When Howard Strickling ruled MGM’s publicity machine in the studio’s heyday, he liked to boast about the lurid stories he managed to kill. The top stars of that era could kill, pillage and rape, and their misdeeds would still go unreported.

I never figured out whether to believe Strickling’s sagas. Did Clark Gable, in fact, run someone over in his sports car, yet escape the scrutiny of the gossip columnists? No one knows — except Strickling. (He died in 1982.)

All this occurred to me the other day in reading the still-nonstop coverage of Mel Gibson. In the annals of star misdeeds, going back to Fatty Arbuckle, Gibson has surely set a precedent: He made worldwide headlines without actually doing anything. He just didn’t know when to shut up.

Where was Howard Strickling when Mel needed him?

Ironically, there are a few unresolved Mel Gibson issues besides drunken diatribes that do, in fact, deserve scrutiny. For one thing, whatever happened to the great “Passion” stash?

Remember, “The Passion of the Christ” was self-financed. There were no gross players other than Gibson, who produced and directed. Last time I looked, the movie had grossed an astonishing $610 million worldwide.

No one in movie history ever made more money from a single film. But where did it all go?

The question is all the more intriguing given the brouhaha over “Crash.” That film, which grossed $99.4 million worldwide (paltry by “Passion” standards), had a clear-cut list of profit participants, including Paul Haggis, its writer-director. Haggis and the others claim they’re still awaiting their payday. Bob Yari, a key player in financing the film, says at least some of the money is still in the pipeline.

When George Lucas pulled off his early surprise hits like “American Graffiti” and “Star Wars,” he saw to it that several of his helpmates became instant millionaires. There is no record of Gibson dispensing similar largesse to his largely anonymous cast or crew.

No one expects the actor to become the next Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, but it surely would help rehabilitate his image were he to foster some philanthropic efforts beyond a few fringe conservative Catholic churches.

Some of the damage-control specialists suggest that Gibson should make speeches before Jewish groups. The ubiquitous Howard Rubenstein even polled leaders of New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage and said they agreed to invite the actor to speak. (Rubenstein apparently doesn’t know that Gibson is a truly inept public speaker.) The fraternity of image-rebuilders points out that a wide range of celebrities, including Eddie Murphy, Hugh Grant and, of course, Bill Clinton, have managed to triumph over past indiscretions.

To be sure, these characters actually performed misdeeds. Gibson just blabbed. But his flights of conversation have dug him a deeper hole, and it will take more than a few random speaking engagements to get him out of it.

That’s why a few simple acts of generosity might have helped.

Strategy and stealth

The Oscar never sleeps.

Even as studio marketing chieftains sort through the summer results of their popcorn pictures, trying to figure out what went wrong, the Oscar consultants are huddled in their corners, mapping strategy.

They want to remain invisible, to be sure. The early moments of Oscar campaigning are the most politically sensitive. Since few Oscar contenders have already opened (a curious tradition), strategists must review first cuts and advise studio chiefs where to place their bets.

The studios know they have to support their high-profile filmmakers and top stars, but when there are two Leonardo DiCaprio films (which there happen to be), which gets the big push? The major studios are big spenders, but not indiscriminate ones. Some important films inevitably will be quietly shot down in the coming weeks, and Oscar strategists realize there’ll be aftershocks. Despite their efforts at anonymity, they know they’ll get much of the heat.

That’s why, when you corner an Oscar consultant at this time of year, they’ll usually claim to be leaving for vacation or just idling away their time. In point of fact, budgets are being honed and campaigns mobilized. There’s no naptime in Oscardom.

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