By Nathan Kamal | Released
Mel Gibson has been a movie star for so long that it can be difficult to remember there was a time before he was “Mad” Max Rockatansky, Martin Riggs, or William Wallace. At one point, Mel Gibson was a fresh-faced Australian character actor just breaking into films with a slightly too intense gaze and a knack for portraying suffering. The best film of his long, controversial career came along at this early stage The Year of Dangerous LivingPeter Weir’s 1982 romance drama.
Although Mel Gibson had already appeared in both crazy max and The Street Warrior if The Year of Dangerous Living was released, he had not attained the kind of maniacal screen persona that would later define him. Instead, director Peter Weir (who previously worked with Mel Gibson in Gallipoli in the previous year) uses above all the youthful calculation of the actor. Unlike almost all of his other roles, past or future, Mel Gibson plays a naïve but calculating man in this film.
The Year of Dangerous Living Mel Gibson stars as Guy Hamilton, a young Australian journalist newly arrived in Indonesia to cover the political turmoil of the 1960s. Based on a novel by Christopher Koch, the film freely mixes fictional characters and plots with the real-life ouster of Indonesia’s first president in 1965, seen from the perspective of Gibson and other foreign correspondents. Although Mel Gibson is the protagonist of this film, his voice belongs to someone else.
That someone is Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Australian man with dwarfism who works as both a photographer and a broker of connections and information (a Master of Whispers, to put it in Game of Thrones terms). Billy is played by Linda Hunt, an American actress who became the first person to win an Oscar for portraying a person of the opposite sex; While the performance has drawn criticism for the use of Yellowface in the role, there’s no denying the intensity Hunt brings. More than anyone else in this tale of political maneuvering and betrayal, Hunt’s character is the film’s grim moral center.
While Linda Hunt believes that the press can be a force for justice and justice (which is largely due to the fact that Billy, as a human with dwarfism, was mistreated in his lifetime), Mel Gibson is simultaneously naïve and ambitious in this film. Even when he and Linda Hunt strike up a friendship, Gibson always seems to put history first. Even after Hunt introduces Gibson to British diplomat Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver) and the two end up in a complicated, sweaty romantic relationship, it’s clear he values the chance to break story of the year more than anything else.
The Year of Dangerous Living deals with real events and tragedies, which can be a delicate line for a fictional film. Thankfully, this particular film starring Mel Gibson is more concerned with the tension between him and Sigourney Weaver than with the revolt itself. The film’s deepest and most painful moment comes with the death of Billy Kwan, who was killed for nothing more than speaking publicly that the Indonesian people should not starve. It’s a quiet and powerful moment that says more about the violence of political unrest than Mel Gibson’s journalist character ever could.
The film continued Mel Gibson’s rise to American film stardom, which had begun in earnest The Street Warrior. In just a few years he would be starring with Danny Glover Deadly Weapon, and quickly became part of the pantheon of 1980s action stars, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. Sigourney Weaver starred (with some reluctance) in James Cameron’s role Foreigner in two years and became her own brand of action star, while director Peter Weir would soon earn Harrison Ford his only Oscar nomination witness.
Mel Gibson’s movie star rating would soar to near-unheard-of heights over the next decade in which he starred and directed brave heart to massive acclaim and box office, and then The Passion of Christ became a legitimate cultural phenomenon. It would all collapse shortly after, although it looks like Gibson is finally getting back in Hollywood’s good graces.