Entry from August 2, 2006

Browsing, as I sometimes do, the old obituaries that the New York Times’s website runs next to the new ones during the month of their subjects’ deaths, I come across the following in the obit of Richard Burton (d. August, 1984), written by Maureen Dowd:

When he reached the age of 50, after a five-year career slump, he called his own life the best role he had ever played: “I rather like my reputation, actually, that of a spoiled genius from the Welsh gutter, a drunk, a womanizer; it’s rather an attractive image.”

I happened to read these words on the same day that Miss Dowd was writing about another actor who has become famous for his battles with the bottle and erratic behavior. So far from expressing satisfaction with his life and image, Mel Gibson — who has now arrived at exactly the same age as Burton when he made that remark — is falling all over himself trying to apologize for his anti-Semitic remarks to the arresting officer when he was picked up for drunk driving in Malibu. Yet I wonder if there isn’t more to the similarity between him and the great Welshman than the fact that both are drunken and self-destructive Celtic megastars who have played Hamlet.

In fact, the role of Hamlet has been defining for the two men in the same way. Hamlet was, we might almost say, the first celebrity, “the glass of fashion and the mould of form/The observed of all observers” who throws it all away in order to act out a private psychodrama in public as part of an elaborate if obscure and not very well thought-out stratagem of career advancement. Just as Hamlet did, both Richard Burton and Mel Gibson have cultivated a reputation for being, like another Romantic predecessor, mad, bad and dangerous to know — except that the means to that end have changed over the last 40 years. Miss Dowd’s obituary reminds us that, after Burton broke up both his own and Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages by conducting a public affair with her, the chairman of the House subcommittee on immigration (a Democrat, by the way, which is another reminder of how things have changed), called on the State Department to revoke his visa on the grounds that his behavior had been “detrimental to the morals of the youth of our nation.”

Nowadays, of course, no one would ever think of kicking you out of the country for doing that, and Mr Gibson is famously continent in his sexual life, a model family man by all accounts. But if you get no romantic traction anymore from being a drunk and a womanizer, you can still outrage the official culture by being a drunk and a bigot — preferably both at the same time, so that the psychodrama plays itself out in apologies and therapy and “healing” rather than having to hole yourself up in Montana somewhere with the amateur militias of the Aryan nation. The trick, if you are a celebrity bad-boy, is always to be just dangerous enough to excite anathemas from the guardians of public morals and civic virtue without becoming so dangerous as completely to separate yourself from the mainstream of public opinion. It’s not always easy to do. And if you’re a celebrity out of the top drawer, you’ve still got to “battle your demons” in public even though you’re running out of demons to battle.

If he succeeds in staying on top of the Hollywood heap in spite of demonstrating the only character flaw that, in our post-honor society, is still capable of disgracing a man, it will prove to have been Mel’s contribution to the celebrity culture to find that bigotry is just another demon for the celebrity tag-team match, cannon fodder for the demon army that is always vanquished yet always there to be fought with again, rather like Hezbollah. In Mel’s case it takes on added potency from the fact that it is seen by many as being the flip side of that other increasingly discreditable habit of his, firm religious belief. The trouble is that he’ll never be able to be as frank about the enjoyable combat as Richard Burton was — at least not unless the culture takes another bizarre turn and allows a reputation for anti-Semitism to be considered “rather an attractive image.” Come to think of it, don’t we see something like that happening among the fashionably leftist élites of Europe today? Perhaps Mr Gibson should also emulate Richard Burton by moving to Switzerland.

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