Mel Gibson: Can a falling star ever rise again?

Only a few months ago he was considered toxic in Hollywood. Now he is back on the silver screen

It says a lot for the state of Mel Gibson's career that the premiere of his new film The Beaver at the SXSW cultural festival in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday night inspired a news report headlined: "SXSW Doesn't Boo Mel Gibson in Beaver."

The actor's star has fallen so far, since the days when he winning Oscars and enjoying a gilded existence as one of the world's highest-paid performers, that the absence of catcalls from the opening of his new low-budget comedy is being heralded as some sort of unlikely PR coup.

Only a few months ago, Gibson's brand was considered so toxic that Warner Bros sacked him from a cameo in the sequel to The Hangover 2 – despite that they had cast Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, in the original.

Yet now, he is coming to a cinema near you. And while everyone loves the heart-warming rehabilitation of a fallen celebrity, Summit Entertainment, the financiers of The Beaver, are gambling on Gibson enjoying what you might call the speediest comeback since Lazarus.

Even without Gibson's well-documented history of anti-Semitism – and fallout from his racist and abusive telephone conversations that were leaked to websites nine months ago – that is quite a challenge. At the very moment Jodie Foster, The Beaver's director, was walking the red carpet in Austin, Gibson was at a police station in El Segundo, a coastal suburb of Los Angeles. The visit followed a decision to charge him with misdemeanour battery for allegedly assaulting Oksana Grigorieva, the ex-girlfriend with whom he has a one-year-old daughter.

Gibson is now expected to plead guilty to the assault charge, after negotiating a deal with prosecutors that will keep him out of prison. The marketers of The Beaver, which opens in the United States in May, hope a swift end to the legal dispute will allow them to continue pitching the film into the narrative of plucky comeback. They are helped by two things. Firstly, early reviews suggest that The Beaver is rather good. "The troubled actor delivers a performance very few could pull off," said yesterday 's Variety. The Hollywood Reporter billed it as "a hopeful portrait of mental illness that while quirky is serious and sensitive [and] could connect with a wide audience."

Secondly, there are several strange and largely coincidental parallels between the film's plot and Gibson's recent existence.

The Beaver tells the bizarre story of Walter Black, a middle-aged man battling depression, alcoholism, and minor mental illness, who after separating from his wife begins communicating with the world through a hand puppet.

Its path to the screen is a great underdog story. The film was originally dreamt up by an unknown screenwriter called Kyle Killen, and was picked up for production when it won a place on the 2008 "black list", an influential run-down of the best unproduced screenplays to have crossed the desks of Hollywood agents.

After Summit helped raise a $19m (£10.5m) budget to realise Killen's vision, Foster was hired as director and co-star. Filming wrapped before Christmas 2009, and the film was originally expected to be launched late last year, allowing it to run in cinemas just as Oscar season loomed.

Then, disaster struck. On 9 July 2010 when (coincidentally) Gibson and Foster had agreed to meet to re-shoot a couple of pivotal scenes, the internet site RadarOnline began streaming recordings of phone conversation in which Gibson delivered insults, threats and racial slurs to the mother of his child, before declaring: "If you get raped by a pack of niggers it's your fault."

Within hours the fast-breaking scandal had turned Gibson into a public enemy. While that prompted Summit to delay the movie's proposed release date, Foster now believes that in at least one instance it also, ironically, helped improve Gibson's performance in the actual film.

In The Hollywood Reporter this week, she recalled the moment the tapes were published. "[Gibson 's] assistant called me: 'Come to the trailer!' And I went to his trailer, and he was a mess. Then he came on set, and he didn't have any make-up on, anything. He came in and sat down on the chair and said, 'OK, roll it', and we did two takes that were just beautiful. Then he got on the plane and left."

The Beaver is therefore a story about mental illness, made during a star's very public breakdown. Speaking before Tuesday 's premiere, Foster described Gibson as "loving" and "sensitive", but then asked her audience to forget about his recent tabloid notoriety when watching the movie.

"I just have to ask everybody, can you see a film and appreciate the artist for his work?" she asked. The fate of the film, not to mention Gibson's career, now rests on the answer.

Barometer: Highs and lows of Mel's career

Highs

1979 – Mad Max

At the age of 23, Gibson bursts onto the Australian acting scene as the eponymous protagonist in the dystopian action hit Mad Max.

1995 – Braveheart

Directs and stars in the historical epic Braveheart, which wins five Oscars for its depiction of William Wallace's battle to overthrow English rule in Scotland.

2004 – The Passion

Garners three further Oscar nominations for directing The Passion of the Christ, which wins acclaim and attracts controversy for its graphic portrayal of Jesus's crucifixion.

Lows

2006

Gibson is accused of anti-Semitic and sexist rants during a drink-driving arrest. He admits struggling with alcohol addiction and enters rehab.

2010

Gibson's then girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, claims he punched her during an argument. An audio tape of Gibson delivering an abusive tirade against Grigorieva is leaked.

2011

Gibson is sentenced to three years' probation, a year of counselling and 16 hours of community service for pleading no contest to "battery of a spouse".

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