A Softer Side of Mel

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Brave hearts: Gibson and Hunt in their new romantic comedy

Mel Gibson looms over himself. A gallery of movie posters hangs in his office at Icon Productions, his company with its headquarters on the Paramount lot in Hollywood. "The Man Without a Face:" Gibson in silhouette in the distance, the actor shadowed in his 1993 directorial debut. "Ransom:" closeup of Gibson, blue eyes blazing with righteous desperation. "Maverick:" James Garner, Jodie Foster and Gibson, all of them smiling, no doubt thinking about how much they were paid. On each poster, on each face, Gibson has added a mustache with a heavy black marker — a graphic display of his famously self-deprecating sense of humor. Foster, for one, never looked so dashing.

Not even these irreverent squiggles, however, can diminish the real testament of the posters: the enduring stardom; the genre jumping; the directing, producing and acting credits that have built his brilliant career during his two decades in the movie business. Yet even by his mammoth standards for success, this has been Gibson's year of living large. While last summer's Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" wasn't the blockbuster Sony hoped for, it grossed more than $100 million in the U.S., thanks to Gibson's drawing power. He also provided his marquee value and inimitably cocky voice to the role of lead rooster in "Chicken Run," his other summer hit. The winning streak is expected to continue this month with "What Women Want," an undeniably, unabashedly commercial romantic comedy. If all goes as planned, Gibson will have starred in three $100 million grossers in 2000.

"Three in one year," says Gibson, nodding his head and smiling. "That would be interesting." Gibson is in his office, on a sofa beneath the lineup of defaced posters, and he doesn't look at all like the kind of fellow who can command $25 million a movie, his record-breaking salary for "The Patriot." He is wearing the usual — jeans and an untucked short-sleeve patterned shirt that is, frankly, a little loud — and he is fumbling through the tattered leather backpack he always carries, looking desperately for a light. Gibson smokes. He has tried hypnotists and nicotine gum and such, but quitting remains perhaps the one thing Mel Gibson cannot do. At 44 he has won two Oscars (as director and producer of the 1995 "Braveheart"). He has been married to the same woman, Robyn Gibson, since 1980 and fathered seven children, including son Thomas, born last year. Through his 11-year-old company, he co-produced this year's well-received TV movie "The Three Stooges," and he owns the foreign rights to "What Women Want."

The star also acquits himself quite nicely in the film, which is notable not because it co-stars Helen Hunt (what doesn't co-star Helen Hunt these days?), but because it's Gibson's first foray into romantic comedy. "They haven't naturally come my way," he says when asked why he hasn't worked in this genre before. "I wouldn't be the first guy to choose for something like this." Actually, he was at the top of the wish lists of director Nancy Meyers and Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing. Meyers (who penned the 1991 "Father of the Bride" update and its sequel) had directed only one picture, the 1998 remake of "The Parent Trap," but Gibson watched it and signed on. "I wouldn't naturally go see something like that," he says, "but I enjoyed it."

In "What Women Want," Gibson plays an ad-agency executive whose brain gets rewired during a freak bathroom accident. Suddenly he can hear what women are thinking; hilarity and personal growth ensue. Before the film's third act — before he falls for his new boss (Hunt) and learns to relate to his teenage daughter (Ashley Johnson) — Gibson sends himself up. The character is a charming but politically incorrect brute, a role that Gibson has played onscreen and off throughout his career. A few years back, he got trounced by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation after a particularly nasty comment to a reporter about homosexual sex. He has been public and unapologetic about his strict Roman Catholic views on divorce and abortion. Despite a handful of soft and serious performances, Gibson is for all practical purposes an action hero, to be forever associated with "Mad Max" and the swaggering, gun-slinging cop Martin Riggs of his four "Lethal Weapon" movies.

"There is that perception," admits Gibson. "The 'Payback' guy who goes around shooting people indiscriminately." Truth be told, Gibson enjoys the perception, and there seems to be an implicit agreement between him and his audience. All parties concerned know he's not as bad as he says he is. He does admit that he was drunk when he made the offending antigay remark, though he has since kicked alcohol and, in the course of recovery, "cooled down a bit," he says. "I was the kind of guy who could strangle an inanimate object. I was a road-rage kind of guy." Asked if his views on abortion and divorce have softened, he says, "No, they haven't changed much. People call me Attila the Hun and all this stuff, but it's how I attempt to live my life. There are basically 10 rules, and they work if you adhere to them. Love thy neighbor — that's a good societal plan."

The words great guy are often used to describe Gibson, except by Hunt, who says, "He's the greatest guy. He's a guy who on one hand has this freeze-dried rat in his trailer that he tortures people with — and then can talk about Shakespeare's language, about iambic pentameter. He's both those people." The question facing the $25 million man is this: Who exactly will he be in the coming decades? His image — the winking, wisecracking, pistol-packing hero-clown — is already showing signs of age. The '80s-style action movie he mastered is past its prime, and Gibson looks all of his 44 years, if not a bit more. Not long ago, during a late night of channel surfing, he says, "I snuck up on (1983's) "The Year of Living Dangerously." I watched a couple of minutes and thought, 'Hell, did I get old!'"

If "What Women Want" has its expected success, Gibson will have proved himself a worthy romantic-comedy successor to Cary Grant. Or he could evolve into a Sean Connery, who has in a masterly way affixed himself in the public consciousness as both the beautiful young Bond and the Oscar-winning old lion of "The Untouchables." But, more than likely, Gibson will follow the path of another aging sex symbol, Robert Redford, who has extended his career by working behind the camera.

"As time goes by, I have less and less interest in acting in movies," Gibson admits. "It's like a hobby. It isn't the hunger I had before." Instead, he's looking for directing projects. He had been planning to direct "Hamlet" onstage with Robert Downey Jr. in Los Angeles before Downey was arrested on drug-related charges on Nov. 25. "He would knock your socks off," says Gibson, sounding sad and frustrated. "I don't think even he knows it. I hope he gets it together."

Asked if he has a favorite performance of his own, Gibson says, "It's a funny thing. You look at something you did years ago, and it's like, 'Oh, boy! What was I thinking?'" His feet rest on the coffee table in his office, next to a tiny version of himself, a "Braveheart" doll wearing a kilt and waving a sword. "I think time makes one more aware of the light and shade in human behavior," he says. "Most people get better with time. The sad part is, you get old and ugly as you get better." Then he laughs, knowing that even with the aging, there's not much for him to be sad about.