How YouTube and Internet journalism destroyed Tom Cruise

Categories: Film and TV

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It was Jason Tugman's first day of work. Almost a decade later, he still remembers the screams.

A former circus fire-eater, he'd taken a job as a lighting technician for The Oprah Winfrey Show after burning off a chunk of his tongue. The pay was $32 an hour and he didn't want to screw it up. But as Tugman carefully hung black curtains in Studio B, directly behind the orange set where Oprah taped, those screams wouldn't stop. The crowd sounded as if it was going to tear the building down.

"I could just hear the audience going absolutely apeshit," Tugman says. "Just the absolute losing of minds." He glanced at a monitor that transmitted a silent, live feed.

Tom Cruise was on a couch.

See also: Tom Cruise is still a good actor, but what's with his movies?

You've seen it, too. You can probably picture it in your head: Tom Cruise, dressed in head-to-toe black, looming over a cowering Oprah as he jumps up and down on the buttermilk-colored couch like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Cruise bouncing on that couch is one of the touchstones of the last decade, the punchline every time someone writes about his career.

There's just one catch: It never happened.

Like Humphrey Bogart saying, "Play it again, Sam," Tom Cruise jumping on a couch is one of our mass hallucinations. But there's a difference. Bogart's mythological Casablanca catchphrase got embedded in the culture before we could replay the video and fact-check. Thanks to the Internet, we have video at our fingertips. Yet rather than correct the record, the video perpetuated the delusion.

In May 2005, the same month that Cruise went on Oprah, the world of celebrity changed. Perez Hilton and the Huffington Post launched, with TMZ right behind them, and the rise of the gossip sites pressured the print tabloids to joining them in a 24-hour Internet frenzy. Camera phones finally outsold brick phones, turning civilians into paparazzi. YouTube was a week old, and for the first time a video could go viral overnight.

The Internet finally had the tools to feed us an endless buffet of fluff, chopping up real events to flashy -- and sometimes false -- moments that warped our cultural memory. The first star to stumble in front of the knives was the biggest actor in the world -- and the one who'd tried the hardest not to trip.

Tom Cruise had always been edgy around the press. When Risky Business turned him -- a 21-year-old kid with three bit parts and one flop on his rŽesumeŽ -- into an overnight sensation, he disappeared. "I'm not personally ready to do this," he told the film's publicity team. Instead of giving interviews and swanning around Hollywood with his best friends, Sean Penn and Emilio Estevez, Cruise ditched the flash bulbs and escaped to London, where he hid out for two years while filming Ridley Scott's ill-fated Legend. (Sniffed one British director to The Hollywood Reporter, "Nobody would notice a boy with that little experience anywhere in Europe.")

By the time Cruise flew back to America, he'd been half-forgotten -- a breakout talent who'd been shortlisted as one of 1983's "Hottest Faces" by the Los Angeles Times, only to vanish. Meanwhile, his buddies had been christened "the Brat Pack," and Penn was marrying Madonna, exactly the kind of splashy spectacle Cruise wanted to avoid.

To promote Top Gun, Cruise finally agreed to his first round of major interviews in 1986. He wanted to make one thing clear. "I want no part of that or this Brat Pack," he insisted to Playboy. "Putting me in there is absolutely absurd, and it pisses me off because I work hard and then some guy just slaps me together with everybody else."

Just 25, Cruise could already sense that quick fame was a curse: for every Robert Downey Jr. who transcended the '80s, there'd be a Judd Nelson, frozen in time.

He didn't want to be a trend -- he wanted to be a legend. That meant controlling his public image: no drunken nights, no false moves. The attention had to be on his work. After Top Gun became the No. 1 box office hit of 1986, Paramount offered to quintuple his salary if he'd rush into Top Gun 2. He said no.

Instead, he agreed to play second fiddle to Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. Money versus Money, swagger versus respect. It's the most telling choice in Cruise's career. He seized the chance to learn from, and link himself to, the old-fashioned, close-mouthed, serious actor he wanted to become. Forget the new Brat Pack -- he'd be the last classic movie star.

"When I get to be Newman's age, I'm looking to still be playing the great characters he plays," Cruise said in his first cover story, for Interview (written by Cameron Crowe, his future Jerry Maguire director).

After The Color of Money, Cruise turned down more leading-man offers to take second billing to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Like Newman the year before, Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for the film.

Those awards wouldn't exist without Cruise's selfless supporting performances -- Hoffman doesn't even appear on screen for the first twenty minutes of Rain Man. Cruise was proving he had the talent to work with the best, and demonstrating his box office clout. His name on the poster not only got an oddball movie about autism funded; it made it the top-grossing hit of the year. Cruise was the rare star who used his power to make good movies that matter: He could both rescue Born on the Fourth of July from eleven years of development hell and turn in a barnstorming, heartbreaking performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.

But what he didn't do is equally striking. Cruise didn't make an action movie for the first fifteen years of his career. Even in Top Gun, he never throws a punch.

"I'd been offered a lot of different kinds of action movies, but nothing really interested me," he explained to Boxoffice Magazine in 1996. "I thought I'd seen it before." He wanted different challenges and different directors -- he needed to push himself and grow. When he finally did launch an action franchise, that year's Mission: Impossible, he produced it. (And instead of hiring a fashionable blockbuster helmer such as John McTiernan or Joel Schumacher, he hired auteur Brian De Palma.)

Meanwhile, he kept his private life private. Unlike Penn, no helicopters circled his weddings. When Cruise married Mimi Rogers in 1987, even his agent didn't know. The bride and groom wore jeans. Three years later, when he quietly married Nicole Kidman on Christmas Eve, People dubbed it 1990's "Best-Kept Hollywood Secret."

Around that time, Cruise linked his future with another woman: publicist Pat Kingsley. The media had started asking about his new religion, Scientology, which he claimed had cured his dyslexia. The highly secretive faith fascinated the press. How to field endless questions about his minority beliefs while still charming majority-Christian America? He needed the help of the tough-as-nails Kingsley.

She was adamant about keeping Cruise out of the tabloids. At press junkets, she demanded that journalists sign contracts swearing not to sell their quotes to the supermarket rags. Then Kingsley expanded her reach and insisted that all TV interviewers destroy their tapes after his segment had aired.

Reporters were exasperated, but there wasn't much they could do about it. Kingsley had a slew of other big talents (Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Al Pacino) on her roster. Thanks to media consolidation, she was able to keep the media on track by making only a few phone calls threatening to cut off access. American Media Inc. owned The National Enquirer, National Examiner, The Globe, The Star and The Sun. Time Inc. owned People and Entertainment Weekly, and Wenner Media owned Us Weekly. The eight-headed hydra was easily slain. If the tabloids refused to toe the party line, they could be sued: for claiming Cruise was sterile, that he and Kidman had to hire sex coaches, that he'd seduced a male porn star. He won or settled those cases and gave the proceeds to charity.

But the Internet was about to transform the gossip world. What if the tabloids didn't have eight heads -- they had 800?



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58 comments
liz815sa
liz815sa

Days of Thunder isn't an action movie?

Barton Dahl
Barton Dahl

did you read it? or are you just judging the (proverbial) book by it's cover? you're seemingly not open to the message that's being conveyed. Ironic as that's the point of the article: the manipulation of a message via the advent of a new online now-now-now readership...

Barton Dahl
Barton Dahl

John... You're missing the point entirely.

John Martinez
John Martinez

Don't blame YouTube and Internet Journalism for his bad acting. Besides, he living large off of his bad performances anyway

Theia Michelle Chaudry
Theia Michelle Chaudry

We continue to be lied to. The tree of good and evil=.... Well, if you have ears, hear. If you have eyes..... Well, then you know the answers now doncha?

Charlene McCune
Charlene McCune

That is so interesting.. I had to go look it up and what I remember from that show is him jumping up and down... maybe it was the shock of him acting like such an idiot about a woman who was half his age... thinking that the relationship was not going to last.... kind of gave me the perception that he had gone nuts and was jumping up and down on that couch... thanks for the reality check... and he is still an idiot...

Karye Ann
Karye Ann

Did you read the article or simply comment?

Karye Ann
Karye Ann

Excellent commentary on modern media and it's ability to exploit the smallest thing and make us believe things are, when they aren't. I give you guys a lot of shit for being shitty, but this one had actual depth. This article really has nothing to do with Tom Cruise.

Barton Dahl
Barton Dahl

PS. This may seem to be "splitting hairs" but the dude hopped onto the couch for a brief moment, but did not "jump up and down" - go watch the original video. Again, consider what is said in the article... A narrative has been invented, and we (collectively) bought into it. Also of note, I don't give a rats ass about Tom Cruise or his movies. They can be great, or awful, it's not changing my life in any way (the only movies I really care for are made by Wes Anderson). So... For the record I'm not a Tom Cruise fan or defender, and from what I've read Scientology sounds really ridiculous. Thanks.

Barton Dahl
Barton Dahl

Say what you will but this is a well written article. The headline is a bit too provocative for most to properly grasp, but... The point is that a common narrative has emerged that isn't a wholly accurate reflection of reality. Examining and understanding the context of an image / situation, understanding the time and place, may offer a more complete understanding of said image / situation. We have collectively become a different sort of media consumer in a very short period of time. Our very lens has been altered and it's worth some critical analysis.

Sher Quintana
Sher Quintana

Tom Cruise destroyed Tom Cruise he's an ass!

Jana Goff Tweedy
Jana Goff Tweedy

Why are there PICTURES of an event that never happened? STFU Westword

Manda Babcock
Manda Babcock

Um.... I watched it. So I KNOW it happened! What a stupid article

Nicole GuBrath
Nicole GuBrath

How much are his "people," paying for you to keep posting this ridiculously false premise? Tom Cruise destroyed himself, and it wasn't on that couch.

Bryan Clark
Bryan Clark

ow tom and oprah together, two turds in a toilet

Aj Jensen
Aj Jensen

Wow, that was such a well-written article. Really an enjoyable read.

Mike Skeel
Mike Skeel

i guess this picture is just an artist rendition? since it never happened?

Mike Skeel
Mike Skeel

this makes no sense...it didnt happen? then what was that that we got on FILM? clever cgi?

Joshua David
Joshua David

No matter how many times you post this it is still falsely titled and is based on a false premise. It happened It really did Does it change the persons inVolved? No. But it certainly happened.

Matt Pierce
Matt Pierce

Still hate his movies... so, really, I don't care.

Candie Bernard
Candie Bernard

He's still a world class douchebag. This single incident changes nothing.

Austin Barnez
Austin Barnez

It takes a strong persona to ripple mainstream media in such a fashion, persona's such as HOME Denver: he dances too, he's local, and he's more entertaining

Javier Lobos
Javier Lobos

Let's all blame scientology for his demise LOL

Jeremy Silence
Jeremy Silence

I'm sure Oprah wasn't "hallucinating" when he jumped on the couch talking about how in love he was with Katie Holmes... he was laughing out of control too lol

Whey Standard
Whey Standard

"and then debating the use of antidepressants (which Scientology opposes), specifically by a postpartum Brooke Shields" You left out the part where, on the same day as the couch incident (before the edited video you complain about was created), he publicly chastised Brooke Shields in an interview for her personal, perfectly reasonable medical decision. The Lauer debate was a response to that, not some new "gotcha" incident.

whey.standard1980
whey.standard1980

He did jump up and down on the couch, but regardless, you really think that's what caused his fall from grace? Not the recruitment center he tried to pass off as a charity medical treatment center for 9/11 responders, or the claims that his personal religious views are justification for outlawing an established and well described medical discipline, or publicly criticizing someone for taking prescribed medicine for postpartum depression? All of that happened before Baio posted that video.

Zachary Hughes
Zachary Hughes

I was almost ready to give a crap about Cruise, but this article made me constipated.

Chris Swain
Chris Swain

Jesus christ west word get to the point...i read like five graphs before giving up and i still dont know anything about this apparent hoax

Joe Cherry
Joe Cherry

Oprah, Fuck your couch. Signed, Tom Cruise and Rick James

Martin Koenigsberg
Martin Koenigsberg

Wait- did people EVER give a f^&* about Tom Cruise? nobody i know....

Jim Evans
Jim Evans

the article is no less intersting than the idiots who remark upon it, myself included. i have never been a huge fan of his because i found his politics revolting. now i wonder at my (our) motivation and our evidence. did we judge him early based on biased reporting?

Corey Steven Haley
Corey Steven Haley

What a bullshit article. A disrotation on Tom Cruise on a couch. Yes he did do it. Just because we don't know the context doesn't mean it didn't happen. Are we suppose to feel sorry the Internet happened and now his PR agents have more than 8 people to bully. If you want to make 100 million as an actor be prepared for the publics interest.

Jeremy Dobson
Jeremy Dobson

More like extraordinarily busy. Some of us have things to do during the day other than reading articles on the internet. And I'm on my phone (at work) so there's no print button. Thanks though!

Mike Skeel
Mike Skeel

J.L. Benet, assaulted? its water...

J.L. Benet
J.L. Benet

I think a person should be able to go about his day without being randomly assaulted with water guns, but you are correct in the other examples of how big of a douchebag he is.

J.L. Benet
J.L. Benet

The leaked Scientology tape did far more to destroy him, but we can't talk about Scientology.

Fletcher Davis
Fletcher Davis

Hit the print button at the bottom of the page, then hit cancel when your print box comes up. Viola, all on one page. Also, you seem extraordinarily lazy.

Jeremy Dobson
Jeremy Dobson

I refuse to read any article which requires me to click through four pages.

Robert Hack
Robert Hack

Can he act? Do his movies suck? That's all that matters. People that get all wrapped up in the personal lives of celebs need to get a life of their own and mind their own goddamn business. Done.

Skye Cameron
Skye Cameron

Although I have never been a fan of Tom Cruise this is a well-written article with lots of interesting topical stories of the day.

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