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During quieter moments, Gibson's touch is less confident. He pulls off a few lovely closeups, in which the camera lingers mercilessly on the face of someone who's just been defeated, one-upped, or betrayed. And he gives his supporting cast plenty of memorable scenes and lines and lets them create fully rounded characters. But the hero's furtive tryst with a French-reared English princess (Sophie Marceau) makes narrative but not quite emotional sense. And the finale, in which Wallace dies a martyr's death by undergoing three different forms of ghastly torture, ought to rise to heights of awful, soul-wrenching grandeur, but instead it's merely unpleasant. And it smacks of directorial privilege. As the scrappy, muscular little star is hung by the neck and stretched on a rack, we seem to be witnessing the ultimate example of Christlike posing by an actor-director. Eastwood, Stallone, and Costner have pulled this stunt, too--sometimes more than once in the same film--and whether it's justified by the screenplay or not, it always seems more self-indulgent than enlightening. As sensible and entertainment-oriented as he is, you'd think Gibson would know better.

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.

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Matt Zoller Seitz