Mel Gibson Is Trumping the 2017 Oscars
When the 2017 Academy Award nominees were announced this morning, the list offered the usual array of snubs and surprises — the latter of which ranged from pleasant to baffling; Moonlight picked up eight nods and a record number of black actors were nominated (Oscars #NotSoWhite this year), while Passengers picked up two nods (they just had to give that movie something, didn’t they). As expected, many of this year’s picks feel “safe”; it says something when the most divisive nominee is a musical about jazz — or is it? Maybe the Academy’s La La Land love and its increased inclusivity are distracting from the low-key elephant in the room.
His name is Mel Gibson, and he hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since winning the Best Director award for Braveheart, which also took home Best Picture. Gibson is back this year for Hacksaw Ridge, a faith-driven war drama based on the true story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who served as a combat medic during World War II. Doss’ story is a fascinating and inspirational one, but through Gibson’s exceedingly heavy-handed lens, he becomes a christlike figure bordering on hammy. Played by Andrew Garfield (who gives a superior performance in this year’s other big spiritual drama, Martin Scorsese’s Silence), Doss’ southern drawl and affectations are heightened to such a degree that the film should come with an altitude sickness advisory; it’s like a gritty take on Forrest Gump, a concept that might be even more absurd than Robert Zemeckis’ film.
Hacksaw Ridge is weirdly awful. Despite an effectively brutal war sequence or two, Gibson’s well-worn fetish for horrific violence and bloodshed and martyrdom reaches self-satirizing levels, and he paints with a brush that’s so heavy it might as well be a sledgehammer. Doss’ incredible story and acts of heroism need no embellishment; at least not the kind Gibson has in mind.
That Gibson secured six Oscar nominations for his egregiously ham-fisted war drama is not entirely surprising; that he did so just four days after Donald Trump’s inauguration is somewhat…disconcerting. After two years of essentially snubbing people of color and inspiring the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, the Academy has completed a near-180 with eight nominations for Barry Jenkins’ exceptional drama, Moonlight; a record-tying (with 2007) number of nods for people of color; and a record-setting six nominations for black actors. Celebrating the Academy’s marked (and long-overdue) uptick in diversity feels bittersweet; it shouldn’t be this surprising, but it’s no less welcome.
Yet Gibson’s nominations contradict and threaten to undermine these positive changes and lessen their progressive impact. The debate over separating the art from the artist remains pertinent, but it’s undeniably more difficult to ignore Gibson’s racist, sexist, violent past in our current political predicament. Not even a week ago, our country witnessed the inauguration of a man who, like Gibson, continues to prosper despite racist and sexist comments and allegations of sexual assault and harassment; a man whose impetuous actions and rash words give every indication that he is violently inclined and may very well incite an actual war (which could serve as the basis for Gibson’s next Oscar-nominated film).
It’s not unreasonable to compare the two. Both Gibson and Trump have made racist and sexist remarks that have been well-documented and highly-publicized; both men have been accused of spousal / partner abuse (Trump for marital rape, Gibson for assault); both have allegedly committed physical assault (by Trump’s own admission in his book, he assaulted a grade school teacher); both have been documented admitting to assault (Gibson was caught on tape admitting he attacked his ex-wife because she “f—ing deserved it”; in an instantly-infamous tape released last fall, Trump admitted to forcing himself on women). Gibson’s affinity for violence has also been expressed through his work, from the near-gleeful torture of The Passion of the Christ to the fetishistic portrayal of war in Hacksaw Ridge. Trump has endorsed acts of violence among his followers and, in March 2016, even praised them for attacking a protester at his rally.
Gibson continues to receive honors and accolades for his contributions to cinema thanks to the wall separating the art from the artist; Trump, who wants to build an actual wall separating America from those who have helped sustain it, received the highest honor our country has to bestow: The presidency.
The artist is vital to the creation of his art and thus there is a point when the two become inextricable — a struggle that is exponentially more futile when the creation reflects the attitudes of its creator, as is the case with Woody Allen’s films, which often depict older, neurotic men pursuing much younger women; or the more recent example of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, which depicts a brutal rape and in which Parker, whose past rape allegations resurfaced last year, casts himself as a figure of salvation and redemption. One can argue that Gibson’s films should be judged by their merit, not by the man who made them, but like Allen and Parker, it becomes less cut and dry when the art romanticizes the crimes (alleged or no) committed by the artist.
On November 9, 2016, we watched with dawning horror as Americans willfully ignored racist remarks, misogynistic statements, and breathtakingly bold admissions of sexual assault to elect our next president. Donald Trump’s actions are inexcusable and unjustifiable under any circumstance, for anyone, let alone the President of the United States, and yet we’ve watched his supporters astonishingly perform Olympic-level mental gymnastics to justify them. You can try to separate the art from the artist, but it’s impossible to separate the presidency from the President.
It seems that, if you’re a powerful, wealthy white man in America, you can get away with anything. Despite their insidious behaviors and attitudes, these men receive awards and accolades that effectively validate their immoral actions and, even worse, empower them to continue unhindered. It’s not entirely dissimilar from the Catholic church relocating abusive priests to different parishes instead of punishing them for their alleged crimes, or a police officer accused of wrongfully killing a suspect or knowingly committing acts of corruption, who is then promoted and given a raise instead of facing the consequences.
What Trump, Gibson and the others have in common is simple: Their privileged positions (which often include gender and race) have afforded them immunity from prosecution; they are invincible.
On February 26, 2017, will we watch as the Academy deliberately ignores the racist and sexist history of yet another privileged white man and bestows him with its highest creative honor? Will they undermine the progress they’ve made since the #OscarsSoWhite controversy? On February 26, the Academy can do the right thing by overlooking the hateful elephant in the room, or they can actively allow recent history to repeat itself by passively accepting it.