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The faithful packed the pews for Sunday mass on July 18, filing into a traditionalist Catholic church near Malibu built and funded by Mel Gibson. Gibson himself was not at the Holy Family Chapel, but his dad, Hutton, 91, showed up, and so did his sister Maura. Before the 9 a.m. mass, all the parishioners joined to say prayers for one of their own who is struggling. "His family has been busily working their rosaries," says a source, "praying for Mel."

What they asked for-strength? forgiveness?-remains private, but these days Mel Gibson could use all that and more. After a quarter century as one of Hollywood's most bankable, and likable, leading men, he's now a controversial figure mired in a scandal that has shredded his image and imploded his career. His venomous rants and racial and ethnic slurs in recorded phone calls with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva, 40, have made him the object of scorn to some, ridicule to others and bewilderment to most-and could result in criminal charges against him. Even those closest to him are left to wonder how the once-popular star could have morphed into the raving madman on the recordings. "I'm not sure what to think," says an upset friend. "Each new revelation is a challenge."

The drama surrounding his breakup is far from over: both the L.A. County Sheriff's Department and the Department of Children and Family Services are investigating Grigorieva's claims that Gibson, 54, hit her in the face and choked her while she was holding their baby daughter Lucia during an argument this January. "You hit me, and you hit her while she was in my hands! Mel, you're losing your mind. You need medication," Grigorieva says in one recording (Gibson's camp has said he was only trying to stop her from violently shaking the baby). An L.A. judge put a gag order on both sides in an attempt to cool down their custody battle but, despite all the allegations, did not prevent Gibson from seeing 9-month-old Lucia, as Grigorieva reportedly requested. Indeed, Gibson spent July 17 and 18 with Lucia in his Malibu home. "They had a great weekend," says someone close to him. "Mel is doing pretty well, considering. He feels the judicial system will do him right."

Yet it's clear something has gone very wrong in the life of Mel Gibson, a star who managed to stay on top for decades while struggling with issues including alcoholism and near-suicidal depression. At first the very traits that have now boiled over into rage-intensity, edginess, a blunt macho charm-were what made him a superstar. Gibson broke out as a violent loner in 1979's Mad Max and shot onto the A-list as a crazed cop in the Lethal Weapon movies. His image would remain roughly the same for the next two decades: a guy's guy who was devoted to his wife, Robyn, and their seven children and loved by crew and castmates but who got a little wild away from work. "Certainly he liked to drink," says his friend and producer Thom Mount, who worked with Gibson on 1988's Tequila Sunrise. "Drinking was part of his ethos, but it never impacted the picture negatively. He drank socially with the crew, and he was extremely popular with them."

But drinking also got him into trouble. Gibson rear-ended a car while under the influence in 1984 and was banned from driving in Ontario for three months. In the early '90s, he entered Alcoholics Anonymous. "Alcoholism is something that runs in my family," he told the Los Angeles Times. His struggles with booze got so bad that in his 30s he thought about killing himself by jumping out a window. "I just didn't want to go on," he told Diane Sawyer in a 2004 interview. "You have to be mad, you have to be insane, to despair in that way. But that is the height of spiritual bankruptcy. There's nothing left."

Wrestling with his demons produced the work that many say was a turning point in Gibson's life. His 2004 epic The Passion of the Christ, which he developed for years and spent $30 million of his own money to make, seemed torn from his gut and light-years away from his usual popcorn action films. On the set in Italy, "he was like a roller coaster of emotions and beliefs," says a priest who served as an adviser. "He would scream at some of the actors when he felt they weren't getting the 'intensity' of the scene right." The Passion grossed some $612 million worldwide, but it was also criticized for being anti-Semitic. "People started attacking him, and I don't think he'd been attacked before," says an actor who worked with him around that time. "He's a guy who, in a bar brawl, he'd be one of the people fighting. If he's being attacked, he might not back off. Instead, he'd get angry."

The movie also heightened controversy over Gibson's father, Hutton, a writer and outspoken critic of the modern Catholic Church who has claimed that the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated (Gibson has said he doesn't share all of his father's beliefs). An actor who worked with Gibson shortly after The Passion came out says he sometimes spoke about his father's conspiracy theories: "Mel would talk about something in history and how his dad always tells him it didn't happen. He'd be like, 'This is what the history books say, but my dad thinks this is all malarkey.'"

Then, instead of reveling in The Passion's success, Gibson saw his life start to slide downhill. In 2006 he was arrested for driving drunk and famously told cops that "[expletive] Jews ... are responsible for all the wars in the world." He apologized and entered rehab, and a close source says Gibson is "absolutely sober" these days. But his life hit another bump with his 2006 split from Robyn and his tumultuous relationship with Grigorieva. "Mel became a superstar so quickly that whatever his issues were-religious, feminist-he never got to work them out," says Mount. "Mel has a good heart. But he is frustrated by a lot of things right now."

While few in Hollywood have publicly rallied to Gibson's side, many are reluctant to condemn him. Several colleagues cite Gibson's own loyalties to struggling stars. In 2003 he personally paid for the insurance bond that allowed Robert Downey Jr. to work on a movie and revive a career all but destroyed by his drug use. At a Hollywood party around that time, "Mel was there being very protective of Robert and making sure he wasn't drinking," says a longtime Gibson friend, acting coach Ivana Chubbuck. "Mel believed in him." (In 2008 Gibson flew a mid-meltdown Britney Spears to his home in Costa Rica for counseling.)

Even so, many colleagues are shocked by the vitriol heard in Gibson's conversations with Grigorieva. Says a female collaborator: "This is not the Mel I know. He could get angry. He could be mad. But screaming mad like on these tapes? Never." Darlene Love, a costar in four Lethal Weapon movies who is African-American, says Gibson "has been a brother and friend to me. I love and support him 100 percent."

Whatever caused Gibson's controlled intensity to erupt into outright fury, he must now deal with the consequences and try and put his shattered life back together. "People can slam Mel all they want, and the guy has made some truly dreadful mistakes, but don't count him out," says Mount. "The talent that he has cannot be lost. His personal life is something he needs to get under control. And if he does that, then gradually he will come back from this."

  • Contributors:
  • Oliver Jones/Los Angeles,
  • Ken Lee/Los Angeles,
  • Elizabeth Leonard/Los Angeles,
  • Sara Hammel/New York City,
  • Peter Mikelbank/Paris.