By Stacy Jenel Smith
Mel Gibson's current crisis should put to rest any doubts about the power of words. The actor's anti-Semitic comments after being arrested for drunken driving last month cost him untold numbers of fans, diminished his industry stature, and, most obviously, lost him a miniseries commitment.
Gibson's certainly not the first entertainment star to get himself into trouble with a few sentences - nor is he the only current occupant of that particular hot seat. And most of the others weren't drunk at the time of their outbursts.
Right now, we're seeing the fallout of Tom Cruise's ranting involving psychiatrists, anti-depressive drugs, post-partum depression and Brooke Shields - as that, and other recent activities of his, have caused a sharp drop-off in his popularity. That, in turn, seems to be clipping his movie star wings. As Variety recently reported, his production company, Cruise/Wagner, "is negotiating to renew its pact with Paramount that is set to expire Aug. 31. Cruise/Wagner had commanded some of the sweetest terms in Hollywood, but after the new public scrutiny of Cruise's persona, and the less-than-stellar $133 million domestic perf of 'Mission: Impossible III,' Par has been in no rush to renew."
Marlon Brandon's claims that Hollywood is run by Jews who exploit stereotypes of minorities, but never of Jews, on "Larry King Live" in 1996 probably would have produced even more difficulty for him -- angry response caused him to later give a tearful apology in front of news cameras and rabbis -- but by that point his career was behind him and he was widely viewed with disdain anyway.
Such was not the case for Sinead O'Connor. Few who saw it will ever forget the Irish songstress tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live television - that being "Saturday Night Live" in 1992 -- while intoning "fight the real enemy." The shocking act, which followed up her performance of Bob Marley's "War" with new lyrics focused on sexual abuse within the Catholic church, killed the ascendant momentum of her star in mainstream pop heaven.
"To slap a woman is not the cruellest thing you can do to her," Sean Connery has been quoted, and quoted - and quoted - from a 1993 Vanity Fair interview. He reportedly added, "There are women who take it to the wire. That's what they are looking for, the ultimate confrontation. They want a smack."
The comment has haunted him ever since, especially in light of ex-wife Diane Cilento's accusations that he beat her in a Spanish hotel room in 1965. Earlier this summer, in fact, the former James Bond backed out of an event at Britain's Parliament because of Presiding Officer George Reid's claim Connery would be grilled about his views towards women. He felt compelled to state publicly again, "I don't believe that any level of abuse of women is ever justified under any circumstances."
There is still argument over the following horrifying remark from Gerard Depardieu: "I don't understand why rape is seen as bad in this country. In [France], I've raped several women." Was it a foreign language-based misunderstanding? Or did he mean it? Depardieu was once quoted in a Time magazine story suggesting he'd participated in a group rape at age nine - a mistake, it was later decided, due to a misinterpretation of what he had said in French. He's reportedly been far more careful about insisting upon accurate translations ever since.
And then you can take Bill Maher - please. The "Real Time" HBO star went beyond his usual cutting comedy when he told the world, "Retarded children are like dogs," and added that they're "devoted, nice, and they never develop mentally."
Maher happens to be an avid animal lover who probably meant that in as complimentary a way as it could have been meant -- but his tasteless, insensitive remark certainly hurt his popularity in some quarters.
Vanessa Redgrave was jeered and picketed as she went into the 1978 Oscar show - where she would later win the Best Supporting Actress award for portraying an anti-Nazi activist in "Julia" - by the Jewish Defense League and others angry over her pro-Palestinian stance. The aggressively leftist actress had funded and appeared in a documentary about the Palestinians' plight. Her acceptance speech veered off into political territory. As she noted that she would not be intimidated by "a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature to Jews all over the world," audience members booed. When screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky excoriated Redgrave later in the show, saying, "I'm sick and tired of people exploiting the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal propaganda," they cheered.
Considering the long list of roles and accolades Redgrave has accrued since then, it appears the anger toward her at that time did little permanent damage to her professionally - but then, she never was as big a star as her "Julia" cohort and fellow celebrity pariah, Jane Fonda.
The history of "Hanoi Jane," and how her anti-Vietnam War activism went into terrible territory as she stupidly posed aboard a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft tank, would take up volumes in itself - and has.
Some celebs seem to use incendiary remarks to propel them to greater notoriety - like Kanye West. Is there anyone who's followed the hip hop multi-talent's career who wonders why reporters make sure their recorders are running when he comes into a press room? West is expected to be tomorrow's story, and he often obliges. He knew exactly what he was doing when he told the mass NBC audience of a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" - a comment that certainly opened up the topic for discussion. (Today you can find "Kanye Was Right" t-shirts for sale.) On the other hand, when he went into a hissy fit over losing an American Music Awards nod for newcomer of the year to Gretchen Wilson, West's common sense seemed to have been overrun by his own ego (yes, even if he was right). He later apologized to her.
Which brings to mind another music star known for many of his political stands - whose biggest controversy may well have been over a comment that was a blunder: John Lennon. In 1966, the visionary Beatle observed, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. ... I don't know what will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity. We're more popular than Jesus now. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins Christianity for me."
The outrage that ensued ranged from death threats to a Vatican denunciation, to groups (including the Ku Klux Klan) holding burnings of Beatles' records. His comments took different forms. How dare he say the Beatles were bigger than Jesus?
Lennon later told a reporter: "I wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying. I'm sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done. I've tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry."
The Vatican accepted Lennon's "apology."
Only time will tell how well Mel Gibson's contrition will be accepted.