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Image: Mel Gibson in "The Beaver"
Ray Tamarra  /  Getty Images Contributor
In "The Beaver," Mel Gibson plays a depressed toy-company executive who uses a hand puppet to work out his demons. But Gibson's off-screen problems will need more than a puppet to solve.
TODAY contributor
updated 4/27/2011 5:09:04 PM ET 2011-04-27T21:09:04

That name “Mel Gibson,” used to mean one thing and one thing only: movie star. But at the moment it’s a name that carries more associations, most of them negative. To a fairly large cross-section of the moviegoing public, questions about him linger: Is he a misogynist? An anti-Semite? Racist? Homophobic? Abusive? An alcoholic? Just plain crazy? All — or maybe none — of the above?

The questions are legitimate. And there were early warning signs. At least as far back as 1992, Gibson went on record in the Spanish publication El Pais as having not very nice things to say about gays. Presumably other troubling views simmered somewhere inside him for several more years while the rest of the world was loving “The Patriot” and “Braveheart.”

Video: Jodie Foster stands by Mel Gibson (on this page)

Then his strange inability to say the right thing surfaced again in the controversy surrounding his film “The Passion of The Christ” and came to a rolling boil in the past few years as a widely publicized DUI arrest and drunken rant to police soiled his reputation.

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Finally, the offensive statements made on tape to his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva as well as her allegations of physical abuse, made it look like the public’s love affair with their once-favorite movie star might be coming to a bitter end.

Foster won't defend Gibson on 'Late Show

'But now he’s back with an odd new movie, “The Beaver,” directed by his good friend Jodie Foster. He’s also participated in a couple of carefully worded mea culpa interviews, the first to Nikki Finke’s Deadline.com.

Story: Jodie Foster says Mel Gibson is still 'beloved'

So what does this mean to the people who ultimately pay his salary, the moviegoing public? Does he need to be forgiven by people he doesn’t know and who don’t know him? And if so, how do fans approach this new, fractured version of the seemingly affable action hero they used to like unconditionally?

The answer is sort of remarkably simple. In fact, the forgiveness template has already been created, by the fallen famous before Gibson. There are steps to follow. And while some of them might seem like cynical moves on the parts of both the tainted celebrity and the easily distracted public, they’re mostly just human nature.

Step one: Watch them grovel
As Gibson embarks on his first tentative public steps, he follows men like Tiger Woods, Hugh Grant, Jesse James and Tiki Barber, all of whom approached the media with varying degrees of public contrition. As Gibson’s clinically depressed character in “The Beaver” presciently states, “Everybody loves a trainwreck as long as it’s not happening to them.” We like to watch the famous caught behaving badly and we also like to watch them beg for forgiveness. It has become its own bizarre form of sub-entertainment.

If, on some level, we secretly resent celebrities for having too much of everything, then this is how we make them pay. After that, we like to make good on that forgiveness. As a general rule, most people don’t want to be bothered by lingering grudges, especially against people who are almost abstract creatures, seemingly living inside the television or theater, fictional characters who are supposed to make us happy.

Slideshow: Mel Gibson (on this page)

Step two: Forget about it
Sometimes, if you’ve done something everyone hates, you can skip the apologies and just live your life and eventually people will still come around. Time might not actually heal wounds, but it tends to soften everything.

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Decades ago, Ingrid Bergman left Hollywood after having an affair and a baby with famed director Roberto Rossellini while they were both married to other people. Time passed and the public decided they didn’t care as much as they thought they did. Woody Allen married his former stepdaughter. Then time passed. And now nobody brings it up much anymore. Rob Lowe filmed himself having sex with teenage girls in the late 1980s. And now? Oprah interviews him in his Santa Barbara home next to his pizza oven and he’s a regular on the adorable sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” If Gibson can put a lock on his mouth, at least when he's talking to police or anyone who might be recording him, his actions will eventually start to slip from public consciousness.

Step three: Separate the artist from the art
Here's where Gibson, strangely enough, might have it a little easier. More than most movie stars, he is his films.

The films he's made over the past decade — whether he’s directing them or simply acting — amount to an obsessive’s diary of pain, rage, punishment, violence, sacrifice, redemption and misery. And now, so does the dark psychological comedy-drama “The Beaver.” This is a guy working out his demons in front of everyone who feels like buying a ticket to watch the exorcism.

“The Beaver” concerns a man thrown into a pit of clinical depression so severe that, in one scene, he literally flagellates himself like a Catholic penitent in order to feel anything at all. In a last ditch effort to save himself he begins wearing a beaver puppet on his arm, talking to his family and co-workers as the animal in a weird Michael Caine-like voice, creating a distancing new persona in the name of healing.

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If moviegoers feel for Gibson's sharply troubled character in the film, suffering mental anguish he can't explain yet trying everything to heal himself, will that translate to sympathy for Gibson himself?

Filmed before Gibson’s meltdown and held from release for obvious reasons, "The Beaver" can now be read as the actor’s real life drama, a movie about climbing out of a pitch-black hole of despair and hoping you find a sympathetic hand to give you that one last leg up.

That hand, in this case, belongs to director Jodie Foster; the whole film feels like her strange, grace-filled gift to him. Now all Gibson needs is for audiences to decide that they want to watch him make that climb.

Dave White is a film critic for Movies.com and is a regular contributor to TODAY.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch 'The Beaver' trailer

Photos: Mel Gibson

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  1. Talk to the hand

    Jodie Foster directs Mel Gibson in the much-delayed film "The Beaver." Gibson is Walter Black, formerlly a successful toy executive and family man who now suffers from depression. No matter what he tries, Walter can't seem to get himself back on track ... until a beaver hand puppet enters his life. (Summit Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Ready to plead

    Gibson arrives at Airport Courthouse in Los Angeles on March 11, 2011. Prosecutors charged Gibson with misdemeanor battery after a lengthy investigation into a fight with his then-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. Gibson pleaded no contest to resolve the case and faced no jail time. (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Tough to hear

    At the height of her conflict with Gibson, Grigorieva released audio recordings through the website RadarOnline that captured Gibson raging against her. (Mikhail Metzel / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Short-lived romance

    After nearly 30 years of marriage to wife Robyn, Gibson left her for Grigorieva, who has a son from an earlier relationship with actor Timothy Dalton. Gibson and Grigorieva had a daughter, Lucia, on Oct. 30, 2009, but split up in April of 2010. (Jacques Brinon / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Will audiences come?

    Gibson, center, speaks on set during the filming of "Apocalypto" in 2006. This historical epic follows the decline of the Mayan civilization 600 years ago, just before Spanish invaders conquered Central America. The story revolves around one native who fights to save his culture from the outsiders. (Andrew Cooper / Icon Distribution via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. After the rant

    Gibson had his police mug shot taken July 28, 2006, in Los Angeles after he was arrested for drunk driving. He was pulled over for speeding and had a blood alcohol reading of 0.12 percent, according to authorities. More notoriously, Gibson let loose an anti-Semitic tirade, blaming the Jewish people for all "the wars in the world." (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Dept.) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Apocalypto' now

    Gibson pulls on his beard during a news conference held in Veracruz, Mexico, Friday, Oct. 28, 2005. Gibson announced the shooting of "Apocalypto," a film in which the dialogue is spoken in an obscure Mayan dialect. (David Hernandez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gibson's 'Passion'

    Gibson directs Jim Caviezel as Jesus on the set of Gibson's movie "The Passion of The Christ." The film was based on the last 12 hours in the life of Jesus Christ. The film grossed more than $370 million. Gibson was criticized by some for the film's perceived anti-Semitism. (Icon Prodictions via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Good soldier

    In "We Were Soldiers" (2002), Gibson played Lt. Colonel Hal Moore who, during the Vietnam War, had to lead his men into a small clearing where they were surrounded by 4,000 North Vietnamese soldiers. The ensuing battle was one of the most savage in U.S. history. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Man of the People

    Gibson accepts his trophies for favorite motion picture star in a drama and favorite motion picture actor during the People's Choice Awards in January, 2001. (Lucy Nicholson / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Finding his inner female

    Gibson tried his hand at romantic comedy in "What Women Want" (2000). Nick (Gibson), a chauvinistic hot-shot advertising exec, has his life turned haywire when a fluke accident enables him to hear what women think. (Paramount Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Seeking his son

    Gibson starred in 1996's "Ransom" as a multimillionaire whose young son (played by Brawley Nolte) is kidnapped for ransom. (Getty Images / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Oscar winner

    Mel Gibson holds Oscars for best director and best picture for "Braveheart," at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Gibson shared the best picture award with producers Alan Ladd and Bruce Davey. (Jeff Haynes / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Director and star

    In "Braveheart" (1995), Gibson played William Wallace, a Scottish rebel who leads an uprising against the cruel English ruler Edward the Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan), who wishes to inherit the crown of Scotland for himself. (AFP -Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. No pretty-boy role

    In "The Man Without a Face" (1993), Gibson plays Justin McLeod, a former teacher whose face was disfigured in an automobile accident and fire who lives as a recluse. He is befriended by a young man named Chuck (Nick Stahl), which ignites suspicion and hostility from the townspeople. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Sci-fi drama

    In "Forever Young" (1992), a 1939 test pilot asks his best friend to use him as a guinea pig for a cryogenics experiment. Daniel McCormick (Gibson) wants to be frozen for a year so that he doesn't have to watch his love lying in a coma. The next thing Daniel knows he's awoken in 1992. The film also features a very young Elijah Wood, right. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Together for decades

    Gibson and wife Robyn attended the "Hamlet" premiere in Los Angeles on Dec. 18, 1990. Gibson married Robyn Moore in 1980 and they divorced in 2009. They have seven children together. (Barry King / WireImage.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A mother's son

    In "Hamlet" (1990), Gibson took on Shakespeare's melancholy Danish prince. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, the film also starred Glenn Close as Hamlet's mother Gertrude. In real life, Close is only nine years older than Gibson. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Come fly with me

    Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. starred in 1990's "Air America," about two pilots during the Vietnam War who discover their planes are being used to smuggle heroin. () Back to slideshow navigation
  20. It takes a team

    "Lethal Weapon" (1987) is the first of a series of movies that were released in 1987, 1989, 1992, and 1998, all starring Gibson and Danny Glover as a mismatched pair of Los Angeles police officers. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A tradition begins

    People's "Sexiest Man Alive" list began in 1985 with Mel Gibson. That year Gibson also starred in the final (at least for now, as there are talks of resurrecting the franchise) "Mad Max" film, "Beyond Thunderdome," opposite Tina Turner. (People) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Early troubles

    In 1984, Gibson starred as Fletcher Christian in "The Bounty," the story of Captain Bligh (Anthony Hopkins), whose cruelty leads to a mutiny on his ship. According to Wikipedia, Gibson and Hopkins did not get along during the shoot. At the time, Hopkins was a teetotaler, and Gibson was struggling with alcoholism. Gibson took to mixing two shots of Scotch with his beer. He dubbed the concoction "Liquid Violence." (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Stunning early performance

    "Gallipoli" (1981) tells the story of a group of young Australian men who leave their various backgrounds behind and sign up to join the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) in World War I. They each meet their fates against the Turkish army in the infamous battle. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. 'Mad' Mel

    In "Mad Max" (1979), an Australian dystopia of decaying order and violent highways, a police pursuit driver is drawn into a path of vengeance after a motorcycle gang targets him for the death of their former leader. (Everett Collection) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Auspicious beginnings

    Gibson made his feature-film debut in "Summer City" (1976), a low-budget Australian teen drama that chronicles the exploits of a quartet of boys who leave Sydney and head out for a weekend of surfing and adventure. Unfortunately the fun takes a serious turn when they find themselves involved in a murder. (Platinum Disc) Back to slideshow navigation
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