How YouTube and Internet journalism destroyed Tom Cruise
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.
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 resume -- 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?