This weekend, at the 25th annual American Cinematheque Award gala, Robert Downey, Jr. interrupted his own award reception to ask America’s collective forgiveness for his friend, Mel Gibson. Sound strange? Let’s look back at the bonding experiences the two have cherished together over the years.
Between 1996 and just after the millennium, Downey was on a widely-publicized downward spiral due to his addiction to various illegal drugs (much like the character Julian Wells he played years earlier in “Less Than Zero”). He blamed these problems on his addict father and bipolar disorder, but no one was able to help the despoiled actor until his acting friend Mel Gibson offered him food, a place to stay and a part in his mildly-unsuccessful movie “The Singing Detective.”
This could be a gently heartwarming tale, but in the end Downey is just another actor hopped up on too many drugs. And Gibson doesn’t have a spotless past himself.
He’s been accused of everything from homophobia to racism and sexism, and the New York Times reported in 2006 that after he was arrested for drunken driving he complained to his arresting officer that “Jews” are the cause of all the world’s problems.
When one looks back at all the works for which Gibson is most known, it’s hard to see where Downey is coming from in his request. It seems unfair to even ask that we give him another chance when he offends just as much onscreen as in real life.
I won’t go into my spiritual beliefs here, but let’s just say I never intended to see Passion of the Christ, even before it was criticized for having anti-Semitic undertones from multiple media outlets — mostly for portraying the Jews as blackmailers that forced Pontius Pilate to kill Jesus, a view that is unsupported by the Roman Catholic church. In any regard, I don’t think my 13-year-old self could have handled all the gore. I imagine I would have liked it even less than his performance in “What Women Want,” a film which, in a traumatizing babysitting debacle, I was once made to watch three times in rapid succession.
In the end, both men have made poor decisions in their lives that led to waves of ill-will from the public. Thus, the fact that they staged a televised appearance to promote an image of brotherly support and rehabilitation should not change much. The testimonial of Downey, an equally shady character, means nothing to me.
Downey has been fortunate in overcoming his substance abuse problems enough to make the “Iron Man” series, “The Soloist” and other recent films, but his televised plea to have the same turnaround for his friend is grasping at straws, at almost an arrogant level. It’s as if he has an expectation of viewers: that just because the two spotlight-lit men have supported each other through these lengthy, weird lapses in judgment, former fans should support them now.
Although I have a soft spot for Mel Gibson’s portrayal of William Wallace in “Braveheart,” it’s ironic to me that it was his character who said, “You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom.” It’s time for Hollywood players like Gibson and Downey to stop thinking that their audiences owe them forgiveness, love and adoration even when they screw up. To be a famous actor is to hold a powerful position in our society, but that power must be earned by good off-screen behavior.