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Mel Gibson talks about Braveheart, movie stardom, and media treachery

In a peculiar sense, though, Gibson, more than almost any other star-turned-director, has earned the right to celebrate his own cinematic immolation. He seems to belong to another, earlier era--an era that celebrated testosterone-stoked movie heroes like Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, and Lee Marvin--womanizing, hard-partying, hypermacho tough guys who enjoyed themselves offscreen as much as viewers enjoyed them in the theater.

Born in 1956 in upstate New York to strict Catholic parents, his family moved to Australia when Gibson was 12 so that he and his siblings could avoid being drafted into Vietnam, which then seemed as though it would never end. Raised in a land that worships fast cars, tough fighters, and fierce constitutions, he flowered into a first-class hellraising rebel, and he's admitted on many occasions that he's never really changed. Like Popeye, he yam what he yam. The idea that bad press--and he's gotten reams of it--could somehow shame him into reforming, becoming sensitive and politically correct and socially conscious, is laughable. Mention this prospect in front of him, and he looks truly bewildered.

He's an infamous practical joker, miming injuries after shooting potentially dangerous scenes just to get a reaction out of people, hiring out 40-piece high-school marching bands to greet friends on other film sets, belching and farting and scratching himself to test whether squeamish onlookers will muster up the nerve to complain. And he has a retro sense of how to appear boyishly charming to women. His Braveheart costar Sophie Marceau told Entertainment Weekly that Gibson kept unexpectedly flashing his penis at her on the set to lighten the mood. And Stephanie Mansfield, a reporter for GQ, witnessed a Gibson sight gag that would eventually serve as the finale of her June cover story: Gibson had to leave their interview at Icon Productions to attend a meeting and told her she was welcome to wait in his office until he returned, and Mansfield jokingly warned him that she might take the opportunity to look through his drawers. "You wanna look through my drawers?" Gibson shrieked, and began to pull down his pants.

Gibson has also been involved in other juvenile spectacles with more serious repercussions. Gibson was arrested for driving under the influence in Toronto while filming 1984's Mrs. Soffel, and his 1990 bar odyssey with three college students ended up in the tabloids, complete with personal snapshots. People magazine's first "Sexiest Man Alive" cover story found Gibson in the Australian desert during the shooting of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome in a tequila-sodden stupor, going out of his way to make everyone around him feel as shitty as he did.

Gibson attended his first Alcoholics' Anonymous meeting five years ago, and by most accounts, he's since become a more stable person, living a relatively sedate life with his wife of 15 years, Robyn, and being a father to a small platoon of children.

But that doesn't mean he's now a stranger to controversy. He's made vehemently antigay comments to reporters on several occasions. The most recent came three years ago in an interview with Spain's largest newspaper, El Pais. Asked about the stereotype that actors are usually gay, Gibson stood up, grasped his buttocks, and declared, "This is only for taking a shit...They [gays] take it up the ass." He then asserted his heterosexuality in a curiously defensive tone. "Do I look like a homosexual?" he demanded of the reporter. "Do I talk like them? Do I move like them?" The gay political magazine The Advocate responded by naming Gibson its 1992 "Sissy of the Year," an honor bestowed on celebrities who treat homosexuality in a "timid or cowardly" fashion.

All of which unfortunately colors one aspect of Braveheart: the king's relationship with his son, Prince Edward (Peter Hanly), a spoiled, petulant, weak-willed young gay man. In the movie's (admittedly slight) defense, the character's sexuality is backed up by historical record, and the film portrays him less as a villain than as a victim, continually persecuted by a hostile nation, a treacherous court, and his own hateful father. (He was also the subject of the late Derek Jarman's politically charged 1992 experimental feature Edward II.) But in light of Gibson's past remarks, the way Braveheart unflatteringly contrasts Prince Edward's effeminate mannerisms with William Wallace's supermacho posturing comes off as unsavory. And the scene in which the king throws his son's male lover out of a window in a fit of pique might strike some viewers as downright creepy. It certainly strikes the San Francisco-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) that way. "The Edward II character in Braveheart is a throwback to the classic celluloid queer played for laughs as a simpering weakling," declares GLAAD's executive director, Ellen Carton. The organization plans to demonstrate outside theaters on the picture's opening day in nine major cities, not including Dallas.

I asked Gibson whether he feels uncomfortable exposing himself to a multi-city schmooze session with journalists. After all, in the past the media has sometimes painted him as unpleasant, a drunk, a bigot, or worse.

"Journalists are always looking for a hook, an angle," Gibson says, shifting somewhat uncomfortably in his chair. "That's part of the job."

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