Editor-At-Large in New York: The Passion of the Mel: playing big on a small screen near me

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He sat, pinned in his chair, a patch of sweat glistening through the thick makeup. The beard was gone, the crucifix he wears nowhere in sight. Last Friday, Americans woke to the sight of the world's highest-earning actor trying to save his career by apologising on national television. For the second day running ABC's Good Morning America broadcast a long interview with Mel Gibson, who appeared un-comfortable and evasive on being questioned by Diane Sawyer about his anti-Semitic outburst when arrested for drunken driving in Malibu in July.

Mel didn't choose to go on television because he wanted to appear across the land chatting about his family, his career or his seven children. He was forced into this extraordinary act to get his new film released.This act of "repentance" was step one in the marketing plan for his epic, Apocalypto. Over a year ago, Mel struck a lucrative distribution deal for the project with Disney, which owns ABC.

The film, costing tens of millions of dollars, has been written and directed by Gibson, financed by the extraordinary profits he made from The Passion of the Christ - a highly controversial version of the New Testament which cost him just $30m to make, and took hundreds of millions at the box office worldwide, making it the most successful independent movie ever. Gibson, who won an Academy Award for Braveheart, set up Icon Films so that he could totally control production.

He is a complicated fellow who has committed the cardinal sin in Hollywood of slagging off both the Jewish faith and Jews, in a town where they call the shots. Gibson has always been open about his strong religious beliefs - he belongs to a traditionalist Catholic splinter group - and his version of the Passion aroused a great deal of resentment amongsections of the Jewish community who thought it contained anti-Semitic imagery. He felt this criticism was unjustified and that some reviewers were biased - certainly ordinary members of the public took little notice and the film was a hit. But to many in America, Gibson is a spokesperson for the religious right - and they think he has another agenda, using his work as a soapbox for his unpalatable views.

Apocalypto is a full-blown epic telling the story of the end of the ancient Maya civilisation. The project has been a huge gamble, starring unknowns who speak in the language of the time. How subtitles and a convoluted plot will play with the mass audience no one yet knows - the film is still being edited and lacks a music soundtrack.

Gibson's current problems began at the end of July when he popped into a bar in Malibu on his way home and didn't leave till 2.30am. When arrested for driving at 85mph in a 45mph zone, he had been swigging tequila from a bottle in his car. He started ranting and shouting that "the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" and asked the police officer: "Are you Jewish?"

According to reports on the internet, the officer's original report was shelved (as it was thought to be too incendiary), and the sheriff told reporters the arrest had been made "without incident". But that wasn't quite true. It seems that Gibson allegedly shouted at a female officer: "Who are you looking at, sugar tits?", threw a phone at the wall in the police station, and threatened to urinate on the floor of the cell where he was being held until he sobered up. A second, more anodyne, account of the arrest was made public, and there is a criminal investigation into how the first report ended up on the internet for all to read.

After Gibson pleaded guilty, he was ordered to attend three AA meetings a week and put on probation for three years. He issued a grovelling public apology and spent 30 days in isolation. He agreed to appear in public-service TV ads warning about the dangers of drinking. But the future of his latest epic still hangs in the balance; hence his two-day stint on Good Morning America.

After his arrest, ABC dropped plans to make a TV mini-series about the life of a Dutch Jewish woman during the Second World War.

Gibson has another problem to contend with, his dad. Hutton Gibson, 87, lives in South Carolina and is even more right wing than his son - he has gone on record with statements expressing doubts that six million Jews died in the Holocaust. When Diane Sawyer asked him about Hutton, Mel refused to condemn him, and sat looking visibly uncomfortable. He was willing to say sorry, but not to diss his dad, saying the remarks had been "hyped out of all proportion".

Although Gibson said he was "quite ashamed", it was clear that the controversy over The Passion has left him a deeply troubled soul. All this exposure is bad for his pin-up status - another woman said: "He's turning into Dorian Gray before our eyes, becoming uglier by the day." And as one of my American girlfriends said: "Once we used to think Mel was so gorgeous, but now we just know too much about him. Every time he's on TV, I think he's digging his own grave. He purports to be a Christian, but he's only interested in selling his work."

The story of the downfall of Mel Gibson is an epic that looks set to run and run. It remains to be seen if his version of repentance will play well in Tinseltown. He could end up having to move back to Australia!

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