Gibson to the rescue?

Times Staff Writer

There. So Mel Gibson and Britney Spears flew off to Costa Rica together.

No, it wasn't a naughty tryst. It wasn't a wacky celebrity skit on "Saturday Night Live." It wasn't even a copy of People magazine sent through the office shredder and reconstituted like a Franken-story. Nope, just one inhabitant of the celebrity "Truman Show" lending a hand to another denizen of the bubbled universe. Unlikely as it sounds.

The two -- accompanied by his wife and her father -- had gone to vacation and look at property. Mel already has a home there. And Britney could certainly use a refuge from the paparazzi, though wouldn't you know it; the tabloids even followed the songstress there, and snapped pictures of her swimming off Barrigona Beach.

It's not hard to figure out how the 52-year-old Gibson and the 26-year-old Spears know each other -- through Blair Berk, defense lawyer to the stars, who has helped both of them sort out their legal problems. Berk declined to comment, as did Spears, and Gibson's publicist said that Gibson would not be able to comment as he was out of the country.

But what are these two really doing together? According to those who know (who declined to be named for fear of angering the actor), Gibson -- and his wife, Robyn -- reached out to Spears back in the dark days of February, around the time the troubled songstress was committed to the UCLA Medical Center's psychiatric unit. He was tortured by the idea that the pop star might end up dead, in part a casualty of the public's lurid fascination with her. Says one informed source, "There was no religious overtones, no endgame other than trying to show her there's a way to live your life without being in the fishbowl, and learning how to raise kids that way." Indeed, unlike Suri Cruise or Jaden Smith, the seven Gibson kids have avoided becoming tabloid grist.

Gibson remains one of the most enigmatic figures in pop culture, the Jekyll and Hyde -- no, the Sybil -- of the movie world. He's alternatively been described as a brilliant director, a religious nut, an aging leading man, an anti-Semite, a mensch, a conspiracy theorist, a repenting drunk and a ham. He certainly defies the famed dictum "the personal is political." Indeed, until "The Passion of the Christ," few in showbiz had a problem with Mel, the person. He wasn't a nightmare on two legs, and he worked happily and closely with gays and Jews. It's just when he vocalized what was putatively in his heart -- when he went ideological -- that his public perception problems began.

Even now, pals say the actor has a sincere commitment to charity in its purest sense -- without ostentation. He's shelled out $10 million to UCLA and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and backed Healing the Children, an organization that helps disadvantaged children get medical aid. But the "Passion of the Christ" director is loath to let the public know about any of his altruism. Humility is apparently part of his conservative Catholic ethos, and he also doesn't want to let his own notoriety somehow besmirch those he's trying to help.

At some point, he became a figure on the celebrity recovery circuit, a last resort for famous folks who can't quite get it together. Robert Downey Jr., now riding the "Iron Man" crescendo, had Mel to thank for giving him a job (as the star of "The Singing Detective," which Gibson produced) back in 2002 when he came out of rehab, after a year in prison and years of battling drug addiction. In an old interview with a Florida paper, Downey recalled that "Gibson gave me a gift."

Courtney Love also had her Gibson moment, as she told "Good Morning America" in 2006. She was doing drugs in a Beverly Hills hotel room when Gibson showed up unannounced, with addiction specialist Warren Boyd (Downey's go-to guy) in tow. "Mel kept coming to the door with this cheesy grin going, 'Hi!' " Love said. "I just kept looking at him going, 'Blank off!' . . ." Gibson ultimately persuaded Love's drug-taking compadres to leave with him to get a cheeseburger, leaving Boyd with Love to usher her into rehab.

Of course, Downey and Love were both grown-ups when Gibson intervened, not an addled child-woman whose father has been made the conservator of her estate. Yet, it's possible that Gibson and Spears share even more. While only Spears and her doctors know precisely what she suffers from, the papers have been pretty free and easy with the armchair diagnosis, suggesting that her bizarre behavior might be a reflection of a bipolar disorder. Just last week, the Sydney Morning Herald ran a story about a documentary focusing on Gibson and his old drama school classmates, in which the superstar tells the interviewer, "I had some really good highs but some very low lows. I found out recently I'm manic depressive." Hmmm.

So is this recent trip to Costa Rica yet another act of altruism? It's hard to say. It's also hard to weigh which is more important for a world-renowned figure -- private charity or public responsibility?

It's equally unclear whether he'll ever be truly accepted back into the entertainment community after the anti-Semitic comments he made during a 2006 arrest for drunk driving in Malibu. For those who viewed his "The Passion of the Christ" as hostile toward Jews, Mel's words seemed proof of his actual intentions.

Many in Hollywood continue to view Gibson with wariness. After the 2006 Malibu incident, Endeavor super-agent Ari Emanuel vociferously called for a professional "shunning" of Gibson on the Huffington Post, "even if it means a sacrifice to their bottom line." Emanuel is apparently not just talking the talk. According to a well-placed source, Gibson's longtime agent, Ed Limato, did discuss going to Endeavor when he left International Creative Management last year, but bringing Gibson along was a hurdle in the negotiation. Limato ended up relocating to the William Morris Agency. (Emanuel declined to comment.)

Yet, others in Hollywood believe that Gibson is still an international movie star, even though he hasn't top-lined a film since 2002. Just last month, the trades reported that Gibson is finally going back to work as an actor and will star in "The Edge of Darkness," a film to be directed by Bond director Martin Campbell and written by Oscar-winning scribe William Monahan. The movie, about a Boston police officer investigating the death of his activist daughter, is being bankrolled by independent financier Graham King, who recently went off to Cannes to sell the foreign rights.

I've had my own encounter with the dual nature of Mel Gibson. As an entertainment reporter, I've spent a considerable amount of time with the star over the years, on sets in L.A., Scotland and Maine, and in the editing room during "Braveheart." He was always friendly and unpretentious, a macho goofball. Then I saw him in 2004 during the media meltdown of "The Passion of the Christ." Huddled in a swank hotel room, Gibson had aged considerably and appeared harried and even paranoid, which is a strange quality for a gazillionaire mega-star. "I've been subjected to religious persecution, persecution as an artist, persecution as an American, persecution as a man," he told me, which was a little hard to take, given that he didn't have a concentration camp number on his wrist or hadn't just spent five years in a labor camp in Siberia.

Still, he was remarkably warm and seemed genuinely surprised when I told him how much "The Passion of the Christ" upset me. As a Jew, it made me feel like I had a target on my back. "I'm sorry if it's caused you to feel that way, because you're a friend of mine and I love you," he said sincerely. "It completely tears my heart out when I see you like that."

Huh? I knew he was using love in the Christian-"Kumbaya" sense of the word, but still it was a strange moment. Over the years, I've thought back on that encounter. I wonder if Mel the person might be OK, although Mel the ideologue scares me.

The troubled Spears certainly needs help from someone who's not trying to exploit her.

I just hope that it's Mel the compassionate struggling former alcoholic who's stretching out his hand. The personally flawed but still human Gibson is easier to take.

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rachel.abramowitz @latimes.com

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