job of defending Mel Gibson.
Photo: Mel Gibson, pictured earlier this year, doing publicity for the film "Edge of Darkness." Credit: Charles Platiau / Reuters