After last year’s loss of ‘Cruise control’, the Hollywood behemoth’s minders are on a mission to reshape his public image.
Action heroes don’t lose their cool – imagine James Bond being shrill instead of chivalrous – but for a while last year Tom Cruise lost his. If it had been his Mission: Impossible alter ego, Ethan Hunt, the agency would have bounced him back to boot camp.
It might have been that Cruise was truly, madly, deeply in love – and those infamous footprints all over Oprah’s couch on afternoon television were just oversized valentines to new love – but what was the point? Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman and Penelope Cruz had all come and gone without that sort of fanfare.
For the world’s biggest star, it seemed like a tawdry Paris Hilton moment (the Hilton rule holds that there is no such thing as media overkill as long as each foray produces another media moment). And it introduced the two most discussed aspects of his over-caffeinated behaviour. The first was his six-week, “first date to eternal soulmate” romance with Katie Holmes, 27. They have quickly produced an heir, Suri, and a full-court Scientology wedding is posted as a coming attraction. The other subject, which Cruise wouldn’t leave alone after years of treating it as a semi-private matter at the behest of his secular media strategists, was his adherence to the precepts of Scientology.
The first subject segued into the second. “I love this woman!” he shouted with fist-pumping enthusiasm from Oprah’s couch. “I’m living my life to the hilt!” was the recurring Scientology talking point. “It’s given me the tools to apply to my life.”
At times, though, the message veered from bland happy talk – which is when the trouble started and the audience got spooked. For a man who has been playing the image game with panache since the age of 19 – “Cruise control” came to mean a lot more than something in his car – it was media mayhem.
He came across as an irritable scold, an over-zealous missionary. He criticised Brooke Shields for her use of prescription anti-depressants for postnatal depression. (Shields went on to deliver her second child, on the same day in the same Los Angeles hospital where Holmes delivered Suri.) When the Today Show’s Matt Lauer, the coolly telegenic NBC host Americans listen to over breakfast, suggested that maybe it was a matter between a woman and her doctor, Cruise snapped: “Here’s the problem, Matt: you don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”
He ruffled some feathers on the Hollywood set of War of the Worlds with the installation of a “Scientology tent” to dispense back-rubs and L. Ron Hubbard tracts to stressed-out grips and gaffers and, hopefully, a few movie-star converts to refresh the church’s glamour quota.
War of the Worlds was a Steven Spielberg remake and went on to become Cruise’s highest earning film, at $US591 million ($793 million) worldwide. But he was making it after earlier plans to make a third instalment of his signature Mission: Impossible franchise had been delayed, after burning through several casts and two directors, David Fincher and Joe Carnahan.
“Well, you would always want it to go perfectly and smoothly,” says Paula Wagner, Cruise’s one-time talent agent, producing partner for 15 years and arguably the most enduring presence, male or female, in his life. “But if there was blood, sweat and tears in the process, we’ve got the film we always wanted now. And Tom’s very decisive in these situations. He said: ‘Let’s go off, do Steven’s film, then come back to M:I 3 fresh.’ That’s what happened and we found [director] J. J. Abrams, started over and made his film.”
If the strange firmament of people who surround Cruise seems to have a sort of church and state divide – the Scientologists up on Hollywood Boulevard issuing statements of belief and the agents at talent firm CAA doing the secular deals down on Wilshire Boulevard – the diplomatic Wagner lines up with the secularists. In fact, she’s probably the pivotal one. It helps that Wagner, 56, who guided Cruise to his breakthrough role in Risky Business, had a firm footing with him before he discovered Scientology in 1989.
“As long as I have worked with him the one thing I would always say is that, in the end, he has always made his own choices,” Wagner says. “I think one of the secrets of a good relationship with him, on any level, is not to underestimate how smart he is.”
She’s smart, too. When she formed Cruise/Wagner Productions with him in 1994, she handed the CAA portfolio to a trusted colleague: her husband of 22 years, Rick Nicita, whom she met at the agency. Nicita is still one of Cruise’s CAA handlers and now he has the Holmes portfolio, too.
Wagner and Nicita are the quintessential Hollywood power couple and, while there are other big names on the books, they have a big stake in keeping Cruise grounded in reality. Wagner and Nicita have adroitly positioned themselves as sympathetic non-adherents to Cruise’s beliefs who can be counted on to publicly support the church when it feels persecuted.
There’s a complex and delicate detente at work between the secularists and the Scientologists. I didn’t ask Wagner outright if she was a Scientologist. I did ask her whether the secret of her long relationship with Cruise – she has outlasted two wives, a girlfriend and several publicists and will no doubt be at his wedding – was a “shared spirituality”. The answer was no.
“We are two professional people who have worked together professionally for a long time,” she says. “We worked together as agent and client and now we’re producing partners. And that’s it. He’s a good friend and a wonderful human being. There are always boundaries when you work with someone successfully. We have our professional lives and our personal lives and it works for us. We’re good friends. He’s a good man. He’s my dear friend.”
At the time that M:I 3 seemed hopelessly mired in budget disputes, when “creative differences” gave the director’s job a revolving-door quality and the industry press speculated that the film might never get made, there was a coup of sorts that changed the pastoral/temporal balance. Cruise’s veteran publicist of 12 years, Pat Kingsley, who saw no PR upside to Scientology, was sacked. Cruise’s sister, Lee Anne DeVette, a Scientologist, took over. She counselled the looser, free-form approach – the 20 months of madness had begun.
For a gilt-edged media property – an industry analyst once estimated that, in the right vehicle, the Tom Cruise brand over a movie title was worth an automatic $US100 million at the box office – it all seemed a bit reckless.
Cruise began featuring on so many “annoying” and “irritating” lists, and the glossies had such a field day headlining readers’ polls that found the “Tomkat” love match far-fetched, that there was another seismic shift between the pastoralists and the secularists. Cruise’s sister was reassigned to look after his charity work and a mainstream Hollywood publicity firm, Rogers and Cowan, was brought in to turn things around in the image department.
There was no Scientology tent on the set of M:I 3. Ving Rhames, the burly actor who has appeared in all three M:I films as Ethan Hunt’s loyal buddy, says: “I read about [the tent] on War of the Worlds. I haven’t come across anything like that. Tom Cruise is a total professional and a joy to work with. We don’t talk about religion. We never have.”
The first Mission: Impossible, in 1996, made $US456 million in theatres; the second, in 2000, outdid that with $US545 million. But will the same audiences turned off by Cruise’s real-life agenda pay to get swept up in his sci-fi one? Absolutely. They lapped up War of the Worlds. Besides, M:I 3 is a chance to see Cruise as the pre-Oprah action hero.
Yet there is an unintentional touch of art imitating life to M:I 3. Hunt is newly married, his wife is a bit Stepford-like in her devotion and she thinks he’s a transportation policy bureaucrat. Hunt is grappling for the right balance between his public persona and the authentic private life he craves. And Michelle Monaghan, who plays the spouse, is the spitting image of Holmes: two years older, a couple of centimetres shorter, equally brunette.
Mission: Impossible III opens on Thursday.
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