Gibson scandal could doom his movie career

As Mel Gibson’s legal and publicity problems mount, his prospects for a future in mainstream Hollywood grow dimmer.

Eight minutes of new audio surfaced on Monday capturing Gibson’s angry and expletive-laden rant to ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva. The recording, which appeared on the website Radar Online, follows an earlier release on the site of a tape in which Gibson uses foul and threatening language toward Grigorieva as well as the N-word. Monday’s audio features an increasingly apoplectic Gibson threatening Grigorieva, with whom he’s locked in a child custody battle, yelling at her that she needs a “bat to the side of the head” and that he could put her “in a … rose garden” if he wanted to. (Although the audio has not been independently verified by The Times, no one involved in the incident, including representatives from Gibson’s camp, has called its authenticity into question.)

Interviews with a number of Hollywood talent agents and studio executives on Monday suggest that as a result of these recordings, Gibson has become anathema in the entertainment business; the insiders see little way Gibson would be hired as either an actor or director on any mainstream film.

On Friday, the news broke that Gibson had been dropped by his agency, William Morris Endeavor, around the time that the first reports of a diatribe against Grigorieva surfaced and as his longtime agent and supporter, Ed Limato, lay on his deathbed, both of which may have been factors in the decision.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also has confirmed that it is investigating the actor in a domestic abuse case. In the new recording, which will be added to evidence already being reviewed by detectives, the onetime A-lister seems to acknowledge that he hit Grigorieva, the mother of his child, when he responds to her mention of him hitting her by saying, “you … deserved it.”

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said the investigation would not be affected by Gibson’s celebrity. “First of all there was no favoritism last time [referring to the 2006 Malibu incident]. There is no favoritism this time,” Whitmore said. “We’re just doing our job.” The department faced criticism after Gibson’s 2006 drunk driving arrest after it was suggested that the actor’s anti-Semitic comments be expunged from the arrest report.

On Monday, Gibson’s publicist, Hollywood veteran Alan Nierob, said that his client had no comment on the current scandal.

It’s unlikely, agents in Hollywood said, that Gibson would be signed by another powerhouse Hollywood agency given his current low stock. But at least one smaller agency casually discussed the pros and cons of signing Gibson, an agent at the company said. At a meeting on Monday, the agency’s staff debated whether it was worth the bad PR that would surely accompany such a move.

Experts in crisis public relations said Gibson was in a maelstrom of trouble that would challenge the best of their craft. “He needs to find an appropriate villain in this issue, and as long as he can’t put it on alcohol and drug abuse, he’s going to be the villain,” said Jason Maloni a strategist at the publicity agency Levick Strategic Communications.

But he also said that the actor-director’s career and image were, even after several offenses, not beyond salvaging. “Mel Gibson is first and foremost an artist, and as long as he can produce great work, he’ll have a way forward,” Maloni said, while acknowledging a Catch-22 problem in which Gibson may need to produce good work to resurrect his public image, but it would take a resurrection of his public image before a studio would hire him to work.

Many of Gibson’s allies in Hollywood have remained quiet as the controversy has mushroomed.

On Monday, representatives for Jodie Foster, Gibson’s longtime friend and his director and costar in his new movie “The Beaver,” said that she was in post-production and unable to comment. A spokeswoman for Graham King, the producer who worked with Gibson on his recent film “Edge of Darkness” and has been planning a Viking epic that Gibson would direct, said King was on the set of another film and was unavailable to comment.

A spokeswoman for Danny Glover, the often vocal African American actor who costarred with Gibson in the four “Lethal Weapon” movies — the franchise that, with its biracial pairing, helped shoot Gibson to the top of the action-star A-list — chose not to weigh in. “At this time, Mr. Glover does not have a comment, and there is no statement regarding Mr. Gibson.” When asked if that might change, the representative responded, “The decision is that he will not [comment].”

Experts said that the muted reaction highlighted the fickle nature of Hollywood activism. Although actors often speak out on public injustices — Glover is a U.N. goodwill ambassador to developing countries and is outspoken on racial issues — they often close ranks when one of their own is concerned. “That’s what Hollywood is about, isn’t it? Everyone covers themselves,” said film historian David Thomson.

Gibson has shown a propensity to work in recent months — he returned to acting earlier this year in the crime thriller “Edge of Darkness,” which performed middlingly at the U.S. box office. He also took a role in Foster’s quirky indie movie “The Beaver” as a way of casting himself in a different light and appears in “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” in which he plays a criminal who, coincidentally, tries to rehabilitate himself.

The status of both films remains in question in the wake of Monday’s startlingly raw audio. The former has U.S. distribution from the standalone studio Summit Entertainment, but industry experts believe the movie could stay on the shelf rather than coming out later this year given the newly created marketing challenges. “Vacation” has distribution in some overseas markets through Gibson’s own Icon international distribution label but does not yet have a studio home in the U.S. Other projects — particularly the Viking picture, in which Gibson would direct Leonardo DiCaprio in a period drama — were also thrown into question as a result of the scandal.

Gibson can continue making movies through his own Los Angeles-based Icon Productions, which finances movies outside the Hollywood system. He’s also believed to be capable of financing films directly from his own pocket, given residuals on franchises such as “Lethal Weapon” and the $612-million global success of his self-financed 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ"— though a divorce from Robyn Gibson, his wife of 28 years and mother to seven of his children, and now potentially more child support payments for his and Grigorieva’s infant daughter, could diminish his personal wealth.

Thomson said that although comebacks are in this country’s DNA, a certain type of scandal could irrevocably ding a public figure, as he believes Woody Allen’s relationship with his former girlfriend’s daughter did for many of the director’s female fans. And in some cases, Thomson added, the damage could be much worse. “The American public is sentimental and fond of forgiving, but it’s not automatic,” he said. “I don’t think O.J. Simpson will ever make another movie.”

Times staff writer Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.