Are you feelin’ the love for Tom Cruise out there these days? Not likely. Not since he committed what amounts to a publicity crime, appearing on Oprah in full Cuckoo–for–Cocoa-Puffs mania, declaiming his love for Katie Holmes by first jumping up onto Winfrey’s sofa and then smashing to his knees to execute one of those quick-jab arm motions bowlers make when they score a strike. The embarrassing episode was instantly blogged, tabloided, and derided as a publicity stunt to promote his upcoming movie and hers—and from every corner of the media, jaded ridicule erupted: Imagine, a star who has the nerve to try to combine business with pleasure, with a mercenary motive.
As if the expeditious Holmes romance—rumors of engagement rings and Scientology conversions are sparking even as we speak, then are just as swiftly snuffed—weren’t enough, Cruise also scampered over to Access Hollywood with an attack on psychiatrists (“evil psychs” is his preferred phrase, actually). And—talk about random targets—he took on Brooke Shields, who is herself out promoting a book about postpartum depression and the relief she got via antidepressants. Following the Scientology line, Cruise called Shields’s use of psychopharmaceuticals “irresponsible,” and in a rare moment of public harshness, he asked, “Where has her career gone?”—a question plenty of people are beginning to ask about his own.
But not me. God, and L. Ron Hubbard, knows, Tom doesn’t need my help, yet I also have an irrepressible urge: to praise him. Can I just say that I find something both loonily sweet and sneakily admirable about the way Cruise is now comporting himself? It’s a great performance, with the electricity that’s been lacking from so many celebrity scandals of the past few years. It’s out of control, and that’s not a bad thing. Others may find Cruise creepy, but I’m enjoying his turn as the Aggressively Romantic Dork, a role that exerts its own wobbly charm.
The New York Times quoted one professional star-watcher as saying that “the public is celebrity crazy, whether it’s with cynicism or adoration.” Cruise, ever-competitive, seems to be playing into this even as he ups the stakes: The public is celebrity crazy? Okay, I’ll act crazy! The fans read about celebs out of cynicism or adoration? Okay, I’ll court both reactions!
Cruise’s current publicity bust-out provides something truly wonderful underneath it all: the fascinating spectacle of watching Mr. Top Gun veer off-course. I assume he wanted to elevate his virility by pumping up a quickie romance—scarcely an original move in the age of Us magazine. But he managed to execute this media gambit in a manner so clumsy, so ill-conceived, that it’s worked at cross-purposes, making him seem variously crass and dumb and craven. Instead of that bleak interpretation, I think we might view this wild lack of control more sympathetically: as vulnerability, always an attractive trait, rare among your bigger male stars. Think about it: Our most in-control celebrity, the same man deeply devoted to the achieve-your-goals discipline of his Hollywood religion, is suddenly, without warning, improvising his media message and letting it all hang Scientologically out. So much so that he has trouble keeping his facts straight. Challenged by Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush with a puffball question about how familiar he could possibly be with his new passion’s body of work, he burbled, “I’ve seen Dawson Creek!” That telltale lack of a possessive when citing the title of his honey’s chief TV credit suggests that Tom really hasn’t been spending much time with Joey and Pacey—or Grams, for that matter.
There’s no way to tell what goes on inside anyone’s intimate relationship, of course, and that bit of wisdom would have to apply doubly—maybe trebly—to celebrities. I don’t understand what’s up with Tom-and-Katie any more than any of us ever understood Cruise’s steady procession from Mimi Rogers to Nicole Kidman to Penélope Cruz to Melissa Gilbert (you can look it up) to Sofía Vergara (okay, I got that last one from the Star). But I do believe that virtually none of his recent outbursts would have occurred under the watch of his longtime, now-fired publicist Pat Kingsley. Kingsley, an old-school image-wrangler, would have limited Hollywood’s access to these latest, near-Tourettic sound bites—his babblings of “I care, man, I care,” as he pointed to doubtlessly baffled off-camera soundmen and gaffers. Having protected Cruise from himself for fourteen years, the veteran publicist would have pulled the plug on Access Hollywood’s special full-half-hour edition dubbed “Tom Cruise: Man on a Mission.” (A mission, the title suggests, perhaps accidentally, that appears impossible.)
By contrast, Kingsley’s replacement, Cruise’s sister and fellow Scientologist Lee Anne DeVette, seems to match perfectly with Tom’s latest program—she’s been “cleared” (to use the Scientology lingo) of all doubts about her brother’s strategies. And I say, jolly good for DeVette and Cruise: How edifying to see a superstar saying things the way he wants to say them, unmediated. Even if some of those things are offensive, or dogmatic, or just plain incomprehensible. Why would he say them if they weren’t what he actually felt? He’s not winning anyone over with his charm offensive, and that fact only makes his words seem more, not less, candid.
Sure, Cruise’s hetero-babble can seem maddeningly coy, defensive, at times (sorry, Tom) Freudian. “This woman is magnificent,” he told Access, “and I’m not gonna pretend.” But “I love women. I do” (his comment to Reader’s Digest) still doesn’t deserve the snickering, asses-covered-against-lawsuits gay-baiting to which he continues to be subjected.
Can I just say that I find something both loonily sweet and sneakily admirable about the way Cruise is now comporting himself?
But let me state the critical point. Cruise has distracted us all with his publicity campaign, but that only makes it all the more necessary to remind ourselves that he’s not merely a celebrity. He’s an actor—and a good one. If his public image is spinning out of control, his screen work is stronger than ever. Last year, Cruise deftly executed a skillful thespian stretch as a silver-haired hit man in Michael Mann’s Collateral; he contributed a sharp performance to 2003’s otherwise jagged Last Samurai; and he locked into just the right mixture of paranoia and athleticism in Spielberg’s 2002 Minority Report. I haven’t seen War of the Worlds yet, but I know that Cruise’s acting is increasingly subtle and mature—he’s moving into middle age as a man who’s looking for roles that challenge his eager-pleaser image, an ambitious streak that only bodes well for the future. Michael Mann told me, “I never worked with a bigger star who was more ‘up’ for subverting what people think about him.”
These mini-media-explosions are plenty entertaining, but they threaten to distract us from that talent. Maybe that’s why Steven Spielberg himself had to be satellited in on Oprah, looming electronically over the proceedings (like The Great Gatsby’s billboard bespectacled symbol of humbuggery, Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, or Cruise’s own PowerPoint Magnolia huckster, T. J. Mackey), to plead, “I hope that Tom will say a little about [the movie],” and to proclaim, “What your audience sees of Tom is how I know Tom. There are no secrets.”
Ah, but there are secrets, Mr. Spielberg, and you (Dawson Leery’s favorite auteur!) know that as well as anyone. Tom Cruise’s biggest secret may well be that some things—the pressures of his career, his life—are so great that sometimes he just wants to explode everything by opening his gleaming choppers and venting. You can believe him or not, but you can’t deny the guy his current peculiar genius as a squawking, leaping piece of performance art.