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MISSION IMPERATIVE FOR A STAR: BE LIKABLE

By CARYN JAMES
The New York Times, 8/24/06


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


S
umner Redstone, the 83-year-old chairman of Viacom, is old and cranky and enough of a loose cannon to have blurted out what ordinary people have been thinking for months, that Tom Cruise is out of control. It’s always fun when someone in Hollywood is blunt. Mr. Redstone cited Mr. Cruise’s distracting off-screen behavior as the main reason Paramount Pictures (owned by Viacom) chose not to renew its contract with his production company.

Yet Mr. Redstone soon fell into the usual showbiz doublespeak, when he said of Mr. Cruise, “As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal.” He got that backward, at least from the moviegoers’ perspective. Tom Cruise’s real problem is: We just don’t like him anymore.

Losing his likability is the cardinal sin for any movie star, and Mr. Cruise’s began to plummet even before his couch-jumping days. In the annual Harris poll charting America’s favorite movie stars, done every January, Tom Hanks — the essence of likability, genial on talk shows, a nice guy on screen — was ranked No. 1 for the last two years. Mr. Cruise hasn’t even been in the Top 10 since the poll in 2004, when he ranked No. 5.

What stars like Mr. Hanks and Julia Roberts have is a connection to the audience that shines through the characters they play and has the audience on their side. Even the best actors sometimes use their likability as a wink to the audience: Meryl Streep as the wicked fashion editor in “The Devil Wears Prada” is more endearing than a villain should be, partly because it’s fun to watch Ms. Streep do comedy.

The essence of Mr. Cruise’s appeal going all the way back to “Risky Business” and on through crowd-pleasers like “Jerry Maguire” was a fresh-faced, unpretentious exuberance, a glee that practically leapt off the screen and that even worked in unlikely roles like the outraged, paraplegic Vietnam veteran in “Born on the Fourth of July.”

Mr. Cruise had that energy and connection as recently as 2004, and his last terrific acting job, in “Collateral.” He played against type as a villain with graying hair and he had to share the starring role with Jamie Foxx, but his audience was happy to see him really acting again instead of just outrunning some “Mission: Impossible” fireball.

But in the last year his life has become a public relations debacle as he has gone into full Scientology mode, and he has come to seem self-righteous and intolerant (most conspicuously in his angry confrontation with Matt Lauer on “Today” about prescription drugs). He now seems too strange and remote for the average moviegoer to relate to.

This summer a Forbes magazine list named Mr. Cruise as its most powerful celebrity, but that calculation was based on income and media presence, obviously not on common sense. While Mr. Cruise’s last two movies have done well around the world, he wasn’t the only, and maybe not the main reason, for their success. This year’s Cruise film, “Mission: Impossible III,” is part of a self-propelled franchise; last year’s, “War of the Worlds,” was a Steven Spielberg movie. The roles didn’t demand much, and Mr. Cruise seemed to coast through them, assuming the audience would coast with him.

Today’s Tom Cruise is the opposite of a Teflon celebrity; he can’t seem to get anything right, not even baby pictures. While Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie expertly and quickly stage-managed the sale (for charity no less) of their daughter, Shiloh’s, baby snaps, Mr. Cruise and Katie Holmes have been secretive and elusive about their 4-month-old daughter, Suri. There are reports that Annie Leibovitz has photographed baby Suri for Vanity Fair, but no pictures have arrived yet, and into the void comes more tantalizing gossip, including a widely circulated report from a British tabloid that David and Victoria Beckham were invited to see Suri but were forbidden to use baby talk because Scientologists think goo-gooing is bad for babies. True or not, a report like that alienates fans.

Such distance isn’t necessary. John Travolta may fly his own jet, but he creates the impression of remembering where he came from. More instructive, when he is asked about his devotion to Scientology, he explains patiently and good-naturedly, without antagonizing anyone.
But Mr. Cruise has done so much damage to his image that his camp’s best efforts at spin now seem hollow. When word filtered out that the entity known as TomKat had stopped on the road to aid at the scene of an accident recently (O.K., they just stopped and waited until the police arrived) the incident invited speculation bout how carefully orchestrated that little news item might have been, and reminders that Mr. Cruise had, conveniently enough, helped stop a mugging in 1998 and rescue a family at sea in ’96, as if he were a volunteer action-hero.

Before “Collateral” he hadn’t challenged himself as an actor since 1999, when he played a ponytailed self-help guru who does television infomercials in the daring Paul Thomas Anderson ensemble film “Magnolia.” It was a role that may have cut too close, revealing how illusory a celebrity’s public image is. These days he is like a charlatan who can’t manage to dupe anybody. He seems desperate to maintain his stature as one of the world’s biggest movie stars, even as he morphs into something no movie star can afford to be: a guy you wouldn’t want to know.