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Hollywood's Cowardice

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, August 9, 2006

The interesting thing about Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade doesn't involve Mel Gibson. Definitive proof of Gibson's anti-Semitism isn't exactly Pope-bites-dog news.

The most interesting thing about Gibson's outburst was Hollywood's reaction to it -- or, more accurately, its cowardly lack thereof.

By Hollywood I mean the entertainment industry, which -- Gibson's paranoid rant that "Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world" notwithstanding -- is in fact dominated by Jews.

And how did this source of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories respond to Gibson's behavior? Grudgingly, timidly and inadequately.

Many forces contributed to this muted reaction: the cult of celebrity, sheer avarice, the modern notion that moral failings are a disease to be recovered from. But I think this squeamishness also reflects Hollywood's historically uneasy relationship with its own Jewishness. Better not to make too much of a fuss for fear of calling attention to it.

From the moment Gibson was pulled over, he received the special deference accorded superstars. The Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman assured reporters that Gibson was taken into custody "without incident." After Gibson was booked, a helpful sergeant chauffeured him to the towing yard to retrieve his Lexus.

And that looked like the Rodney King treatment compared with the industry reaction. The sole studio chief willing to criticize the actor on the record to the Los Angeles Times was Sony Pictures movie Chairwoman Amy Pascal -- and the furthest she would go was to call Gibson's comments "incredibly disappointing . . . especially at this sensitive time."

Disney film chief Oren Aviv, whose studio is releasing Gibson's latest blood-soaked thriller, "Apocalypto," was typically indulgent, burbling to Kim Masters in Slate about his "great relationship" with Gibson. "We all make mistakes and I've accepted his apology to what was a regrettable situation," Aviv said. A regrettable situation is not getting your regular table at Spago. Spewing anti-Semitic slurs is a good deal more.

Disney's subsidiary ABC did drop its (what were they thinking, anyway?) plans to produce a Holocaust miniseries with Gibson. But the company made no mention of The Incident in its announcement, instead pinning the decision on Gibson's failure to turn in his homework on time. "Given that it has been nearly two years, and we have yet to see the first draft of a script, we have decided to no longer pursue this project," the network said. How about, given that we were working on a Holocaust project with an anti-Semite, we're backing out?

The only Hollywood power broker to speak out strongly against Gibson was agent Ari Emanuel, who wrote on the blog Huffington Post that Hollywood should be "shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him, even if it means a sacrifice to their bottom line."

What explains this -- to put it politely -- reticence? A big part, obviously, is money, and the desire not to alienate a powerful Hollywood star and his powerful agent. In Hollywood, a man is judged by his grosses, and Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" grossed more than $600 million. That can buy a lot of understanding.

Another is the Hollywood culture of recovery, in which all human failings are understood as diseases that can be treated with a quick trip to rehab. "I believe it was the disease speaking, not the man," said producer Dean Devlin, a Jewish friend who spent the afternoon before the arrest with the actor. Disney's Aviv wished Gibson well "on his path to healing."

There is also Hollywood's mushy-headed liberalism. "Any types of call of that nature fly in the face of what free speech is," producer Peter Guber told The Post's Peter Carlson in response to Emanuel's posting. Excuse me: Free speech involves making sure the government doesn't interfere with Gibson's right to make offensive statements -- not insisting that Hollywood do deals with bigots.

And then there is the Jewish question. In "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," Neal Gabler describes how the Eastern European Jews who founded the industry, and their successors, were so eager to assimilate and so desperate to avoid anti-Semitism that they erased any hint of Jewishness in actors' names, avoided dealing with the Holocaust (during or after) and sold out their colleagues to a blacklist during the McCarthy years.

The industry's response to Gibson echoes with the lingering traces of this ethnic insecurity. "As a Jew, I find the prospect of Jews acting in concert to start a boycott very unpleasant," Paramount producer Lynda Obst told The Post. "In one of the few areas where we have power, I don't think we should act in what anti-Semites consider to be stereotypical ways." Stereotypical ways such as standing up against prejudice?

Imagine if Gibson had assailed African Americans with the same kind of assault that he unleashed on Jews. His celebrity notwithstanding, I suspect Hollywood would have responded with the outrage it deserved -- not with paeans to free speech, psychobabble about healing and an invitation from the rabbi at "the largest entertainment industry synagogue in the United States" to speak at services in his Beverly Hills shul on the Day of Atonement.

marcusr@washpost.com


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