Mel Gibson, Part 1: Scratching The Surface

Perhaps mindful of the past criticism, Sawyer kept her questions sharp and persistent in the first half of her interview with Mel Gibson. The second half airs on
Perhaps mindful of the past criticism, Sawyer kept her questions sharp and persistent in the first half of her interview with Mel Gibson. The second half airs on "Good Morning America" Friday. (Rick Rowell - AP)

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By Tom Shales
Friday, October 13, 2006

Part 1 of Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with disgraced actor-director Mel Gibson on yesterday's "Good Morning America" was little more than an advertisement for today's Part 2. But Sawyer, criticized in the past for being too soft on embattled celebrities such as Michael Jackson, was tough and direct in her questioning on the ABC show.

Sawyer failed, however, to ask any questions linking Gibson's latest outrage -- his spewing of anti-Semitic insults at a Jewish police officer who stopped the speeding actor in Malibu -- to some of his related controversies. His hugely profitable 2004 film, "The Passion of the Christ," drew worldwide condemnation for its anti-Semitic overtones, and Gibson also has been criticized for failing to distance himself from his father's statements that the Holocaust never occurred.

Sawyer stuck strictly to the July 28 drunken-driving incident and to the general topic of whether alcohol can cause people to reveal their inner selves or, as Gibson insisted, can make them blurt things not reflective of their true feelings. Of people who take the former view -- "vino veritas," as Gibson coined it -- the actor said, "They don't know what they're talking about."

Instead, Gibson -- who came armed with rationalizations -- said that alcohol "loosens your tongue and makes you talk in a way that is not you." He said he was "ashamed" of the abuse he heaped on the Jewish police officer: "I said horrible things to him."

Sawyer kept pressing Gibson on whether the alcohol liberated Gibson or distorted his character. She asked Gibson what he might have said if the officer had been African American, but Gibson never really answered that question.

"It is no excuse, by the way," Gibson said of his drinking and the racist ravings. "It's not a good-enough excuse." But he still seemed to be saying that inebriation, not innate bigotry, was behind his remarks, one of which alleged that "the Jews" have caused all the wars ever waged in the world.

Wrapping up the first half of the interview after about 10 minutes, with Gibson still claiming that the booze made him do it, Sawyer told viewers, "And that's where we will begin" Friday. If, in today's conclusion of the session, she doesn't put the drunken-driving incident in the context of Gibson's reputation and relate it to his Crucifixion film, then the interview will be a failure. Or a hoax.

That, however, sounds unthinkable. And Sawyer assured viewers at the outset that "no questions were off-limits."

Gibson, using a ploy common when celebrities are accused of misbehavior, tried to portray himself as the victim, rather than the cop or the Jewish people. Interviewed at his office in Malibu, Gibson told Sawyer he had suffered "public humiliation on a global scale" and said that on the day of the incident, he was under "perhaps too much pressure" and maybe doing "too much work."

The heavy work, he said, included screening a movie.

"A few drinks later," he said, and "I was in the back of a police car wailing." Gibson confessed to taking "a couple of slugs" from a tequila bottle while driving even though he was apparently already drunk when he got into his car.

Gibson occasionally laughed during his explanation of the event, as if to say "oh what a bad boy am I" in a glib, joking way. Asked how he told his wife about the incident, Gibson said with a smile, "I just told her straight out: Slipped again."

Sawyer's sole reference to Gibson's history of alleged anti-Semitism was the question: "How many times can you apologize?"

Gibson responded: "I don't know. Good question. I don't have an answer for it."

When he was handcuffed and taken to the Malibu police station, Gibson said, his "first thought" was of how terrible Nick Nolte looked in his infamous mug shot -- and so Gibson attempted to smooth his hair and make himself more presentable, he said.

A strange set of priorities? For a movie star, probably not.

Sawyer didn't bother with small talk or pleasantries in the interview as aired and, perhaps mindful of the past criticism, made her questions sharp and persistent. The second half of the interview today, however, will tell the tale.

Part 2 of the interview airs today on Good Morning America, which begins at 7 a.m.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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