Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #7 - Mel Gibson

photo by Alan Light (cropped by Cesar)


 The Beaver
 We Were Soldiers
What Women Want
 The Patriot
  Conspiracy Theory
 The Man Without a Face
 Forever Young
 Lethal Weapon 3
 Lethal Weapon 2
 Lethal Weapon

Not only is Mel Gibson one of the greatest directors of all time, he is also in the top 10 actors ever on the silver screen.

The single biggest attribute that is common in all of Gibson's performances is intensity.  There is an explosive fire underneath all of his performances.  Sometimes it explodes onto the screen.  Sometimes it smolders beneath the surface.  Either way, few actors can fuel their acting with such high-octane emotion.

His first great performance was as Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon.  Gibson plays the character with cold detachment coupled with wild-eyed insanity.  He is a madman who happens to be on the side of the angels.  Hard-boiled heroes are a dime-a-dozen in action movies, but Gibson's Riggs is both steely and emotionally vulnerable.  Watch again the scene where he puts the gun in his mouth and how he struggles with pulling the trigger.

 He pain is palpable and scary at the same time.  And throughout the movie, Gibson shows his dramatic and comedic chops.

Continuing with the series, Riggs is a character that grows and Gibson shows him move by inches.  In Lethal Weapon 3, Riggs has changed in such subtle ways where he actually is very different internally, though outward appearances look otherwise.  He goes from a man with nothing to lose with everything to lose.

Speaking of Lethal Weapon 3, it is in my mind the best of the series because of the chemistry between Gibson and Danny Glover as Roger Murtagh.  The opening scene with the bomb is exciting and hysterical.  Their shorthand is familiar and funny.  But it is also wordlessly potent.  There is small scene in the movie where Murtagh's gun accidentally goes off in the locker room.  Riggs immediately begins to knock over lockers and act crazy to make people think he fired the shot.  Gibson then sits down and silently exchange a look with Glover.  In that simple stare there is concern, friendship, fear, and respect.

I would have to say the first time I truly understood Gibson's greatness was his Hamlet.  I first discovered this Franco Zefferelli interpretation when it was played ad nauseum on HBO.  I had not yet fallen in  love with Shakespeare and found the Bard's words distant and foreign.  But I found Gibson mesmerizing.  He captured the Danish prince's melancholy, but what grabbed me was his madness.  When he says, "Now could I drink hot blood..." it doesn't feel like a metaphor.  He makes Hamlet run the emotional gamut, but there is a real insanity to his actions that is electric.

You can see this intensity throughout his career.  I can think of so many moments where he broke through to me emotionally.  In The Patriot, when he collapses and repeats reflexively "God help me!  God help me!"  I cannot help but see myself reacting in the same way in response to such loss.  In the mediocre movie, The Beaver, Gibson shows his character's breakdown from depression to actual insanity.  He makes the fear palpable and catch in your throat as the human face in Signs.

And as mentioned before, Gibson has a talent for comedy.  He trades a lot on his natural charisma and charm.  Maverick, though a bit overlong, is watchable and enjoyable because of how affable Gibson's scheming scoundrel card shark is.  And in What Women Want, Gibson milks every ounce of comedic juice out of going from a misogynist jerk to a weeping womanish boyfriend.

But I think that his two greatest performances are from the early '90's.  In Forever Young, Gibson plays a man out of time, dealing with love and loss.  This is his most romantic role of his career.  He captures the complete desperation of a man in love beyond all hope.  The character is fairly written, but Gibson uses his skill as an actor to get across most of his pain and longing non-verbally.

But his greatest performance is in Braveheart.  Gibson himself talked about being rushed in making this film because he also directed it.  It amazes me that he not only crafted the look of one of the greatest films ever made, but he had to intuitively direct himself into his best performance.  His William Wallace is complex, layered, and multi-faceted.  Re-watch that performance and you will find a tour-de-force effort by Gibson, employing all of the tools in his skill set.  Wallace is charming and funny.  The first act courtship of his love is full of cute body language and line delivery.  Gibson is also able to use all of his action movie acting to create a believable warrior.  He plumbs the emotional depths of loss and sorrow.  He projects a cold-blooded killer instinct as he spends a good portion of the movie silently slitting throats and smashing in faces.  And even through all of that, Gibson projects a nobility of character that is so strong that you can believe that other men would fight and die for him.  There is a reason that his Battle of Sterling speech is still so often quoted and remembered.  It is not just because of writer Randal Wallace's fantastic words.  It is because Gibson creates a character who is both larger than life and inspires the noblest warrior in every man.

Mel Gibson is an actor of rare talent that has left his mark in movie history.

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