Mel Gibson has a movie coming out in March called “The Beaver.” It’s about an executive who can’t communicate, so he uses a beaver hand puppet to express himself.
The premise alone is enough to make you wonder how this film got made. But because of the notoriety Gibson has gained both with his drunken anti-Semitic rants and the more recent allegations of abusive behavior leveled by his former girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, attention instead will be focused on the fact that it represents Gibson’s “comeback” film.
Gibson has come to represent not only a fallen star looking to resurrect his career, but also a coterie of individuals with similar rap sheets in the entertainment business. Charlie Sheen has been a negative publicity machine, generating headlines involving drug and alcohol abuse and charges of domestic abuse. Chris Brown had his infamous incident with girlfriend Rihanna, and recently caused a stir with rants he made on Twitter that involved homophobic slurs.
Should the public support these people? Or should fans avoid buying any entertainment products from individuals who have acted abominably outside their careers?
“Ultimately it depends on the audience member,” said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of communications and pop culture expert at Syracuse University. “From a rational standpoint, there have been a lot of people in the entertainment business who have had bad lifestyles but they were really good at what they did.
“If we made a rule that we would not consume products or things from people who did bad things, then there would be a lot of creative products we wouldn’t buy.”
Sheen is an interesting example. It may be that it's easier for fans to say they'll boycott entertainment produced by a bad-boy movie star than a television star because moviegoers must physically put down money to see a film. And he's never exactly had a squeaky clean off-screen persona.
"I think there are two reasons some viewers don't seem to have a problem with the headlines about Charlie," said Maureen Ryan, lead television critic for AOL Television. "The first is that he's always had a bad-boy image, so this wasn't exactly a new thing for him or his public persona. Also, his character is a playboy character — the reaction might be different if he were playing the wholesome father of small children on an ABC Family show. Truth be told, though, I don't really know why there hasn't been more of a public reaction about Sheen's behavior. I certainly do think that if this had been a female star engaged in these antics, the outcry would have been far more severe and condemning."
Larry Kehoe, a "Two and a Half Men" fan from Indiana, agrees. "(Sheen's) character on the show is more representative of his real-life persona than it is hypocritical of it," Kehoe said. "It's not like he's playing Father Flanagan on TV and then being Charlie Sheen in real life."
Kehoe also notes that a show's own likability can go far to make viewers forget about actors' off-screen antics, admitting "I tend to rationalize the more criminal aspects (of Sheen's behavior) away because I like the show."
Different celebrities and infractions, of course, receive different treatment by the public.
“There are so many variables,” noted Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com. “It isn’t just one size fits all. So much depends on the grievousness of the transgression and how sincere the attempt is at atonement. And frankly, the body of work. We give different latitude to people who do different creative things.”
Williams cited the examples of Michael Richards and Roman Polanski as two figures who hold vastly different places in the entertainment community.
Richards became a household name playing Kramer on “Seinfeld.” But he tainted that name with a racist rant at a comedy club in a misguided attempt at creating edgy comedy. “Nobody really cares if Michael Richards makes a comeback or not,” Williams said, pointing out that Richards’ star seemed to have already faded anyway before the incident.
Polanski is another situation entirely, she said. “He is one of my favorite directors,” Williams said. “But after the extradition (attempt) and the fact that he couldn’t be a man and admit what he did was wrong, I said I don’t want to support this person with my dollars anymore. And I love his work.”
She said she didn’t see the Polanski film released early in 2010, “The Ghost Writer,” and doesn’t plan to. “He’s living a perfectly luxurious life in exile,” she explained, “but I don’t want to give my $10 to support a sex criminal.”
Thom Geier, senior editor at Entertainment Weekly, said the celebrity who generates scandalous headlines is nothing new, and neither is the idea that audiences judge Hollywood’s miscreants on a case-by-case basis.
“I think if you look back historically, there are examples both ways,” he said. “There was Fatty Arbuckle, a silent film star (who was eventually cleared after an incident in which a woman died at a party), or Eddie Fisher (married to Debbie Reynolds, he had an affair with Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s), whose careers took real nose dives after real life acts that turned the public off.
“But there are also plenty who rebounded from personal peccadilloes and got back into the public graces. It’s hard to say that, short of something like O.J. Simpson did, what a celebrity would have to do that would completely turn people off.”
Tom Cruise is a recent example, said Geier, of a celebrity who seems to have withstood a spate of bad taste left in the mouths of fans. “A lot of people were turned off by Tom Cruise and his Scientology stuff, and the couch jumping on ‘Oprah,’” Geier said. “But he did a cameo in ‘Tropic Thunder’ that was hilarious, and people seemed to love him again.
“If you put out a good product, people will want to see it. If you make a good record, or movie, people tend to ignore the bad things you did.”
That is especially true, Thompson said, when you add time. In a culture dominated by the 24-hour news cycle, the public’s attention span is short, and generally speaking, so is the amount of time that people hold grudges against stars.
“With time, it begins to disappear,” he said. “There are probably some Mel Gibson movies people will watch 100 years from now. There might be trivia people, or film scholars, who will know about the scandals he was involved in during the 21st century. But those things tend to fade.
“The personal lives of these people recede into the arena of bibliographical scholars, whereas the things they leave continue to play in purity.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.