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Celebrity and Its Discontents


Paradise is hanging out at the most private—but not too private—places around, like the exquisite Château Marmont garden, which mortals are discouraged from entering after nightfall, or Bungalow 8, the subway-car-size Chelsea bar with no VIP room that makes stars feel “normal” because each banquette features stars like a Mary-Kate Olsen or a Jay-Z, so that everywhere you look there is a reminder that you are in the right place, you have not made a mistake, you are as special as they say. Homage will be paid from celebrity to celebrity: “I went up to Angelina Jolie at an awards thing, and I just, I couldn’t help it, I started bawling,” says Anne Hathaway, star of The Princess Diaries, at lunch at the Central Park Boathouse on a recent Wednesday. “She’s been my favorite actress since I was 16. We watched each other in the eyes, and I could tell she had a beautiful soul. I guess she thought the same thing about me, because she asked me to go to Cambodia in association with her project. She said the sweetest thing: ‘Whenever I’m in a hotel room, I love watching your films, because even if it’s three in the morning, it makes me so happy.’ ”

No one has ever been safe in the House of Fame, though. Leo Braudy’s definitive study of fame, The Frenzy of Renown, traces the earliest mention of this house to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, where it rests on a mountaintop at the meeting point of land, sky, and sea. In Chaucer’s fourteenth-century poem “The House of Fame,” the house has become a castle with as many windows as snowflakes, packed with sorceresses and jugglers, magicians and wizards, celebrated singers like Orpheus and humble minstrels with bagpipes. A half-foot of solid gold covers the ceiling, walls, and floor of the great hall, where Fame herself presides from a throne made of ruby, her head extending to heaven and her body covered with as many “tongues as on bestes heres.” Her herald, Eolus, the god of wind, holds a trumpet of Praise and a trumpet of Slander, blowing from them as Fame pleases.

Tom Cruise, in all his lunatic effusiveness and paranoid defensiveness, is the definitive celebrity of this age. He’s the boy in the bubble. He’s said not to read his press, and has requested photo approval on shoots since his Risky Business days. One could not act as Cruise has if one understood how one’s actions were being interpreted. One could not pop the question to Katie Holmes at a candlelit dinner at the Eiffel Tower and announce the news at a press conference less than eight hours later, nor claim that methadone was originally called adolophine because “it was named after Adolf Hitler,” nor tell Matt Lauer, “There is no such thing as a chemical imbalance . . . Matt, Matt, Matt, Matt—you’re glib.” (A talk-show host, glib?) One could not be so forceful about such things unless one was Tom Cruise. “The exterior is only one covering,” he has said, equally forcefully. “I do not have a fear of life or death.”

In the bubble, the Cruise makes his own rules, as was evident at the New York War of the Worlds premiere last month. Even though Hollywood protocol dictates Major Star arrival only once all other beings have been stuffed in the theater, Cruise arrived two hours early. He wanted to press flesh, fans, reporters, curious bystanders, but particularly his new fiancée, whom he devoured with kisses. CAN I STEAL A KISS FROM TOM? read a placard held up by a fan.

Katie shook her head. Katie does not speak.

The hundred or so fans who got there early wore War of the Worlds T-shirts, and Cruise ran over to them, grabbing cell phones to say hello to mothers before he headed to the press line, where frantic arms stretched tape recorders over barricades. “We’re from British TV,” said one reporter. “I love Brits!” shrieked Cruise.

“We’re from Australian TV,” said the next reporter.

“I love the Aussies!” he yelled.

The reporter from People magazine was shaking: “I have no idea what’s on this tape,” she whispered. “It was like we went into a trance and got all giggly and girly. Tom touched my arm—he gripped it.”

Other guests started to arrive, like Hulk Hogan: “I think AFTRA should elect me as the commissioner of Demolition Paparazzi with a kind of above-the-law license, and let me handle each of them on an individual basis,” he said, twitching.

Steven Spielberg strode in—this is his movie, Tom is his guy, and no one’s messing with either of them. “The media has to make a lot of money the way that movies have to make a lot of money,” he said. “I’m very grown-up about this. They need to get out of a media slump the same way everyone’s like, ‘What’s going to get Hollywood out of their movie slump in ’04 and ’05?’ So when I see the media exploiting a couple, I know that’s another industry trying to make a lot of money off of the celebrity of these people. Then they get weeks of a good episodic series called the Tom and Katie series, the Ben and Jennifer series, the Brad and Angelina series.” He glowered. “The media and the movie industry don’t always agree with each other, but they’re both out to entertain,” he said. “People should not be fooled.”

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