These interviews concerning Franco Zeffirelli's HAMLET (1990)--with actors Mel Gibson, Glenn Close, Helena Bonham Carter and director Zeffirelli--are just one example of interviews I have conducted for many more films from 1980-2000.   . 

Mel Gibson: Like Hamlet, He's a "King of Infinite Space"
by John C. Tibbetts

We have hardly shaken hands and begun to talk about Maverick before Mel Gibson pauses to light up a Marlboro cigarette. He regards it appreciatively for a moment, takes a long draw, coughs once, then flicks away the match. "I know I've told you I was going to quit these things," he says, catching my surprised expression, "but my wife made me start again. She just couldn't take the torture anymore. I was just about to start up the chainsaw when she produced a pack of cigarettes. Zzzzz. There are hotels where I didn't smoke--but where a lot of people were found strangled in their beds. . . ." His words trail off into silence.

The last time we had talked together, on the occasion of the release of his first directoral effort, The Man Without a Face, Mel had sworn to me he was through with cigarettes. He had talked of a new focus, a new center in his life, which included abandoning many bad habits. So much for that resolve.

I shouldn't be surprised. It's just one more switcheroo after so many others during the many encounters I have had with Gibson over the years. Getting to know him has required constantment adjustments and recalibrations. For example, nothing could have prepared me for the shock of my first interview with him back in l985. The occasion was the release of Mad Max--Beyond Thunderdome, the third of the "road warrior" trilogy. All I or anyone else knew of the Australian star at that time was his previous work in Mad Max (l979), Tim (l979), The Road Warrior (l982), and The Year of Living Dangerously (l982)--serious roles, for the most part, revealing a quiet and intense sensibility. But--surprise, surprise--the person before me seemed to be a bona fide flake, a guy who grimaced constantly, a joker with a twitch in his face. "I can pull awful faces," he admitted ruefully, the thick eyebrows lifting sardonically, the forehead wrinkling, the intensely blue eyes widening and looking sidelong (as if tracking someone sneaking up on his blindside), and his hands constantly choreographing his remarks with quick, jabbing motions and graceful little dips and dives. He was always chuckling and adding barely audible asides. And sometimes there were these odd little silences, moments where he was either temporarily distracted, groping for words, or ignoring you--"doing the monosyllabic thing," as he put it. Before the cameras rolled, he lit up a cigarette and at the last minute waved away the telltale wisps of smoke. "You don't have a cigar, do you?" he asked leaning forward suddenly, drawing up his brows in his best Groucho Marx smirk.

And yet Mel should not be easily dismissed as a clown and a kook. He is extremely smart, quick, and very articulate--"all the Marx Brothers rolled into one," said Sigourney Weaver, his co-star in The Year of Living Dangerously. The trouble comes when he keeps you off balance with his quicksilver temperament and his penchant for pranks, jokes, and mischief. On the set he'll grab a camera and turn it on the onlookers and crew. During press junkets, he roughhouses on the floors of hotel corridors (despite chronic back trouble), mercilessly mimics friends and foes alike (check out his "Three Stooges" take in Lethal Weapon for an wicked example), juggles fruit, slings out outrageous puns, and for no apparent reason frequently dons a red clown's nose. He's always telling whoppers, and the kids on the set of The Man Without a Face called him "Dr. Demento" in tribute to his ghoulish, hair-raising tales. He could be the character about whom Lord Byron wrote in The Vision of Judgment:

The moment that you had pronounced him one,
Presto! his face changed, and he was another;
And when that change was hardly well put on,
It varied, till I don't think his own mother
. . . would her son have known,
He shifted so from one to t'other.

The thirty-eight year old Gibson is one of today's few authentic screen superstars, and he now commands more than $8 million per picture. He was born on January 3, l956, the sixth of eleven children in Peekskill , New York , a rural upstate community near Oneonta. An idyllic childhood was disrupted when his father, Hutton, a freight conductor on the New York Central Railroad, suffered severe injuries that wiped out the family's income. Never able to return to the railroad, the father had to find other ways to support the brood. As Mel recalls, the family barely survived. Fortunes took a turn when father Gibson won a damage suit against the railroad, enabling the family to emigrate to Australia , where some of their relatives resided. (Another version of this story claims that the reason the Gibsons moved to Australia was that Hutton feared that the older sons would be drafted into the Army during the Vietnam era.) The family moved into a house near Sydney on Australia 's eastern coast.

During his early teens, Mel had some difficulty coping with his strange new environment. After high school graduation, his plans to become a chef or a journalist were shelved when his sister sent an application in his name to the National Institute of Dramatic Art at the University of New South Wales . Mel duly auditioned and was accepted. In an interview in After Dark in l98l, he recalled that when the auditioning committee asked him why he wanted to become an actor, he said, "I've been goofing off all my life. I thought might as well get paid for that."

Upon graduation from the Institute in l977, Gibson joined the State Theatre Company of South Australia , playing small parts in Oedipus, Cedoona, and a variety of other plays. There was some film work, too, and his performance in a low-budget surfer movie, Summer City (a role for which he says he never got paid), came to the attention of film director George Miller, who cast him as Max Rockatansky in Mad Max (l979). The grade-B futuristic thriller about a vengeful ex-cop was a breakaway hit, the biggest commercial success of any Australian film to date. Tim (l979) won him an Australian Film Institute Award for his role as a mentally retarded day laborer. His "breakthrough" picture was Peter Weir's Gallipoli (l98l), which featured him as an Australian soldier bound for glory in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in World War I.

The success of Gallipoli and another Weir-directed film, The Year of Living Dangerously (l982), led to a succession of American pictures, including several action films, like The Bounty (l984), Mad Max--Beyond Thunderdome (l985), the Lethal Weapon trilogy, Tequila Sunrise (l988), Air America (l990), Bird on a Wire (l990), Forever Young (l993); and a few offbeat dramas, Mrs. Soffel (l984) and The River (l994). The much-discussed Hamlet (l99l), directed by Franco Zeffirelli drew upon Gibson's classical stage training (he won the Will Award from Washington 's Shakespeare Theater). And The Man Without a Face (l993) was his directoral debut, a serious film about the troubled relationship between a student and a teacher with a past.

Contrary to tabloid headlines and supermarket weeklies, Mel's popularity has little to do with ephemera like sex appeal and blue eyes. Rather, it is what I have already referred to, his unexpected variability--almost capriciousness--that informs every role. Few actors today can equal him at portraying characters who are, by turns, tough and self-reliant, yet vulnerable, even childlike--the classic mold that worked so well for Mel's favorite actors, Gary Cooper and Spencer Tracy. Mel posses a Peter-Pan kind of personna, the sort of quality that author James M. Barrie tagged to perfection in his turn-of-the-century novel, Sentimental Tommy. Barrie 's description of Tommy, a successful young writer, serves Mel equally well:

I suppose you want me to give you some idea of his character, and I could tell you what it is at any particular moment; but it changes, I do assure you, almost as quickly as the circus-rider flings off his layers of waistcoats. A single puff of wind blows him from one character to another, and he may be noble and vicious, and a tyrant and a slave, and hard as granite and melting as butter in the sun, all in one forenoon. All you can be sure of is that whatever he is he will be it in excess.

Which is not to say Mel hasn't his serious, reflective side. I saw that, too, during our l99l interview regarding his Hamlet. When I entered his hotel suite I was astonished to find him dressed all in black, lying on a couch, his back to the rest of the room, wrapped in a profound silence. But then I remembered he had recently lost his mother and had just returned from her funeral in Australia . Gone was the expected flip manner and frenetic gestures. This time he spoke quietly and seriously about the risks of working on the Zeffirelli adaptation. It was to be the clearest self-analysis of his craft I would ever have from him.

"Hamlet is not the risk for me in the physical sense that some people think," he explained. "The swashbuckling stuff--the duel with Laertes--that was easy. That's Hamlet in motion, which is what he really does best. No, it's the language of Shakespeare that's the real difficulty for everybody. I mean, the words were a barrier to me! You learn it by first understanding it yourself. But that doesn't necessarily mean you can make anybody else understand it. It's all in the inflection, the emotion, the sense of what they are saying. Then you can put your layers, or colors, on it. You take a line like, 'Oh, most wicked speed to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets.' Pretty wild words, huh? Very abrasive words. 'Incestuous sheets'"--he hissed out the sibilants, fairly tasting them on his tongue. "The iambic pentameter grinds itself into a rhythm in the brain after awhile, so that even your ordinary conversation takes on that style." He paused, then grinned slightly. "That's what happens when you embark upon the bark of the Bard."

There it was, that unexpected flash of Mel the jester.

As Mel proceeded to expound on the relationship between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude (Glenn Close), I was also surprised by his willingness to share his insights into the text--something he had never done with me before on any of his film projects. "I don't think their relationship is sexual, but they do know each other very well. And they're totally dependent on each other. They touch and hang on to each other a lot. But with her new husband she's found something she likes better for the moment. And Hamlet can't bear it. By the laws of that time, her marriage to his uncle really was incestuous. Hamlet's disgusted with her. And when he confronts her in the chapel, he wants to shock her." Gibson paused a moment, then--"Freudian?" he continued, "that's a crock. But then, Hamlet is too 'Jung' to understand any of this--"

Another zinger. Follow Mel too long on any one course and he'll turn about and bite you.

Gibson also insisted during that interview that it was important for him not to consult other performances of the Hamlet character as guides for his own. "I don't think anyone can give you Hamlet. You're on your own. It's a very personal thing. No matter who you are, you can identify with some aspect of that character. Shakespeare has put the whole of the human condition into one person. And that's why Hamlet has had such longevity. And always will. The fascinating thing is that you can hear his wheels, how he chases his tail around all the time. He's very smart, and he's always in motion--either thinking too much or acting too impulsively. Extremes either way, but they come from the same energy."

What by now must seem Mel's chronic unpredictability shouldn't be dismissed as a chaotic, disordered, or confused identity. Rather, it is my contention that his shifting private and public personnae take on a profound meaning when seen against a wider context--his adopted country of Australia .

Beginning in the early l9th century, waves of Anglo-Saxon immigrants had left Europe to begin again in Australia . The difficulties of surviving in a hostile environment gave rise to a sturdy pride characteristic of the "Aussies," a fiercely individualistic "starting-from-scratch" attitude. Similarly, the Gibson family's emigration to Australia forever changed the course of young Mel's life. At the all-boys Christian Brothers school his "Yank" accent, manner, and relatively small size marked him as a target for roughhousing, insults, and considerable "bagging"--an Australian term for hazing. Even as an altar boy in church he was something of a misfit, clumsy and accident-prone ("a falter boy, not an altar boy," he quips). In order to survive, to blend in, he had to take on a new personna and give as good as he got--lose his American accent, disguise his feelings, rely on his wits, and learn to fight. He even learned to "bag" on himself, a habit he retains to this day (associates say he frequently watches his dailies and shouts insults at his image on screen). He became what he called "a curious animal," a "hybrid" who was ambivalent about his identity and his nationality. "This gives him an extra cutting edge as an actor," Peter Weir was quoted as saying in a l985 biography of Gibson. "An interesting tension is set up--a sort of who-am-I/where-do-I-belong dilemma, a push-pull energy he can draw on. Of course, this sort of thing could lead to uncertainty, make him feel like a displaced person."

Weir says this sense of displacement is part of the Australian consciousness. It results in a yearning for the myths and traditions that have been left behind during the waves of immigration. Thus, while Aussies are individualists who have re-invented themselves--to use a currently popular expression--they are haunted by these trace memories and feel the need to reconnect with their past. Weir dramatized this in a scene in Gallipoli. The young pals, Archie and Frank (Mel Gibson), discuss a scene in a Rudyard Kipling story when Mowgli the Jungle boy must emerge from the wilderness into the world of men. Mowgli must pay a price, however. In order to survive, to join the human race, he must abandon his beginnings, lose his state of grace. When Mowgli realizes he no longer belongs to the jungle but to the world of men, he weeps. Kipling writes: "He had never cried in all his life before. 'Now,' Mowgli said, 'I will go to man.'"

An outstanding characteristic of Gibson's films is that, while they enact this dynamic of separation and loss, they also imply the possibilities of renewal. Before we briefly look at some examples in his films, it is important to note that in l984 Gibson, by then a successful and popular movie star, the epitome of the Australian self-made man, faced a crisis in his personal and professional life that led him on his own voyage of rediscovery. After making four features in rapid succession, The Bounty, Mrs. Soffel, The River, and Mad Max--Beyond Thunderdome," he burned out. Everything was happening too fast, and suddenly, Gibson was in trouble. He was drinking too much, was arrested in Toronto for drunken driving, was vilified in the press for calling journalists "parasites," and, in general, "behaving like a Viking pig," as he put it. He wanted out. He withdrew from acting for almost two years.

Another surprise. The extended leave from the movies accounted for the Mel Gibson I met in l987, just before the release of the first Lethal Weapon, a man more relaxed, more philosophical about himself, more open about his private demons than before. "It was too much," he told me then. "I mean, you can overdose. You can be a pig with the workload and there's a lot of demand put upon you. I was just overworked. And there was something else. I've always remembered something my father told me a long time ago--that you shouldn't worry too much. It was a sin to worry too much about anything." He pauses, lost in another of his protracted silences. Then--"Yeah, I needed to take off. So I did, for more than a year. And it did me nothing but good."

He returned to Carinya, his sprawling 800-acre ranch nestled in the lush green hills of Victoria's Kiewa Valleyranch in south Australia, to his wife and (at that time) four children. He visited with his beloved parents, who live nearby. He stocked his farm with cattle, learned animal husbandry--he's proud of the fact that he uses no chemicals or hormones on his beef--chased the calves around on his 200cc trail bike, and loafed at the nearby general store.

"I just said, 'Leave me alone,'" Mel continued. "I put out the 'Do not disturb' sign and went away. There's nothing like good hard work. It keeps you healthy. There's fresh air and sunshine and all those natural things we need as natural creatures. Not to turn a camera but to rebuild the barn. To be knee-deep in mud--or something worse. And it keeps your mind busy, but in a different kind of way. There's a cerebral thing to it, but it's not the same kind of stress. It's more physically hard. I wasn't drinking any more, and I was there for my family all the time, and they were there for me. You come against some tension, yes, but the activity together is important.

"Then one day I realized I was getting itchy to go back to movies. I said, well, I'll take the sign off. And the calls came in. I think it's terrific--I'm a very lucky person to be able to shift gears like that. Besides, I was better able to take on the first Lethal Weapon movie. I found it was better to be more relaxed in order to play a guy on the edge, like [Martin] Riggs. Acting is really just like kidding around, no matter how serious the role. I had to learn that all over again. It's always best to stay light on your feet, be neutral, and then branch out from there. Then you're in a state where you can add on things. It's like Mr. Potato Head, you know--you slap on it whatever you want, a mustache, different attributes of the character. It's much easier to paint on a bare canvas than one that's already got a picture on it. You can get a clearer view."

This whole process--separation, loss, and renewal--is a constant in Mel's films, whether by chance or design. His earliest films had already set the pattern. The Mad Max trilogy breaks it down into its three component parts: In the first, Mad Max, idealistic lawman Max Rockatansky is a devoted family man whose life is shattered when his wife and son are killed by a gang of freak bikers. He turns into a vengeful killing machine, devoid of emotion or remorse. In the second installment of the series, The Road Warrior, Max is a solitary wanderer in a post-apocalyptic world, haunted by the loss of his family. He regains a sense of his humanity when he attaches himself to a colony of migrants and joins in their battle against a band of scavenging marauders. Finally, in Mad Max--Beyond Thunderdome his encounter with a tribe of lost children, descendents of an aviator killed in the Holocaust, enables him to assume the mantle of father figure and savior. The "road warrior" has discarded his leather armor and donned the softer, flowing robes of a Messiah. In a film of strikingly different tone and texture, Tim, Gibson portrays a mildly retarded, childlike 24-year old man whose life is disrupted by the loss of his parents. Traumatized, his innocence gone, Tim ultimately achieves a new emotional maturity through the love of an older woman. In Gallipoli Gibson's Frank Dunne is a wanderer, a conman and cynical opportunist who gets on by his wits. "No thanks," he tells his mates who are off to join the Australian army at the outbreak of World War I, "if you blokes all want to go and get yourselves shot, go ahead." His friendship with the idealistic, naive young soldier, Archie--a boyish, frankly angelic figure--changes everything and rekindles his latent patriotism and sense of duty. Ironically, it is Frank who survives the disastrous Gallipoli campaign because of the self-sacrifice of his friend. In The Year of Living Dangerously Gibson portrays Guy Hamilton, a journalist of American/Australian parentage who arrives in Jakarta on his first big journalistic assignment. Clever, resourceful, and ruthlessly opportunistic he is prepared to sacrifice friendship for the sake of a big story. His friend, Billy Kwan, compares him to the stock character of The Prince in a Wayang puppet play--someone who is alienated from himself: "We're divided men," says Kwan. "We're not really certain we're Australian, you and I. We're not quite at home in the world." However, after Kwan initiates him into the tribal mysteries of ancient Jakarta , Guy abandons his worldly cynicism and recovers a sense of lost innocence. "Most of us become children again when we enter the slums of Asia ," Kwan tells him. "And last night I watched you walk back into childhood."

Seen in this context, the theme of separation, loss and recovery emerges readily enough in Mel's later portrayals, especially in his displaced loners like Tom Garvey in The River, Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon trilogy, the eponymous Hamlet, and McCloud in The Man Without a Face. That much is obvious; but the same holds true for other roles seemingly too lightweight to support such a substantial deep structure. For example, look closer at Rick Jarmin in Bird on a Wire--who periodically slips in and out of identities in order to escape the drug runners on his tail--and Daniel McCormack in Forever Young--who, after waking from a cryogenic sleep, must hide his identity to survive in an alien world fifty years in his future--and it's clear that here, too, are men alienated from their past and from society, men who must undergo a transformation of some kind in order to achieve a reintegration of their shattered identities.

Since his own personal crisis of l984, and the renewed contact in Australia with his parents, his family, and with the land, Gibson has tried to reaffirm his life and values. For example, it might surprise his fans to know that the irrepressible actor, for all his legendary pranks and impish humor, is a staunch believer in family values, marital fidelity, and stern familial discipline--much of which he credits to his father, Hutton, the man he claims is the only true hero of his life. A kind of benevolent version of the character of "Allie Fox" in Paul Theroux' Mosquito Coast , Hutton Gibson is by all accounts a remarkable man, self-reliant, multi-gifted, and sternly religious. The three Christian names he gave Mel--Mel Columcille Gerard--are those of Catholic saints. He is also a member of the Alliance for Catholic Tradition and has authored several books critical of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church.

Mel, like his father, is not happy with the state of things in the Church. A strict Roman Catholic, Mel calls Pope John Paul II's regime a "circus," and he clings to the traditions that the Mass should be conducted in Latin, that birth control is taboo, and that abortion is murder. In one of his rare outbursts of self-revelation, he told a Redbook interviewer three years ago that, in so many words, he is a Creationist, that he believes this world is no more than a test for an afterlife. "It's not a popular view, I know," he said. "People will criticize me and say that I'm some sort of mindless robot who's using religion as a crutch to get through life. Well, I'm not a mindless robot, but I am using it as a crutch to get through life."

Fair enough. Gibson has matured and learned some hard lessons along the way. He's still trying to quit smoking, no longer drinks excessively, is more circumspect with the press, and jealously guards his private life. His wife of fourteen years, Robyn, a former nurse, grants no interviews about her husband and prefers not to see her name in print. They have six children. Hannah, the oldest, is the only daughter, and the five boys are Will, Lewis, Milo , and the twins Edward and Christian. The family stays together, no matter what. Whenever he's on location, Mel takes everyone with him, enrolling the kids in whatever school is nearest the film set.

Significantly, Mel now speaks about his new production company, Icon Productions, as it it were an extended part of his family. "I formed Icon in order to make quality films with something to say," he told me in August l993 in Bar Harbor , Maine just before the release of Icon's The Man Without a Face. In a way, this was another of Mel's surprises, for he was then riding high on the commercial successes of chase pictures like the Lethal Weapon series and Bird on a Wire. But no, he turned his back on that formula for his directoral debut. "I've had chances to direct a movie before, but this is the first one I really wanted to do. There's got to be more to this business than just 'popcorn munching.' My movie's about looking past appearances to test the real worth of people. In the picture I tell young Norstadt that unless he can look beyond my face, which has been disfigured, he'll never really know me. In my business, we're always judged on appearances first. I wanted to make a statement against that, about looking past that. But I didn't want to preach at the top of my voice. I wanted a quiet movie, to speak in a quiet voice. I didn't grandstand it. We kept it to a modest budget and didn't go in for car crashes or explosions or anything like that. Nobody kills anyone. I wanted to show how people have far more destructive weapons to hurt each other with, like gossip and slander."

That being said, what does Mel's Icon company produce next? Maverick, of all things--a rip-roaring roughhouse western! And, yes, during our interview on the picture he's back to fidgeting again. Hamlet in motion. In short, he remains as elusive and baffling as ever. Even if you understand what lies behind his chamelon-like variability, you are no better able to track him than before. Rather, you delight in the constant shifts, rather like savoring the daily weather changes in Kansas in the spring. You resign yourself to the fact that he will always be a boy in his own way. Indeed, if he is a genius, as some of his associates have claimed, it may be in the sense that James M. Barrie defined genius: "It is the power to be a boy again at will." It was with boyish energy that he gang-tackled his latest role as Brett Maverick--"For the first couple of weeks on every picture I sort of wrestle with things, because that's the way you find yourself. I go in spirals all over the place, as opposed to somebody like Jodie [Foster], who always knows what she's doing and goes in a straight line."

This innocent fearlessness is a quality his co-star Foster says is typical of his unstudied, almost reckless abandon with any role. "I'm not afraid of failure anymore, exactly," says Mel. "If you had that fear, you might not do the job at all. I was always allowed to fail. I got quite used to failing, in front of lots of people. Like when I was twelve, when every day was a risk and a failure. It was painful, but you realized it was a growth experience, too."

Meanwhile, he has made his peace with his dual national roots--which is to say that, characteristically, he prefers to straddle both worlds, claiming permanent resident status in Australia and retaining citizenship and voting privileges as an American. He says it's easier to refer to himself as a "citizen of the planet"-- "If you are acquainted with two different countries, like I am, you're supposed to choose one over the other. Like a football game, you have to choose a side. I don't see the need to choose, you know? When you're moving around a lot, like I do, you feel the whole planet is home. I hope that's the way my kids will feel, too."

He smiles impishly. To the end, I can believe that Mel Gibson will never be comfortably confined to any one definition, category, or condition. I'm reminded of Mel's favorite lines from Hamlet when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive in Denmark in Act Two, Scene 2. Hamlet tells them, "Welcome to my prison." They reply that Denmark isn't prison, it's just his mind that makes it so. At that point Hamlet says, "I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space." Either way, Mel Gibson is quite at home.


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