FOR Fourth of July weekend fireworks, even Macy's couldn't top the spittle-spangled eruptions of Mel Gibson. The clandestine recordings of his serial audio assaults on his gal pal were instant Web and cable-TV sensations - at once a worthy rival to Hollywood's official holiday releases and a compelling sequel to his fabled anti- Semitic rant of 2006. A true showman, Gibson offered vitriol for nearly all tastes, aiming his profane fusillade at women, blacks and Latinos alike. The invective was tied together by a domestic violence subplot worthy of "Lethal Weapon." There was even a surprise comic coda, courtesy of Whoopi Goldberg, who, alone among Gibson's showbiz peers, used her television platform on "The View" to defend her buddy's good character.
The Gibson tapes - in plain English and not requiring the subtitles of some of the star's recent spectacles - are a particularly American form of schadenfreude. There's little we enjoy more than watching a pampered zillionaire icon (Gibson's production company is actually named Icon) brought low. The story would end there - just another tidy morality tale in the profuse annals of Hollywood self-destruction from Fatty Arbuckle to Lindsay Lohan - were it not for Gibson's unique back story.
Six years ago he was not merely an A-list movie star with a penchant for drinking and boorish behavior but also a powerful and canonized figure in the political and cultural pantheon of American conservatism. That he has reached rock bottom tells us nothing new about Gibson. He was the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard then that he is today. But his fall says a lot about the changes in our country over the past six years. We shouldn't take those changes for granted. We should take stock - and celebrate. They are good news.
Does anyone remember 2004? It seems a civilization ago. That less-than-vintage year was in retrospect the nadir of the American war over "values." The kickoff fracas was Janet Jackson's breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl, which prompted a new crackdown against televised "indecency" by the Federal Communications Commission. By December Fox News and its allies were fomenting hysteria about a supposed war on Christmas, with Newt Gingrich warning of a nefarious secular plot "to abolish the word Christmas" altogether and Jerry Falwell attacking Mayor Michael Bloomberg for using the euphemism "holiday tree" at the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center. In between these discrete culture wars came a presidential election in which the Bush-Rove machine tried to whip up evangelical turnout by sowing panic over gay marriage.
It was into that tinderbox of America 2004 that Gibson tossed his self-financed and self-directed movie about the crucifixion, "The Passion of the Christ." The epic was timed to detonate in the nation's multiplexes on Ash Wednesday, after one of the longest and most divisive promotional campaigns in Hollywood history.
Gibson is in such disgrace today that it's hard to fathom all the fuss he and his biblical epic engendered back then. The commotion began with the revelation that his father, Hutton, was a prominent and vociferous Holocaust denier and that both father and son were proselytizers for a splinter sect of Roman Catholicism that rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, including the lifting of the "Christ-killers" libel from the Jews. Jewish leaders and writers understandably worried that "The Passion" might be as anti-Semitic as the Passion plays of old. Gibson's response was to hold publicity screenings for the right-wing media and political establishment, including a select Washington soiree attended by notables like Peggy Noonan, Kate O'Beirne and Linda Chavez. (The only nominal Jew admitted was Matt Drudge.) The attendees then used their various pulpits to assure the world that the movie was divine - and certainly nothing that should trouble Jews. "I can report it is free of anti-Semitism," vouchsafed Robert Novak after his "private viewing."
Uninvited Jewish writers (like me) who kept raising questions about the unreleased film and its exclusionary rollout were vilified for crucifying poor Mel. Bill O'Reilly of Fox News asked a reporter from Variety "respectfully" if Gibson was being victimized because "the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people." Such was the ugly atmosphere of the time that these attempts at intimidation were remarkably successful. Many mainstream media organizations did puff pieces on the star or his film, lest they be labeled "anti-Christian" when an ascendant religious right was increasingly flexing its muscles in the corridors of power in Washington.
Both George and Laura Bush expressed eagerness to see "The Passion." There were reports (spread by the film's producer and never confirmed) that the very frail Pope John Paul II had given a thumbs-up after his own screening at the Vatican. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which would publish several encomiums to "The Passion," ran a sneak preview likening the film to "a documentary by Caravaggio." Even The New Yorker ran a deferential profile of Gibson - in which the star said he wanted to kill me and my dog (though, alas, I had no dog) and have my "intestines on a stick." Far more troubling was the article's whitewashing of Gibson's father's record as a Holocaust denier. In the America of 2004, Mel Gibson, box office king and conservative culture hero, was invincible.
Once "The Passion" could be seen by ticket buyers - who would reward it with a $370 million domestic take (behind only "Shrek 2" and "Spider-Man 2" that year) - the truth could no longer be spun by Gibson's claque. The movie was nakedly anti-Semitic, to the extreme that the Temple priests were all hook-nosed Shylocks and Fagins with rotten teeth. It was also ludicrously violent - a homoerotic "exercise in lurid sadomasochism," as Christopher Hitchens described it then, for audiences who "like seeing handsome young men stripped and flayed alive over a long period of time." Nonetheless, many of the same American pastors who routinely inveighed against show-business indecency granted special dispensation to their young congregants to attend this R-rated fleshfest.
It seems preposterous in retrospect that a film as bigoted and noxious as "The Passion" had so many reverent defenders in high places in 2004. Once Gibson, or at least the subconscious Gibson, baldly advertised his anti-Semitism with his obscene tirade during a 2006 D.U.I. incident in Malibu, his old defenders had no choice but to peel off. Today you never hear conservatives mention their embrace of "The Passion" back then - if they mention Gibson at all. (Fox News has barely covered the new tapes.) But it isn't just Gibson who has been discredited. Even as he self-immolated, so did many of the moral paragons who had rallied around him as a culture-war martyr.
Take, for instance, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. During the "Passion" wars, he had tried to blackmail Gibson's critics by publicly noting that Christians are "a major source of support for Israel" and that Jewish leaders would be "shortsighted" to "risk alienating two billion Christians over a movie." That evangelical leader was Ted Haggard, the Colorado megachurch pastor since brought down by a male prostitute. Gibson's only outspoken rabbinical defender in 2004, the far-right Daniel Lapin, would be sullied in the scandals surrounding the subsequently jailed Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. William Donohue of the Catholic League - who defended Gibson in 2004 by saying, "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular" - has been reduced these days to the marginal role of attacking The Times for reporting on priestly child abuse.
The cultural wave that crested with "The Passion" was far bigger than Gibson. He was simply a symptom and beneficiary of a moment when the old religious right and its political and media shills were riding high. In 2010, the American ayatollahs' ranks have been depleted by death (Falwell), retirement (James Dobson) and rent boys (too many to name). What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades, from the potentially lethal antihomosexuality laws in Uganda to the rehabilitation campaign for the "born-again" serial killer David Berkowitz ("Son of Sam") in America.
Conservative America's new signature movement, the Tea Party, has its own extremes, but it shuns culture-war battles. It even remained mum when a federal judge in Massachusetts struck down the anti-same-sex marriage Defense of Marriage Act this month. As the conservative commentator Kyle Smith recently wrote in The New York Post, the "demise of Reagan-era groups like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority is just as important" as the rise of the Tea Party. "The morality armies have failed to inspire their children to join the crusade," he concluded, and not unhappily. The right, too, is subject to generational turnover.
As utter coincidence would have it, the revelation of the latest Gibson tapes was followed last week by the news that a federal appeals court, in a 3-0 ruling, had thrown out the indecency rules imposed by the F.C.C. after Janet Jackson's 2004 "wardrobe malfunction." The death throes of Mel Gibson's career feel less like another Hollywood scandal than the last gasps of an American era.