(JTA) — Jews run Hollywood, the old cliche goes.
So an outsider might find it strange that one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, Warner Bros., agreed to make a movie about one of the Jewish world’s greatest heroes with a star known for going on anti-Semitic tirades.
And when the plans to film “Judah Maccabee” fell apart this month, igniting a feud between producer Mel Gibson and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas that involved more accusations of anti-Semitism, Hollywood again went for Mel.
A number of industry figures interviewed by JTA, including lawyers, studio execs and publicists — all of them Jewish and a number of whom come from families who survived the Holocaust or fled the Nazis — defended Gibson over the Hungarian-born Eszterhas. Almost to a man, however, they declined to be quoted by name — as is typical in Hollywood.
Veteran producer Mike Medavoy, whose parents fled to Shanghai in the 1920s to escape the Russian pogroms, has known Gibson and Eszterhas for decades. Both have “issues,” he said, but he has a softer spot for Gibson.
“I really believe that everyone deserves a second chance,” Medavoy said. “I want to give Mel the benefit of the doubt. I think Mel’s problem is he’s a little immature and can’t handle his anger.”
Alan Nierob, Gibson’s longtime publicist and the son of Holocaust survivors, has always stood by his client.
The loyalty to Gibson of some in Hollywood comes despite the controversy over his controversial portrayal of Jews in the 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” his rant against Jews following a drunk driving arrest in 2006, and his violent threats and accusations against an ex-girlfriend that were leaked online in 2010. Also that year, Jewish actress Winona Ryder said that Gibson had called her an “oven dodger” at a party in the mid-1990s.
The latest flap erupted when Eszterhas, who once was one of Hollywood’s flashiest screenwriters but hasn’t had a hit since 1997, accused Gibson of only pretending to be developing a movie about Judah Maccabee to help Gibson’s own image in the Jewish community. Eszterhas accused Gibson of setting him up — hiring him to write the script and then rejecting it not because it wasn’t good, but because Gibson actually “hates Jews” and never wanted to make the movie in the first place.
In his detailed nine-page letter that was leaked to TheWrap.com, Eszterhas said that while working with Gibson, the star “continually called Jews ‘Hebes,’ and even ‘oven dodgers’ and ‘Jewboys.’
“You said most gatekeepers of American companies were ‘Hebes’ who ‘controlled’ their bosses,” Eszterhas wrote to Gibson.
He also described Gibson as erupting in almost psychotic rages in which he railed about his ex-girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, intimating he wanted her dead.
Gibson wrote a letter back to Eszterhas saying that his claims were “utter fabrications” and threatened to sue Eszterhas for releasing the audiotapes. Gibson’s defenders suggested that Eszterhas’ attacks were exaggerations or lies meant to deflect from Gibson’s claim that Eszterhas’ script wasn’t any good and that’s why it was rejected by Warner Bros.
Through Nierob, Gibson declined to be interviewed for this story.
Eszterhas told JTA that he “stands behind the letter I wrote to Mel.”
Not everyone in Hollywood’s Jewish establishment has stood by Gibson. After Gibson’s anti-Semitic tirade in 2006, Sony Pictures co-chairwoman Amy Pascal spoke out against him and powerful agent Ari Emanuel called for a Gibson boycott.
When they were the only big names to speak out, former AOL Time Warner Vice Chairman Mel Adelson took out a large ad in the Los Angeles Times protesting the silence of many top Jewish Hollywood executives.
But by 2011, when Warner Bros. agreed to do “Judah Maccabee” with Gibson, it seemed all was forgiven.
Despite their support of Gibson, however, many in Hollywood also said they didn’t know why Warner Bros. had decided in the first place to let Gibson make a film about Judah Maccabee, the great Jewish warrior who fought and prevailed against a Hellenistic ruler who wanted to force the Jews to renounce their faith.
Sharon Waxman, a veteran correspondent for the Washington Post and The New York Times who now runs TheWrap.com, said she confronted a senior Warner Bros. executive when she first heard about the planned film.
“I said to him, what were you thinking?” said Waxman, who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and whose site is where Eszterhas’ letter and an audiotape of Gibson’s most recent rants were leaked. “He said something about the studio believing in forgiveness. But it’s still a mystery to me.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said last September that letting Gibson direct “Judah Maccabee” would be “like casting Bernie Madoff to be the head of the Securities and Exchange.”
Now, he says simply, “everyone should have known."
“This is the story of an unrepentant anti-Semite who’s a world-renowned actor,” Hier told JTA. “How did he get Warner Bros. to agree to do this film? I think he reached out to rabbis and used them to soften up the studio. There are some who felt his 2006 apology was sincere. I never thought it was sincere.”
For now, Warner Bros. spokesman Paul McGuire said the studio is “analyzing” what to do with the “Judah Maccabee” project. But studio sources say privately that the film has been shelved.
A source in Gibson’s camp told JTA that Gibson is determined to move forward with “Judah Maccabee” on his own, financing and developing it the way he did with “Passion of the Christ,” which became an unexpected hit. Gibson has said that he’s been working on the "Maccabee" project for more than eight years and that it predates the 2006 DUI scandal.
Jay Sanderson, who spent 25 years as a TV and documentary producer in Hollywood before becoming president of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, said he didn’t believe that Gibson has been developing the film for a long time.
“I would make a large wager that he’s not going to make this movie,” Sanderson said. “Of course, the people close to Mel are going to say that he’s going ahead and will make it just to show his supposed sincerity.”
Sanderson said Gibson’s anti-Semitism is “legendary” and “no one could have been more inappropriate” to make a film about Judah Maccabee.
“But I also understand in some ways why it happened,” he said. “It’s a great story and this is the man who made ‘Braveheart.’ Mel’s always had a great relationship with Warner Bros. And don’t forget Hollywood is a place where people want to avoid making the wrong enemies. Mel is more of a wrong enemy.”
There is no star arguably less likely than Gibson to direct a film about Judah the Maccabee. Gibson belongs to a conservative sect called traditionalist Catholic that is not recognized by the Vatican in part because it adheres to Catholicism as it was practiced before the reforms instituted by Vatican II in the early 1960s. During Good Friday services in the old liturgy, traditionalists still read a prayer in which they pray that Jews will "recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men.”
In 2003, Gibson said there is “no salvation for anyone outside the Church,” including his then-wife, Robyn, a devout Episcopalian, in that category.
Gibson’s father, Hutton Gibson, is also a traditionalist but is associated with an even more extreme group within the sect, Sedevacantism. He is also a Holocaust denier. Gibson has never renounced his father’s views or specifically said whether or not he is a Sedevacantist, but he has said that the Holocaust did happen and that it was “an atrocity.”
In 2006, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report based on a three-year investigation into so-called “radical traditionalist Catholics” that focused on Hutton Gibson, whom they called an “important player” in this “shadowy world.”
“These Catholic extremists, including the Gibsons,” wrote investigator Heidi Beirich, “may well represent the largest population of anti-Semites in the U.S.”
“Hutton Gibson does the circuit and he’s featured at a lot of events,” Beirich told JTA. “He’s beloved by anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and extreme anti-government activists.”
Mel Gibson built his own traditionalist church in the Malibu hills that is so private and secretive that no one knows what goes on inside it, Beirich said.
“But we do know his views are anti-Semitic, even if they don’t line up with his father’s,” Beirich said of Mel Gibson. “The alcohol defense is ridiculous. You don’t bash Jews just because you get drunk.
"This idea of forgiveness and giving second chances to him is bad one. When you start OK’ing anti-Semitism and racism, you end up in a very bad place.”