The New York Times, 12/5/06

With some early reviews lauding the audacity and innovation of Mel Gibson’s bloody Mayan epic, “Apocalypto,” Hollywood’s tight-knit community of Oscar voters may find itself facing a difficult dilemma in the coming weeks: Will they consider the film for an Academy Award?
Since Mr. Gibson’s drunken tirade against Jews last summer, many people in Hollywood swore — both publicly and privately — that they would not work with him again or see his movies.

But that was before the critics began to weigh in on “Apocalypto,” a two-hour tale about a peaceful village of hunter-gatherers who are attacked and enslaved by the bloodthirsty overlords of their Meso-American civilization.

Mr. Gibson wrote, directed, produced and financed the film, much as he did “The Passion of the Christ,” his surprise 2004 blockbuster; the Walt Disney Company is distributing the film.

“Apocalypto,” which will open on 2,500 screens across the country on Friday, is as different from a typical Hollywood film as Mr. Gibson’s last one: it features unrelenting, savage violence, is told in an obscure Mayan language and uses many nonprofessional actors with a primitive look born far from Hollywood.

Most critics (including this newspaper’s) have yet to weigh in on “Apocalypto,” but the excitement of those who have — like that among journalists who lingered to debate the film after a screening ended in Los Angeles last week — has been palpable.

“ ‘Apocalypto’ is a remarkable film,” Todd McCarthy wrote in Variety. “The picture provides a trip to a place one’s never been before, offering hitherto unseen sights of exceptional vividness and power.”

“Gibson has made a film of blunt provocation and bruising beauty,” Peter Travers wrote in Rolling Stone. “Say what you will about Gibson, he’s a filmmaker right down to his nerve endings.”

Other reviewers allowed themselves to psychoanalyze Mr. Gibson even as they praised the film. In a mixed review in The Hollywood Reporter, Kirk Honeycutt observed that Mr. Gibson “knows how to make a heart-pounding movie; he just happens to be a cinematic sadist.”

The rising tide of generally positive, if qualified, reviews poses a problem for Hollywood insiders, many of whom would prefer to ignore Mr. Gibson entirely, despite his formal apology and a trip to rehab. Powerful players like Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Ari Emanuel, of the Endeavor talent agency have publicly disavowed Mr. Gibson, with Mr. Emanuel writing online last summer that “people in the entertainment community, whether Jew or gentile, need to demonstrate that they understand how much is at stake in this by professionally shunning Mel Gibson and refusing to work with him.”

Other studio chiefs have said they would not work with Mr. Gibson in the future but would not say so for attribution because they didn’t want to endanger their future business dealings. At least one influential publicist has declined to work on an “Apocalypto” Oscar campaign because of objections to Mr. Gibson’s views, but would not say so publicly for similar reasons.

And yet, can the 5,830 voting members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences — an organization that like broader Hollywood, includes many people who are Jewish — ignore a film that may well be considered by critics to be among the best of the year?
Murray Weissman, who has worked on Oscar campaigns for many years and is working for the Weinstein Company on its hopefuls this year, said some voters would not see the film on principle.

“There is still a lot of resentment out there among the Academy members, certainly the Jewish group of them, over the incident,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are very unforgiving. I have run into some who say they will not see any more Mel Gibson movies.”
Yet, Mr. Weissman added, those who saw the movie and believed it deserving would vote for it. “The movie academy is of full of professionals; they will respect a good movie,” he said. “If the guy made a classic film and it’s absolutely brilliant — hey, I’m Jewish — I’d probably embrace it. But going in, I’m shocked and dismayed at his behavior.”

The problem posed by Mr. Gibson touches on an age-old question of whether an artist’s personal behavior ought to be a factor in judging his or her work.

The question is not a new one even in the brief history of cinema, which includes people like D. W. Griffith, the visionary feature director whose work fed racist stereotypes; Leni Riefenstahl, whose ground-breaking talent served Nazi Germany; or Roman Polanski, who in 1977 pleaded guilty to having sex with a minor and then fled the country, which did not prevent him from winning the Oscar for best director in 2003 for “The Pianist.”

As Richard Schickel writes in the Dec. 11 issue of Time magazine, “Gibson is a primitive all right, but so were Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith, and somehow we survived their idiocies.” Disney has taken a low-key approach to the Oscars, awaiting a general sense from critics and influential voices in Hollywood. The film was not on a list of screenings for Oscar consideration sent to Academy members, and no screenings are scheduled with question-and-answer sessions featuring Mr. Gibson, as has become the custom for movies vying for Oscar consideration.

But as the film has been gathering critical support, executives at the studio have begun to refer to “Apocalypto” as their “Million Dollar Baby,” the small movie directed by Clint Eastwood that came from behind two years ago to win best picture at the Oscars. And the studio is planning to send out “screeners,” DVDs sent to Academy members.

“From Day 1 we’d hoped that people would judge the movie on its artistic merits and judge Mel as a director,” said Dennis Rice, a Disney studio spokesman. “We believe they’ll separate their feelings of Mel the man from Mel the artist.”

But in addition to the other issues, the film’s sheer violence — which includes decapitation and hearts ripped from the chests of human sacrifice victims — could turn off some voters, whatever their feelings toward the director.

“Once the reviews come out and it’s perceived to be a foreign language film with that kind of violence, you will have trouble getting people to actually go see it,” said one seasoned Oscar campaigner, who declined to speak for attribution because of business ties to Disney.

“There will be a degree of resistance, And Mel would be the first one to say, ‘I anticipate a degree of ambivalence,’ he knows that,” said Peter Bart, the editor of Variety . “The violence is an issue. But that’s the way he is. That’s the way he sees the world.”