Frank Rich used to be the terror of Broadway. This was in the days when he was the main theatre critic of the New York Times. Any playwright opening there with a new play had to keep his fingers crossed that Rich would either not cover the opening or would take a liking to it – for whatever deep and mysterious reasons the said critic might chose to like it and give it a good review. Rich was an all-knowing an inscrutable God when it came to theatre and his bad reviews had such divine authority that plays he disapproved of could close after a week.
But eventually Rich moved on – whether because he got tired of his own negativity or the Times felt that his negativity was becoming too much of a cliché, we cannot say. For whatever reason dramatists could breathe again and were happy to be able to take their chances again with critics who seemed less dogmatic and less prone to the use of vitriol to beef up their reservations about their work. But he did not move far. He now writes a regular column for the paper and nothing much has changed in terms of his style or use of vitriol-laced ink for his fountain pen.
This brings us to poor old Mel Gibson, the renewed object of Mr. Rich’s ire. Mel has once again made himself cannon-fodder for his enemies – and there is no doubt but that he seems to have as much capacity for making enemies as he has – at least until now – for making money. Last week Mr. Rich was to be found gloating on the dire consequences for Mel’s career in the aftermath of his most recent alcohol-fuelled outburst. But apart from the distasteful spectacle of one man gloating on the fate of a clearly unwell fellow human being, what is remarkable about Rich’s cashing in on the self-destructive propensity of Mel, is his use of this as a pretext to launch a major attack on what he labels the “Christian right” of America. The Christian right, of course, includes all those who hold any candle for traditional Christian morality. No effort is made to distinguish the extremes form the mainstream.
Rich’s jubilation in his piece on July 16, “The Good News About Mel Gibson”, was not just at Mel’s fall from grace, or the fall from the place the last fall left him languishing in, but the further damage which this will inflict on all those causes Gibson espoused to some good effect when his celebrity status was still intact.
“Gibson is in such disgrace today, Rich writes, that it’s hard to fathom all the fuss he and his biblical epic engendered back then”. He is referring to the controversy aroused when Gibson was making and releasing The Passion of the Christ back in 2004. Gibson defended the movie against an onslaught of allegations that it was going to be an anti-Semitic rant. Rich’s line is that all this was a very clever spin – “publicity screenings for the right-wing media and political establishment, including a select Washington soiree attended by notables like Peggy Noonan, Kate O’Beirne and Linda Chavez. (The only nominal Jew admitted was Matt Drudge.) The attendees then used their various pulpits to assure the world that the movie was divine — and certainly nothing that should trouble Jews. ‘I can report it is free of anti-Semitism,’ vouchsafed Robert Novak after his ‘private viewing.’”
“Uninvited Jewish writers (like me) who kept raising questions about the unreleased film and its exclusionary rollout were vilified for crucifying poor Mel. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News asked a reporter from Variety ‘respectfully’ if Gibson was being victimized because ‘the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people.’ Such was the ugly atmosphere of the time that these attempts at intimidation were remarkably successful. Many mainstream media organizations did puff pieces on the star or his film, lest they be labeled ‘anti-Christian’ when an ascendant religious right was increasingly flexing its muscles in the corridors of power in Washington.”
So Rich clearly reads the considerable critical and popular acclaim which The Passion garnered as the result of a clever spin job. He puts it all down to the then dominance – as he sees it – of a resurgent rightwing Christian lobby. Read Rich between the lines, however, and it very hard not to see someone who will consider any telling of the story Gibson retold so startlingly as anti-Semitic.
“Once ‘The Passion’ could be seen by ticket buyers,” he maintains, “— who would reward it with a $370 million domestic take (behind only ‘Shrek 2’ and ‘Spider-Man 2’ that year) — the truth could no longer be spun by Gibson’s claque. The movie was nakedly anti-Semitic, to the extreme that the Temple priests were all hook-nosed Shylocks and Fagins with rotten teeth.” This kind of paranoia puts the tendency sometimes found in the British press to read any re-telling of Irish history as anti-British propaganda deep into the shade. Why is it so difficult for human beings to face the simple truths of history?
He continues, “It seems preposterous in retrospect that a film as bigoted and noxious as ‘The Passion’ had so many reverent defenders in high places in 2004. Once Gibson, or at least the subconscious Gibson, baldly advertised his anti-Semitism with his obscene tirade during a 2006 D.U.I. incident in Malibu, his old defenders had no choice but to peel off.”
That kind of crass judgement is enough to strain the tolerant spirit of any soul, and much more so the ultra-volatile Mel in one of his inebriated states of being. He is easy prey for Mr. Rich. But it is not really Mel whom Frank Rich is after. The “religious right” is his main target. Its supposed discomfiture at the antics of its fallen angel is what he is really rejoicing in.
“The cultural wave that crested with ‘The Passion’ was far bigger than Gibson. He was simply a symptom and beneficiary of a moment when the old religious right and its political and media shills were riding high. In 2010, the American ayatollahs’ ranks have been depleted by death (Falwell), retirement (James Dobson) and rent boys (too many to name). What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades, from the potentially lethal anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda to the rehabilitation campaign for the “born-again” serial killer David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) in America.” Clearly, forgiveness of any kind is going to play no part in the world of Frank Rich.
One glimmer of charity and light, however, came in Rich’s noxious – to borrow his own word – package in the New York Times, and that was in an online comment from a professor of psychology in a New York college, David Chowes:
“Pathological behavior can occur to any person of any political stripe. While I have not spent any time with Mr. Gibson, as a professor of psychology at Baruch College/CUNY, for years I have observed Mel Gibson. My conclusion: he has at least (a) destructive personality disorder(s) and, especially the strong possibility of bipolar disorder (aka, manic depression).
“His alcoholism is often correlated with my hypothesis; his untempered temper; his (believe it or not) creativity as an actor and director; his self-destructive behaviours; his alleged violence and tantrums… One doesn’t have to be right-wing to display aberrant displays of behaviour. Abby Hoffman (ultra radical activist in the ‘sixties and ‘seventies) was an admitted bipolar which was coupled with a number of personality disorders. He ended his life via suicide. (I knew Abby Hoffman.)
We hope and pray for better for Mel Gibson – but the vulnerability of the man should, one might think, give pause for thought to those who feel it is their duty to bring down further someone who is in as low a place as he finds himself at present. This may not be Frank Rich’s real agenda of course – which makes it even more reprehensible.