Show business Ethics Heroes are about as rare as credible presidential candidates; after all, Hollywood is one of two environments where the ethical culture is even more warped and cynical than Washington, D.C. (The other: the Columbia drug cartels.) Yet a genuine Ethics Hero emerged at the 25th annual American Cinematheque Award gala, when honoree Robert Downey, Jr., now a major star and industry power player, threw his prestige and influence behind a genuine industry pariah, Mel Gibson, in an act of kindness, gratitude, and reciprocity.
After Downey accepted his award before a cheering crowd of important performers and artists, he unexpectedly devoted his moment in the spotlight to recall how Mel Gibson, when Downey’s career had been devastated by habitual substance abuse and Gibson was a megastar, constantly supported him, encouraged him and refused to give up on him, though the Hollywood community had. The “Iron Man” star explained how Gibson, in 2003, gave Downey a starring role in “The Singing Detective,” which had been developed for Gibson himself, because nobody else would give the troubled actor another chance. Gibson even paid the insurance premiums for Downey, because the studio would not accept the risk of hiring him, given his history of drug addiction and legal problems. All Mel asked in return, Downey recalled, was that Downey resolve to help out the next actor who had hit bottom and had no friends in the Town Without Pity.That actor, ironically, turned out to be Mel Gibson himself. Beginning with a drunken anti-Semitic rant in 2006 and extending through a vicious domestic battle in 2010 that featured tapes of Gibson threatening his girlfriend using racial epithets, Gibson has been credibly accused of homophobia, racism, xenophobia, domestic abuse and misogyny. All this, combined with his extremely conservative political views and the commercial failure of his most recent films (in Hollywood, the most unforgivable sin of all) has brought Gibson all the way off his once lofty peak to the status of a has-been with a bleak future…or about where Robert Downey, Jr. was not long ago, and might be still without Mel Gibson.
Nobody in the movie business would have faulted Downey for not repaying his debt to Gibson, for in Tinseltown the standard is, “What have you done for me lately?” He did the right thing because he, more than anyone, knows that forgiveness can work wonders, and that the flawed denizens of Hollywood hardly had the right to deny anyone a second chance.
Who knows if his generosity will turn things around for Gibson the way Gibson’s kindness helped Downey? All we know is that on this evening at least, Downey’s salute produced a standing ovation for Gibson from his alienated colleagues, and that his prospects of getting that second chance looked bright. What comes of it, of course, is up to Mel. And if he indeed regains the trust and respect of the industry, it will be because of the Ethics Hero he created himself, by helping a friend in crisis years ago.