“Hello, darkness, my old friend/I’ve come to talk with you again.”
Those are the famous opening lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”
It is a haunting song — with many interpretations — and I was reminded of it while watching Mel Gibson’s new movie, “The Beaver.” This is the tale of a desperately depressed middle-aged man who retreats so far from reality and conventional therapy that he comes to use a hand-puppet — a beaver — to communicate with his wife, his children and his workplace. It only sounds funny. In fact, it is a fairly dark film, and so appropriate for Mr. Gibson.
Mel has been welcoming darkness for a long time; a hugely conflicted man who struggles with his religion, his drinking, issues of bigotry, his belief in family, the role of women in his life and in the next world, even. (He had despaired that his ex-wife Robyn would not be with him in Heaven because she does not believe the rigorous form of Catholicism that gives Mel … very little comfort, actually!)
There’s always been something manic and tragic behind Mel’s intensely blue eyes, and as the years have rolled on, he has tortured himself relentlessly onscreen; no beating, gutting, whipping, kidnapped or killed children, no dead or faithless spouse has he spared himself as a screen hero. Oh, there have been a few comedies, and he has been charming, too — “What Women Want,” for example. But Mel seems most at home when he suffers. He has aged precipitously, his offscreen meltdowns mirrored in every line and furrow. Once he was so beautiful it hardly mattered what he did onscreen; it was a pleasure to simply watch him. Now there is so much misery on that face it can be downright painful to watch him.
But with “The Beaver,” Mel’s director, costar and bravely devoted friend Jodie Foster has channeled Mel’s angst into a fascinating film. (Shot before Mel went terrifyingly off the rails in a series of secretly tape-recorded telephone rants to his ex lover, Oksana Grigorieva.) Instead of acting out with violence, Mel’s character here copes through a kind of desperate whimsy — via the use of his hand puppet. He begins to lift himself out of his depression, although his supportive wife (a lovely performance by Foster) and his belligerent eldest son (Anton Yelchin, a star on the rise) are challenged, to say the least. Mel’s commitment to his competent puppet gives new meaning to the 1990’s slang, “Talk to the hand!”
I’ve always thought Mel Gibson was a good actor. To see him breathe life and believability into his scenes with a hand puppet — with a Cockney accent! — is to see a very good actor indeed. Perhaps even a great actor. Believe me, if Mel Gibson had had an amicable split from Oksana (and a few years prior to that, hadn’t raged drunkenly about Jews) this performance in “The Beaver” would garner him an Oscar nomination.
Miss Foster directs her leading man and all the other actors superbly. The subplot with Anton Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence melds perfectly with the struggles of the Gibson-Foster characters. (There’s also a charming tow-headed boy, the couple’s youngest son — even here, in dangerously clichéd territory, Foster manages to restrain the inherent manipulations.)
If I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Mel Gibson the man, that’s okay. I don’t know him or have to live with him or hear him raging on the other end of a phone. Or perhaps endure worse, as Oksana claims she did. But I can advise you that “The Beaver” is compelling and resonant filmmaking. If you’re interested in that, put aside your personal feelings about Mel. Interesting movies don’t come along every day.
And you know what? I hope in some form, Mr. Gibson finds peace of mind — even his very own real-life hand-puppet.
* * *
I WAS much amused over the weekend when news broke about pop star Katy Perry’s “outrageous diva demands” while she tours. The Smoking Gun website got a hold of the lengthy missive to Miss Perry’s staff as to what she wanted and what she didn’t want in her dressing rooms, her hotel suites and in her trailer.
Among her demands — rooms draped in soft cream or pink … fresh flowers, but absolutely NO carnations … certain types of chairs, lighting, soaps … pita bread … dried fruits … baked tortilla chips (blue if possible) … a jar of quality honey … salt … two bottles of Pinot Grigio. There is a full page of instructions for the drivers, including how to handle the luggage (Don’t! Security handles that), how to drive (Do it without making personal cell phones calls and without looking back at “the client” through the rearview mirror. That’s a safety tip, I’d say.) Also, no asking for autographs, no instigating conversations. (I’d say that is a safety precaution too. A few loose words with the employees end up on TMZ within seconds.)
Now, none this seemed terribly extreme to me. But the web was alive with criticism. It made me laugh. It made me think about … Miss Joan Crawford. In 1964, Miss Crawford issued a battery of instructions for those who were accompanying her on a tour to promote a movie titled “Straight Jacket.” The note, which ran several pages included all Crawford’s needs — from the size of her suite to the armed guard at her door, the type of car she is to be transported in, the pens and pencils for her endless notes, the ironing board, peppermint candies, the 100- proof Smirnoff vodka (only Smirnoff and only 100-proof!) and various other necessities. Including that the hotel maid will “stand by” until dismissed by Miss Crawford.
The instructions ended thusly: “Miss Crawford is a star in every sense of the word, and everyone knows she is a star. As a partner in this film, Miss Crawford will not appreciate throwing money away on empty gestures. You do not have to make empty gestures to prove to Miss Crawford or anyone else that she is a star of the first magnitude!”
Back in ‘64, when this was leaked to Time magazine, there was some fun had at Joan’s expense — but not much. It came and went. Just imagine in today’s world where leakage is inevitable, if Katy Perry (or Gaga or Madonna) had it in writing that they were “a star of the first magnitude … and everyone knows it.”
Those “SNL” skits would never end. There would be tee-shirts. Want a real diva? Can’t beat the likes of Joan Crawford.
Relax Katy, and chow down on those blue tortilla chips. Especially now, with hubby Russell Brand ousted from Japan, you’ll need all those little extras.