07/08/2010 12:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise: Two Careers Seriously Hurt by Hubris

Whoever would have thought 10 years ago that Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson, then mega-powerhouse bankable Hollywood actors who could have retired with enough money for several lifetimes, would find themselves weighted down by personal hubris that would alienate movie-goers and threaten their careers?

Both Gibson and Cruise are now entering eras where their longtime places at the top of the entertainment industry's heap -- and their future film grosses -- are in serious doubt. Cruise's latest movie did a loud belly-flop at the box office and some blame Cruise and his image. And Gibson is now battling allegations that he used a different racial slur this time -- this time about African-Americans rather than about Jews.

I'll now have to add to the joke that always gets laughs in my shows for Jewish groups: "He was as out of place as Mel Gibson at a bar mitzvah...."

What's happening?

Both Cruise and Gibson are rapidly entering into no-return territory where some other celebrities have been bogged down before. Sometimes a celebrity can rebound -- but it isn't easy.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s American had a virtual love affair with comedian Jerry Lewis, who had split with now-legendary singer Dean Martin to became a solo comedy act. Lewis' initial movies earned huge grosses. But a disconnect soon emerged between the silly and funny Jerry Lewis of the movies and what the public started to sense about him in interviews and see on the TV screen. He got a two hour live ABC variety show that quickly tanked in the ratings. There seemed a disconnect between the lovable and somewhat innocent character on the screen and the hard-nosed, self-assured comedian-producer-director. Lewis in real life changed his image just as comedy tastes started to shift. Many in the media considered him arrogant. And his disdain for American critics dismissive of him didn't help his press. When it came to Lewis and the press it became a mutual contempt experience.

In reality Lewis got a bum rap: in fact, he innovated some key cinema techniques such as using video cameras and multiple closed circuit monitors during production, taught film making at UCLA, and won a special place in the hearts of many for his tireless efforts to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy. On several fronts (comedian, work as a filmmaker) Lewis may be more appreciated when he passes than during his lifetime. But no one confuses the screen comedy Lewis with the real Lewis anymore -- although some contend his role in The King of Comedy revealed more of the real Lewis than his comedy roles.

Michael Richards was a beloved actor and cutting-edge comedian who became a virtual national institution on Seinfeld as Kramer. But when he lost it at a comedy club and unleashed racial epithets the meltdown was captured on a cell phone camera and YouTubed all over the world. His image was toast and he retired from stand-up. He went on David Letterman and made an extensive apology. He has made some high profile appearances including a hilarious spoof of his career-destroying incident on Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm but he is no longer on the same level as in his show biz previous incarnation.

What happened?

In the older cases of Lewis and Richards the public saw a different side of the "real" person behind the big or small screen persona that check-mated their abilities to pull off that critical task in acting or comedy: having an audience suspend knowledge that it's all an act and accepting the ongoing act and show persona as an organic reality.

Actors and comedians are "typed," which is how they become cemented in the public mind. In these cases, the type casting of reality negated the original type casting that made them rich and famous. Audiences could no longer watch them do their shtick without remembering negative impressions.

You can usually tell how the press feels about their contact with someone by a series of stories. Note for instance, how any stories about The Sopranos star James Goldolfini seemed to be written with respect and affection.

Tom Cruise faces a similar problem: since that period of time when Cruise jumped on Oprah Winfrey's couch, made a series of assertions showing that he is narrow-minded about mental health, talked about his Scientology, and was captured on a YouTube video rightfully not enjoying being squirted in the face by a publicity-seeking jerk, audiences seemed to feel they had overdosed on seeing him. It was overexposure that undercut his "star" aura. Now his latest film Knight and Day has shocked Hollywood by the extent to which it has tanked.

The great newsweekly The Week has this headline:"Will Tom Cruise's career survive Knight and Day? His new comedy's success -- or failure -- may be a key factor in Paramount's decision to back the fading superstar in Mission: Impossible 4." Just four years ago, Premiere ranked Cruise as Hollywood's most powerful actor.

And Gibson? He is now firmly in Michael Richards territory, but far worse in a controversy raging as you read this post. NBC:

Mel Gibson's racist rants and bad temper have been his own lethal weapon in the past, which is why reports of a tape that includes very disparaging language from a man who is said to be the actor is getting so much attention.

The tape of the rant, which has not been made public, was obtained by RadarOnline. The website reported Thursday that in it, Gibson tells his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva that "the way she was dressed would get her 'raped by a pack of n------."

According to the website, another tirade includes threats that Gibson would "burn the f------ house down," among other things.

Gibson's rep, Alan Nierob, read Radar's report and said that he couldn't confirm any details of the story. "I have no knowledge that any of this is credible or accurate," he wrote in an e-mail.

The New York Daily News:

Loose cannon Mel Gibson is proving he's just the opposite of what women want.

The bad boy actor was reportedly caught on tape exploding in a racist, profanity-laced tirade at ex-girlfriend and baby mama Oksana Grigorieva, according to gossip site - just the latest and nastiest development in the couple's bitter legal battle.

"You look like a f---ing pig in heat," Gibson reportedly says in the recordings. "If you get raped by a pack of n----rs, it will be your fault."

A source tells RadarOnline that a terrified Grigorieva taped Mad Mel's outbursts after the star bullied her with multiple death threats.

Not great image enhancing assertions for Gibson, even though the allegations are not proven:

Meanwhile, Gibson filed his own court order, which reportedly intended to keep his ex from revealing certain information.

If he's trying to keep info from light that will become part of the ongoing press coverage, that means the tabloids are already sending teams of reporters out to siphon up every tidbit about him.

Radar's source claims the actor has heard two of the recordings and is in a panic. "Mel is doing everything he can to suppress this," says the insider. "They are the rantings of a mad man."

How will Gibson handle the press fallout? If his PR reps are smart they won't let him handle it at all. His attempts to address his comments about Jews proved to be an unmitigated disaster.

How bad is it for Gibson? The lively celebrity gossip news aggregator wesmirch has a huge number of celebrity blogs weighing in.

Meanwhile, news stories suggesting Gibson is a racist and overall bigot on several fronts are starting to flow. Here"s one:

The Reverend Jesse Jackson told Radar that the latest racist outburst proved that Gibson has a "fundamental character flaw."

"Mel Gibson's outburst demonstrates once again that we are far from a society that is 'beyond race and racism,' " Jackson told the site. "His penchants for anti-Semitic and racist diatribes reveal the actor's fundamental character flaw. ... He needs help."

The Los Angeles NAACP released a statement to TMZ condemning the outburst.

"An apology is insufficient given his history of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism," L.A. branch president Leon Jenkins said. "No amount of words will change his image as an out of date and out of control racist. Only [with] a sustained period of positive acts can his legacy be redeemed."

You can see the huge number of stories under this category on Google News and Google Web. (Refresh the pages since more are coming in...)

This suggests that if the phrase "Big B.O." is ever used in reference to Mel Gibson in the future, it'll mean he needs a shower.

Richards truly seemed shamed by what happened and will likely surface in some roles or projects, but also likely never reach the same level he was at before. Gibson will likely be on the descent: it's clear he doesn't like the press which also knows he has indicated in the past he isn't a great fan of Jews and now blacks. He is now part of a strong media narrative and one that has great reader interest.

Show biz is like politics:

Actors and comedians at all levels -- high and low -- must win over their audiences by being likable in performance and, if they are wise, off the stage. The latter doesn't always happen but if it doesn't it could catch up with a performer as it now has with Cruise (due to poor P.R. management) and will increasingly with Gibson (due to Gibson being Gibson and it becoming known to the public).

In my own modest role as an entertainer, I've had glimpses of some. One is a comedy actor who was on a book tour and disliked by those accompanying him, the bookstore staff, and some members of the public after he refused to have a picture taken of himself with one of them. On the opposite end was comedian Margaret Cho: when I appeared on her VH1 reality show teaching her ventriloquism, she was beloved by her staff -- and in talking with college students and 20-somethings around the country they think the world of her.

Unless Cruise turns it around, his future films will fall short of his and Hollywood's expectations and he could face problems with financing star vehicles. But he could offset this by exceptionally strong material or appearing in films that are not his vehicles but major projects in which he is "cast," particularly against type. Another hint: At 48 he is losing some of his appeal. Can he adjust no matter how old he is? (There are only a few Clint Eastwoods and Al Pacinos...).

And Gibson?

Unlike Cruise, he's not battling the quirkiness factor but is going to find that some people will simply NOT go to his movies because they don't want to turn over their hard-earned money in a tough economy to a multimillionaire who they conclude has contempt for their ethnicity and, by implication, their families and their children.

On the other hand, there are enough people around who aren't enamored with blacks and Jews who may be motivated now to see Gibson movies, even if they weren't before.

It's not just about money, it's about constituencies -- and Cruise and Gibson have lost parts of theirs that it took them years to win over.

Just like in politics, you have to work to win back lost constituencies.

For Cruise it may be difficult.

For Gibson, it's probably mission impossible.

UPDATE: Veteran Australian TV journalist Neil Mitchell flatly says Gibson's career is now over.

UPDATE II: Pop Crush also looks at Gibson's and Cruise's careers and sees them as damaged but not totally out of the game.

UPDATE III: The LA Times notes that this controversy could seriously hurt -- or even short-circuit -- Gibson's next project:

"The Beaver" was perceived as a risk even before Gibson came on -- this is a script, after all, in which a loner man talks to a beaver puppet on his hand as though it's a human entity. Gibson's casting was seen as a challenge in part because of his age -- the character was originally written as in his 40s..... But Jodie Foster, who had a professional relationship with Gibson, was packaged with Gibson as the star, in an iteration that would have her directing and co-starring.

Gibson was already seen as a box-office question mark for Beaver after his acting comeback, Edge of Darkness, grossed just $43 million in the U.S. earlier this year. And any project in development -- including a Viking movie he might have directed -- probably will go into deep freeze.

But it gets even, um, hairier for "The Beaver." There will always be talk about building a campaign around someone other than Gibson. But that won't work. Gibson is the star of the film. You can't hide him. And putting out any marketing material with Gibson's face and the words "The Beaver" underneath would be such a laughably bad idea that it would make the Tom Cruise "Valkyrie" eye patch seem like a smart idea.

There's a silver lining for Summit in that, at the very least, the company hasn't spent any money yet marketing the film. But for film fans who were waiting to see The Beaver, they may be waiting a long time.

Joe Gandelman is founder and Editor In Chief of The Moderate Voice. This is cross posted from that site.