It used to be that no one messed with Tom Cruise. Now the press is having a field day. Why are they beating up on him? Because they can.
The energetic superstar used to be invulnerable. He was represented by Hollywood’s most powerful agency, CAA. His production company, headed by classy ex-CAA agent Paula Wagner, was housed at one of the most successful Hollywood studios, Paramount Pictures. Studio chief Sherry Lansing lavished her biggest budgets on his movies. He was married to Nicole Kidman, one of Hollywood’s smartest actresses. And his press was handled by the head of Hollywood’s most powerful PR firm, PMK-HBH’s Pat Kingsley, who kept the press from talking about Scientology.
Anyone who has ever dealt with Kingsley knows that going up against her takes guts and the full backing of your organization. That’s because she’s willing to use her entire arsenal to protect her most powerful clients. With the bat of an eyelash, she’d withdraw the cooperation of her agency’s other stars, refuse to cooperate on other stories or ban a publication from getting another star interview. (It took Premiere magazine several years to work itself back into her good graces after one tough “Mission: Impossible 2” story.)
Kingsley controlled the select magazine covers Cruise would do for each picture, the friendly interviewers he was most comfortable with, the photographers who shot him to look his best. Knowing that he didn’t have much to say, she controlled his image, preserving his mystique as a movie star. Her PR philosophy has always been, “Less is more.” Keep the fans guessing. Hold the star in abeyance. Keep everyone lining up clamoring for more.
So what changed? As Cruise heads toward 43, he’s getting to that age when a star is not always sure what his appeal is. His domestic boxoffice numbers have been down, masked by continuing strong foreign boxoffice appeal. And he remains such a powerful client — representing so many millions of dollars a year — that CAA can’t say no to him. Still, Paramount, which is now in transition under new chairman Brad Grey, refused to greenlight “Mission: Impossible 3” until it could bring down the budget — and Cruise’s share of the first-dollar grosses — to a level that would permit the studio to make some of its considerable outlay back. (Everyone knows that Steven Spielberg and Cruise will take home the lion’s share of the grosses on Paramount/DreamWorks’ upcoming “War of the Worlds.” That’s a loss leader, a given.)
Tentpoles are supposed to make the studio some money, and Grey wasn’t happy with the “M:I-3” projections, Paramount sources say. He also had some extra leverage in the negotiation. Cruise is no longer the only A-lister on the Paramount lot. Grey has long represented Brad Pitt and soon will announce a Paramount deal with Pitt’s Plan B Prods. Pitt, who already is committed to Paramount’s “Babel” and “Benjamin Button,” isn’t just another movie star. He is Cruise’s main competition.
The two actors have much in common. They’re both charismatic 40ish movie stars at the top of their game with a bigger following overseas than domestic and a predominantly female fan base. They can cherry-pick the best projects and directors. (As his three Oscar nominations attest, Cruise boasts a better rep as an actor.) They’re both in recovery from busted marriages to famous actresses — Pitt to Jennifer Aniston and Cruise to Kidman — which always is a sensitive time for a male movie star. Kevin Costner’s career, for one, never fully bounced back from fan backlash after he left his wife and broke up the family.
On the other hand, Kingsley had navigated the Cruise/Kidman breakup masterfully. And Pitt’s PR rep, Cindy Guagenti, also knows what she’s doing. In this Internet age, when every little movie-star morsel gets picked over and multiplies exponentially on the Internet beyond mere print and broadcast, you can’t afford to make a mistake. Now it’s virally transmitted on such gossipy sites as Defamer, Jossip and Liquid Generation — where much of the stuff is sheer fiction. (Ask “Cinderella Man’s” Russell Crowe, who might have just thrown away a sure Oscar nomination by allegedly throwing a phone at a hotel minion.)
But then, in March 2004, Cruise unexpectedly fired Kingsley. Why the break after 14 years in which the uber-publicist had guarded him fiercely? Kingsley’s dictum to the press had always been, “Lay off Tom’s religion.” It was verboten to bring it up. But as he headed into his 40s, he wanted to talk about Scientology. It fell to Kingsley, at Warner Bros. Pictures’ request, to instruct Cruise not to discuss Scientology during his European press tour for 2003’s “The Last Samurai.”
The next time she met with Cruise was her last, though. When he left for Europe, she was not on his jet.
Cruise replaced her with someone he could trust to do what he wanted: his older sister and fellow Scientologist, Lee Anne Mapother De Vette, who had long functioned as his assistant and PR go-between at C/W Prods. And Cruise’s press since PR amateur DeVette took over has been markedly different.
He can’t stop talking about Scientology, which is, arguably, his star-sapping kryptonite. In August’s Rolling Stone cover story, he took the writer on a tour of the famed Scientology Center. “He’s such a zealot now,” says someone who received one of his Scientology Christmas cards. “There are no halfway measures anymore. He’s beside himself with trying to convert the world.”
The other Cruise hot-button issue that Kingsley controlled with an iron fist — backed up by legal action from attorney Bert Fields — was the media’s insistence on questioning his heterosexuality. The rumors kept reasserting themselves despite Cruise’s 10-year marriage to Kidman and a three-year relationship with his “Vanilla Sky” co-star, Penelope Cruz.
After the Cruise/Cruz breakup, the star didn’t date anyone seriously for a year. (This prompted scuttlebutt that he was asking women out and getting turned down.) Then he set up a meeting with 26-year-old actress Katie Holmes. “One minute, they were having a professional meeting,” one observer says. “The next they were lovers.”
It’s still unclear why, in a ham-fisted maneuver, De Vette was compelled to orchestrate the April public outing of the Cruise and Holmes affair in Rome, where Cruise received a lifetime achievement award at the David di Donatello Awards. (“War of the Worlds” wasn’t opening until June 29.) The press, accustomed to having to chase down every nugget of elusive star gossip, reacted by suggesting that the whole thing was fake. When Cruise went wild on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” fed by the intensity of his gaga female fans, he jumped on the sofa, knelt on the floor and virtually howled his love at the moon.
Even the reputable media, including Time, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, couldn’t resist the story. It didn’t help that Cruise’s religious beliefs prompted him to criticize Brooke Shields during an “Access Hollywood” interview for relying on psychiatry and prescription drugs to treat postpartum depression. He was far better off when journalists complained that he was a lousy interview with nothing to say. While a tsunami of bad press has swept over him, there is no evidence to suggest that Cruise is aware of it.
By extreme contrast, under Guagenti’s stern direction, Pitt is handling his career like a consummate pro. Pitt and his “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” co-star and presumed romantic interest Angelina Jolie have kept their distance from the press. While they have been tracked by paparazzi, they have assiduously tried to avoid being caught. On the set of “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” screenwriter Simon Kinberg says, they literally drove their trailers into an Ikea hangar every day until the press hordes gave up and went away.
At the “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” press event in March at ShoWest, the two stars even steered clear of each other in the 20th Century Fox green room. There was more heat displayed onstage between “Fever Pitch” stars Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon. And on ABC’s “Primetime Live” this week with Diane Sawyer, Pitt manfully stayed on message, talking about feeding African children rather than his recent African safari with Jolie.
The question is, will all the bad publicity adversely affect Cruise’s career? Although Cruise has not been promoting “War of the Worlds” effectively, the Spielberg/H.G. Wells/Cruise combo is not likely to be negatively impacted by its star’s PR debacle. But “M:I-3,” where Cruise controls a budget that could approach $200 million, is a different story.
Paramount sources say Grey is gravely concerned about the fate of this franchise. In this case, producer-star Cruise is running the show. Everyone, including his partner Wagner and writer-director J.J. Abrams, answers to him. Paramount needs him to be saner than sane.
After witnessing his recent press missteps, Grey insisted on renegotiating Cruise’s deal before greenlighting “M:I-3.” According to Paramount insiders, the budget needed to come down, with some protection built in for overages. Cruise’s reps had to work out a formula that would allow the studio to recoup some of its costs sooner than it would have under Lansing and former Viacom entertainment chairman Jonathan Dolgen’s original deal. As a result, Cruise’s 30% share of the first-dollar gross now contains other gross participants’ cuts as well, including those for his co-stars and Abrams.
However he orchestrates his public image moving forward, Cruise can’t forget his first love: making it big in the movies.
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