Mel Gibson hoped to make a Hollywood comeback
That’s a massive understatement from the actor who had hoped it would restore his tarnished Hollywood reputation following a series of catastrophic personal meltdowns. The film is The Professor And The Madman and is based on Simon Winchester’s bestselling book The Surgeon Of Crowthorne. It tells the true story of the Victorian academic who created the Oxford English Dictionary and his extraordinary collaboration with an American doctor, played by Sean Penn, who turned out to be a convicted killer locked up in Broadmoor Hospital for the criminally insane.
Gibson, who plays the professor, saw the film as a path to redemption, a way to reclaim his status as an A-List star rather than being remembered for his booze-fuelled anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic rants, and his vile abuse of a former girlfriend.
It could have been a launchpad for the three movie projects he hopes to sell at the Cannes Film Festival which opened yesterday.
Instead, it has proven to be one of the great debacles of his career.
The star of Mad Max, Lethal Weapon and Braveheart has waged a two-year legal battle to prevent the movie’s release after filming ended in 2016, horrified that it was not the end product he had envisaged.
Mel Gibson with Jim Caviezel, who portrays Jesus in The Passion of The Christ
Making a film about the genesis of the Oxford English Dictionary, Gibson unsurprisingly wanted to film numerous scenes in Oxford, and at Broadmoor, in Berkshire.
It was a desire shared by the film’s director, Farhad Safinia.
But producers Voltage Pictures, based in Ireland, claimed the film was already over budget and too long, and wanted to shoot at Trinity College in Dublin, doubling for Oxford.
Outraged, Gibson and Safinia quit the film, and sued Voltage for breach of contract, an action which was settled last month on terms that remain secret.
The producers accused the duo of walking out on their obligation, but the actor this week insisted in a statement: “Neither Farhad Safinia nor I ever walked off the set, or caused the film to ever go over budget.”
IT was a project dear to Gibson’s heart.
His Icon production company had bought the rights to Winchester’s book 20 years ago, and Gibson expected to have the final cut on the film.
“It is unfortunate for all concerned that this film was never finished as written,” Gibson continued.
“Over the past two years we have doggedly tried to film essential scenes in Oxford (which makes sense for a film about the Oxford English Dictionary!)
“Apparently, it was not meant to be: the shooting script was not completely shot. Therefore I did not get the opportunity to choose a final cut, and cannot support the film. I regret that this film will never be seen as it was meant to be.”
The film’s director Farhad Safinia
Director Safinia, who has taken his name off the film, stressed that he and Gibson had not demanded re-shoots of scenes they didn’t like: “All we had ever asked for was for the shooting script to be completed. It never was.
“Numerous essential scenes set in Oxford as well as multiple indispensable scenes set in Broadmoor Asylum were never shot, leaving substantial portions of the script incomplete with irreparable gaps in performance and basic story logic.
“It will remain one of my greatest regrets that the film we all thought we were making will never be.”
The critics appear to agree.
“It’s bad,” wrote The Daily Beast, “real bad.”
Daily Variety noted the film’s “truly uninspired dialogue” and also slammed “Penn’s over-acting.”
It scored a dismal 36 percent on movie review website RottenTomatoes.com.
It’s especially heartbreaking because The Professor and the Madman was poised to tell such an extraordinary true-life story of the unlikely collaboration between British linguist and scholar James Murray and the American Dr William Chester Minor.
Prof Murray was the academic charged with compiling the first Oxford English Dictionary, a task that involved documenting the history of the English language.
It took him 20 years to produce 20 volumes.
James Murray, the founder of the OED, in his Scriptorium in his back garden
Faced with such a monumental project, Murray enlisted the help of numerous volunteer academics and found that one of his most valued contributors was Dr Minor.
After years of communicating by post, Murray finally arranged to meet Dr Minor in 1891 and was shocked to discover that he was incarcerated in Broadmoor asylum.
While in London, the doctor, who suffered from paranoid delusions after being traumatised as a surgeon in the American Civil War, shot and killed a young man called George Merrett in 1872, believing himself to be pursued.
George’s widow Eliza, played by Game Of Thrones star Natalie Dormer, was left to raise their eight young children alone.
Gibson had hoped his meaty role would force Hollywood to once again embrace his acting talents, long since eclipsed by his destructive inner demons.
The star, a self-confessed manic depressive, won his big break in Mad Max by arriving at the audition after being beaten up in a bar brawl.
His first drunk-driving arrest came in 1984, the same year he tore apart a rented house.
Daily Variety editor Peter Bart noted: “He doesn’t handle alcohol well.”
Mel Gibson in Mad Max
A homophobic rant in 1991 forced Gibson to make grovelling public apologies to the LGBQ community, and he was criticised for supporting Holocaust-denial hate speech.
But Gibson really became a Hollywood pariah in 2006 when arrested again for drunk driving, by lashing out at the Jewish policeman arresting him, raging: “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”
Worse was to come.
In 2009 Gibson left his wife of 28 years, Robyn, the mother of his seven children, and ran off with Russian singer-songwriter Oksana Grigorieva, who soon gave birth to the actor’s daughter Lucia, now aged nine.
He was so abusive, Grigorieva recorded Gibson’s vitriolic rants and made the tapes public, seemingly ending any chance of a continued acting career.
“You need a ******* bat in the side of your head,” screamed the actor, who allegedly broke two of her teeth.
He used hateful racial epithets to describe black and Hispanic people, and raged at his girlfriend: “You look like a ******* pig in heat. If you get raped by a pack of *******, it will be your fault.”
She was heard pleading: “What kind of a man is that? Hitting a woman as she’s holding a child? Breaking her teeth twice in her face? What kind of man is that?”
Gibson snarled back: “You ******* deserved it.”
The actor became persona non grata in Hollywood, and though he eventually revived his directing career, winning acclaim with his 2016 WWII drama Hacksaw Ridge, audiences were hardly clamouring to see him on camera again.
His last movie, £11.5million indie crime drama Dragged Across Concrete, earned barely £417,000 worldwide.
The Professor And The Madman was set to change that, making Gibson’s disappointment all the more painful.
He hopes to sell three as-yet-unfilmed projects at Cannes this week: billionaire satire Rothchild, Santa Claus comedy Fatman, and action thriller Force Of Nature, aiming to star in them all.
It’s a tall order.
The actor who once commanded $25million per movie may now be wondering if audiences will ever welcome him back, at any price.