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Sunday 6 August 2006
David Thomson: Hollywood meltdown
LA is a crazy town. And the movie zone is crazier still. The critic and historian David Thomson knows it better than most. Which is why he says that, despite his Malibu moment, Mel Gibson's as Jewish as the next guy...
Mel Gibson is a superstar, and the system will not forget that he makes money for a lot of people. When it comes to money, Hollywood is a model of liberalism, equality and fairness. No matter the colour or creed, everyone is entitled to the money if they know how to squeeze the cow in the right places. Why, these days, even women can get some money - so long as they understand the discreet gender discount that applies.
There's a defence strategy for Mel Gibson being lined up: cop the plea, run the apologies, appear in court as a hushed and chastened man - a suitable, non-Malibu pallor would not come amiss, suggesting the dedicated weeks in rehab already. Whereupon, Mel gets no jail time.
There's a fine and some community service - from high-school courses to courtroom deals, "community service" is one of our modern mockeries. I wouldn't be surprised to see Mel on TV before Christmas warning us about the curse of booze and the horror of saying one word against the Jews. With a straight face, but then cracking into the rascal grin that made him, Mel may add, "Some of my Jews are best friends!"
Pause a minute, if you will, over that attempt at a joke. Because it's a Jewish joke. What do I mean by that? Well, it's in the way in which expectation is turned upside down. It's in the wryness and the rhythm. It's a way of saying, well, here we are on the brink of an apology which every one of you has the right to suspect is bogus, and it's so close to the cliché, that "Some of my best friends are Jewish", except that maybe Mel can summon the daring to tweak the cliché, to bring it back to life, to suggest that in all his army of Jews, some of them are good friends.
It's not the greatest joke you've ever heard, but it's a kind of joke that only a Jew or an unofficial Jew would tell. And my first large comment on Mel in Malibu, Mad Mel, The Weekend of Living Dangerously (whatever you want to call it) is that Braveheart may have spoiled the night air with a diatribe against Jewishness (as if they were the English!), but he's Jewish, and he knows it. I'll explain what I mean by that, but first understand a corollary of the condition: that if you're Jewish you get to tell anti-Semitic stories. So how is it that Mel, that I, and you are Jewish? Of course, technically, I don't believe I am Jewish and I don't think Mel does either.
But you never know. A fascinating aspect of the life of Charlie Chaplin is that the longer he lived in southern California, the more certain he was that he must have Jewish blood. In fact, Mel was the son of an Irishman and an Australian woman. It may very well be that the father told Mel and the other 10 children that the Holocaust was just a story.
Growing up in south London, there were two Jewish families on our street and my father was rude about both - politely rude about the wealthy family and flat-out hostile to the couple who went to Petticoat Lane with a sack. Shocking influence on the young, except that I had acquired early a Jewish despair over family.
But Mel and I have other things in common. We like actors and acting, telling stories, putting on shows and the people who do that work. I am Jewish because of Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, David O Selznick, Louis B Mayer, Sam Goldwyn, George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim, Norman Mailer, Jerry Lewis, Ernst Lubitsch, Erich von Stroheim, Billy Wilder, Benny Goodman, Peter Lorre, and so on. It's not simply that these people - some more likeable than others - were heroes. It's that their way of talking, the wisecrack, the argumentativeness, the talk for its own sake, the frantic eloquence, entered my head, and I love it.
Living in America, I have mixed in two circles mainly - academic and show business - and the Jewish facility for talk, so serious one minute, so lethally comic the next, surrounds you. It was said once of Louis B Mayer (who could be an unkind man) that he was the greatest, most helpless actor on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. Everything was a story. There are professors in the Ivy League like that. And I love it.
Far more than me, Mel Gibson has spent more than 25 years being a hero and a god in show business. It's not a question of taking a critical stance and saying that Jews have too much influence in the picture business, or that they own the town. It's far more basic than that. They are the town.
And they are fun and smart and self-deprecating and honest and terrific competitors, as witness the moment in John Wayne's career when .... Well, back up a minute: John Wayne was not Jewish, even if his real name was Marion. And he had been a hit all his career. Now, he had a deal with Warner Brothers and he couldn't understand why some of his pictures were being reported in the red. When red was not his favourite colour. So there is a Warner Brothers party and he has to go, but he is stand-offish, aloof, until Jack Warner goes up to him and says, "Duke, what's wrong?" Whereupon in his halting way the Duke says that he suspects he's being screwed financially. And Jack Warner sighs, and says, "Duke, of course you're being screwed. But we're your friends!"
I know, it's another joke where you might say, "Is that really so amusing?" Well, Wayne thought it was. He laughed - and show-business Jews are just like their best movies: they leave space for your laugh.
And it softened him because it was an anti-Semitic joke told by a Jew. And here is the thing about Hollywood Jews that is lovely. To be sure, they came to southern California in a rush out of Europe and they gave up the rag trade for pictures. And they became a bigger success than they had dreamt. At that point, many parts of the rest of America - such as the churches, the government and the schools - said: What is this? Trashy, sensationalist stories in the dark to keep our kids out of school! And they're making a fortune out of it! And they are uneducated Jews!
As Hollywood rose, there was a great wave of hostility from the eastern seaboard. And the Jews who were building palatial homes for themselves in the sunshine were anxious. They saw with the brilliance of the other Jewish minds that played such a part in the Manhattan Project that rather than be Jewish, they should be American. There was no written guideline for this. So they put the guidelines up on the screen - that is how Marion became a living statue, by being "American". Some changed their names. Most of them celebrated Christmas. And they told the best anti-Semitic jokes.
Anyone who has passed any time in what is still called Hollywood knows this is true. It has become a great part of the charm of the place, just as it has done wonders for schizophrenia and other mental disturbances (many of which find their best healers among the Jews).
Of course, there's another reason why we are all Jews now. It is the most terrible reason, the one that we would all rather live without. But it has to do with the fact that in 1942, two great men, Ernst Lubitsch and Jack Benny, combined in a movie called To Be or Not to Be, set in Poland, in which one of the best running jokes is "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, do they?". Don't misunderstand me. There is real anti-Semitism in Hollywood - there always has been. But I hear it's everywhere. Mel Gibson may be the occasional victim of it. He may have bigotry in his blood - though it's fighting a tough battle with the booze.
It is worth recalling that his Malibu moment occurred during the renewal of hostilities in Lebanon, and I think there are friends of Israel everywhere who feel dismay over that. But look at it just from Mel's point of view. He was 50 in January - and he probably thought he would be young for ever. He is a guy who has come from nowhere to be world famous - and you should try that before you knock people for the mistakes they make. He is also an actor, and actors are often crazy. I'll go further: Mel Gibson came on at first as a handsome rogue, a charmer who liked to tease and wisecrack. But as he became a director, so it became clear that he was very conservative, devout and not quite as amused as we had thought.
His films - Braveheart, The Patriot, We Were Soldiers, Payback, The Passion of the Christ - also revealed an uncommon fascination with violence, cruelty and torture.
I don't claim to understand that. I don't know the man. But I've seen the films and I'm confident that they come from a troubled personality, a man full of anger and fear. That needs to be dealt with, and it may be that the man is in great need of rescue. In the days after Malibu, the story gained ground that Mel Gibson was truly disturbed. And such things were foreseen. In the early days of Hollywood, one glove-maker was asking a former dressmaker about the picture business. "Is it a good business?", he asked.
Well, there's good and there's bad, he was told. You have to live in 300 days of sunshine a year. Your office is crowded out with the lovely blonde girls. You may have to get a divorce or two. The president calls you up night and day to hear what the public is thinking. You have great new houses and cars. Your daughters take riding lessons.
That sounds good, said the first guy.
No, that is the bad stuff, said the second guy. Daughters on horseback are going to want to get married. Trouble.
So what is the good? asked the first guy. The good? I don't like to talk about the good. But you miss the old country, the black bread, the girls with moustaches, the winters, the famine, the pogroms, your relatives.
There may be real pits of darkness in Mel Gibson where he hates Jews. But I'd guess he has a similar kind of problem with himself.
You can condemn those flaws and "ban" all people suffering from them. Or you can think of ways of taming them. In every instance , it seems to me, you can begin with humor and a certain knowledge that Jews have been in this business long enough to tell the worst (and the best) stories about themselves.
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