BROOKE GLADSTONE: We know how in this digital age even the smallest misstep can wreck a reputation. We've seen it so often it’s easy to forget that in our ultra-connected camera phone-toting social media-soaked world, we didn't always operate at such a rapid boil. But cast your mind back, if you can, to viral media's Stone Age. I’m talking almost exactly nine years ago, May 23rd, 2005. Tom Cruise is sitting on Oprah Winfrey's couch. The studio audience is stacked with preselected Cruise fanatics.
[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE/FANS SCREAMING]
OPRAH WINFREY: You’ve got to calm yourselves.
They’ve got to calm themselves.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The room is electrified by movie love, but the frantic fans aren’t interested in Tom Cruise's new movie, War of the Worlds. They want the dish on his new girl, Katie Holmes, America's sweetheart. And Oprah, ruffling Tom’s hair, holding his hand, touching his knee, wants to give them what they want.
OPRAH WINFREY: Tom, does that mean you’re gonna ask her to marry you?
TOM CRUISE: What just happened –
OPRAH WINFREY: Does that mean you’re gonna ask her to marry you, Tom?
TOM CRUISE: Oprah – Oprah, I – today?
OPRAH WINFREY: No, does that mean you’re going to ask her to marry you?
TOM CRUISE: I got to discuss it with her.
OPRAH WINFREY: You got to discuss it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ever the pro, Oprah digs for deets about the moment love bloomed.
OPRAH WINFREY: When – how soon after meeting her did, did it happen? You must have thought it was gonna happen. That’s why you wanted to meet her, right?
TOM CRUISE: Don’t we have War of the Worlds, too?
OPRAH WINFREY: Yeah, we’re going to come back –
We will do that, we’re gonna do that. That’s why you’re here.
[TOM, AUIDIENCE LAUGHING]
That’s why you’re here. We’re going to do – we’re going to do that –
TOM CRUISE: How long – okay, so what was the question again?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom wants to stop the line of questioning and talk about his new movie. He hears the audience scream every time he moves, so to deflect the emotional inquisition he jumps up and down on Oprah’s couch.
OPRAH WINFREY: Have you ever felt this way before?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is the moment, now enshrined in pop culture history, that brands Tom Cruise as an unhinged has-been. But the trouble is, it never happened, says Amy Nicholson, head film critic for the LA Weekly.
AMY NICHOLSON: He doesn’t jump on the couch. He gets up and sort of leaps on to stand on it but he never bounces on it like a trampoline. Oprah actually gives him the idea to stand on the couch, as a way of impressing her. At the very start of the episode, she says how happy she was that he attended her Legend Ball, which she had just had two or three days before. And she says to Tom, “I looked over at you and you were standing on your chair, and I loved that enthusiasm.” And I think that implants this idea in his head that if he doesn’t want to answer questions or if he wants to make her happy, he should just stand up again. So he stands up on the couch. And that is how we get Tom Cruise jumping. Because we had this great freeze frame of him in mid-air with his knees bent and Oprah sort of looking surprised, you see the word “jumped” and you picture him actually jumping, which is something that didn’t happen.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was going on in the media on the day that Tom Cruise met that fateful couch?
AMY NICHOLSON: May 2005, it’s such a fascinating month. It’s the month that Perez Hilton launched PerezHilton.com, it’s the month that Huffington Post launched, you know, two major sites that showed the industry that you could have a huge revenue stream just by talking about gossip online. These two sites and the success of them, I think, created this echo chamber. I mean, May 2005 even predates TMZ by just a few months.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you note in your piece, if your video went viral bandwidth was getting used; it was expensive. But then this little company started and it made it much easier to post these videos.
AMY NICHOLSON: Yeah, a little company called YouTube one week before May, the last week of April, put up their first video, “Me at the Zoo.”
JAWED KARIM: All right, so here we are, in front of the elephants. The cool thing about these guys is that they have these really, really, really long trunks.
AMY NICHOLSON: YouTube shows up and not only can you put a video up online for free, you can embed in a website. People don’t even have to leave your blog. You can draw traffic to you and all of a sudden we’re learning how to make revenue from viral video, completely new at the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I keep thinking though of another viral video, one that was taken wildly out of context during the presidential election, the Howard Dean scream.
HOWARD DEAN (HIGH-PITCHED VOICE): And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan. And then we're going to Washington, D.C. to take back the White House. Yeah!
[CROWD CHEERS][END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He sounded somewhat demented during a campaign stop but, in context, it didn't seem nearly as loony.
How did that get out there, prior to YouTube?
AMY NICHOLSON: We had a news cycle that was going 24/7 on cable channels. That kind of spread into news blogs. I feel like news blogs were a little bit ahead of the time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Was Tom Cruise one of the first celebrities to stumble into the pitfalls of celebrity viral media?
AMY NICHOLSON: He was definitely the biggest, which I think is why the story of his stumble almost became the story itself and not the facts of what was actually happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was, you claim, more or less untouchable prior to this moment because he was so, so careful.
AMY NICHOLSON: Tom Cruise keeps his private life incredibly private. Right after Risky Business, he was 22, 23 at the time, he was part of this cool kids group that was about to be dubbed “the brat pack.” He thought, I can’t get lumped in with that because that’s one way to just become the next Judd Nelson and nobody remembers you in ten years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So after a stay in London, rather than taking on starring roles himself, he returns and chooses to play second fiddle to enormous stars, both of whom win Academy Awards for their roles, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man and Paul Newman, in this clip, in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money.
PAUL NEWMAN AS FAST EDDIE FELSON (CHUCKLING): Big money game.
TOM CRUISE AS VINCENT LAURIA: Yeah, that's right, a big money game. So why don't you take your hands off the girl and let us play, okay, guy?
FAST EDDIE FELSON: What do you care where I put my hand? Why don't you mind your own business?
VINCENT LAURIA: Hey, gramps, put your teeth back in, get your hands off your daughter there and pay attention, you just might learn something here today.
AMY NICHOLSON: It’s incredible to think of like a 25-year-old actor, at that moment, choosing the harder option, choosing to try to prove himself as an actor. And Rain Man to me is just a great example because not only did he choose a film about a guy who’s gonna need his autistic brother, but Tom Cruise’s clout made Rain Man the number one hit of the year.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN AS RAYMOND BABBITT: These are not boxer shorts. Mine are boxer shorts.
TOM CRUISE AS CHARLIE BABBITT: What's the difference?
RAYMOND BABBITT: These are Hanes 32.
CHARLIE BABBITT: Underwear is underwear.
RAYMOND BABBITT: These are Hanes 32. My boxer shorts have my name and it says “Raymond.”
CHARLIE BABBITT: All right, all right. When we pass a store, we'll pick you up a pair of boxer shorts.
RAYMOND BABBITT: I get my boxer shorts at Kmart in Cincinnati.
CHARLIE BABBITT: We're not goin’ back to Cincinnati, so don't you just start with that.
RAYMOND BABBITT: 400 Oak Street.
CHARLIE BABBITT: We’re not going back to Cincinnati. You don’t have to go to Cincinnati to pick up boxer shorts.
RAYMOND BABBITT: It’s Oak and Burnett in Cincinnati.
CHARLIE BABBITT: What did I say?
RAYMOND BABBITT: It's Kmart there.
CHARLIE BABBITT: What did I - you hear me, I know you hear me.
RAYMOND BABBITT: My boxer shorts have like –
CHARLIE BABBITT: You don't fool me with this sh- [BLEEP] for a second!
RAYMOND BABBITT: Yours are too tight.
CHARLIE BABBITT: Ray, did you f– [BLEEP] hear what I said? Shut up!
AMY NICHOLSON: Think about that now. In 2014, this is the summer of blockbusters, super-hero movies. He made a film about an autistic grownup not getting along with his brother, number one box office hit.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk to me about his management. This seems arcane but actually it, it figures a great deal in your article.
AMY NICHOLSON: Sure. Tom Cruise partnered with Pat Kingsley who’s this very old school incredibly smart publicist. She had a lot of huge clients that she could dole out and then withhold from papers, if they didn't do what she wanted. And she used all of her force to sort of bend journalists to her will. She was determined to keep his name as far away from Star and The Enquirer as possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, ultimately, he replaces her with his sister. Why does he do that?
AMY NICHOLSON: It was a moment where he started to feel like he needed to talk more about Scientology openly. I think that was a tough call for both of them because he wanted to represent his faith which was starting to become under attacks from the media and say, I’m the biggest movie star in the world, let me try to make my religion sound normal to people. And she had the competing interest of having the studios tell her, don’t let him do that, we can’t let our movies get derailed by talk of his religion. He realized, and she realized, that they needed to go their separate ways.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to ask you, some of this is clearly self-inflicted.
AMY NICHOLSON: It’s true, but it’s a religion he very clearly believes in deeply that is sort of held up for public ridicule, which is why I tried to even downplay Scientology a bit in the piece.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A little bit too much, perhaps.
AMY NICHOLSON: Perhaps a little bit too much, but I also just sort of felt like that story’s been told. We know all about Tom Cruise and Scientology. And I find it interesting that we don’t hold up other actors to the same sort of scrutiny for their beliefs. But the sort of things Tom Cruise says about Scientology we tune out when it’s a football player spiking a touchdown and then thanking God. I think it’s a little bit strange that the rest of us do nothing but pick on somebody’s religion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But that doesn’t excuse him from passing judgment on Brooke Shields for using anti-depressants, does it? This is Tom Cruise speaking to Matt Lauer on The Today Show in 2005.
TOM CRUISE: Before I was a Scientologist I never agreed with psychiatry. And then when I started studying the history of psychiatry, I started realizing more and more and more why I didn't agree with psychiatry. And as far as the Brooke Shields thing is, look, you gotta understand, I really care about Brooke Shields. I want to see her do well. And I know that - psychiatry is – it’s a pseudo-science.
AMY NICHOLSON: He was not trying to legislate his beliefs. Here, he was just expressing an opinion. I wish we sort of directed the ire that we directed towards him equally to the ire of politicians in the public eye who are using their religious beliefs to actually take away medicines.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think we kind of pick on everyone, don’t we? [LAUGHS]
AMY NICHOLSON: I, I think we pick on him a little bit unfortunately.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The title of your piece in the LA Weekly was, “How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star.” But you argue he wasn’t destroyed at all; in fact, he’s never had a flop.
AMY NICHOLSON: Exactly. I think what’s real interesting is the perception of his destruction. That summer that Tom Cruise went on Oprah’s couch the story became has Tom Cruise ruined his career by going crazy, and what never got put into the story is the fact that the movie he was promoting, War of the Worlds, was his biggest hit of all time. No matter what the numbers are, if the story exists that his career is over, everything’s been shaped to fit that narrative.
I always say that Tom Cruise is the greatest actor of his generation who’s hiding in plain sight, because after this sort of shakeup where even he was rattled and thought that maybe the public had fallen out of love with him, he decided to do the safest film projects possible, which are sci-fi films, action films and mashups of the sci-fi and action films, to try to prove that he still has box office clout. Occasionally, he’ll show up and be like the best thing in a cameo, like he did a Tropic Thunder.
TOM CRUISE AS LES GROSSMAN: You know how you handle an actor? They whine about anything, you pull down their pants and you spank their a- [BLEEP].
ROB: You spank that a-[BLEEP], Les.
AMY NICHOLSON: I think that his character in Tropic Thunder is kind of a joke on Sumner Redstone after firing him from Paramount. The explanation that Redstone gave to the press was, Tom Cruise is a fine actor but he’s committing career suicide and costing us revenue. It’s so strange because he wasn’t. Cruise actually was responsible for making 32 percent of the studio’s entire profits. That’s one actor and 32 percent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When exactly did you become a Tom Cruise fan?
AMY NICHOLSON: I became a Tom Cruise fan last year –
- while researching my book, actually. But I started to write the book under the same impression that everybody else had of Tom Cruise, that he’s really great as a personality and as a charismatic movie star and that he’s not much as an actor, and I thought in digging into his career I would be exploring - how does an average talent turn himself into a superstar?
And then, going back and actually watching the roles, I realized I’m completely wrong. His whole career has been about trying to prove himself as an actor and almost being a movie star, in spite of himself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do we take away from Tom Cruise’s tar and feathering by viral video?
AMY NICHOLSON: Right now in the media we’re also quick to see a headline, hear of somebody messing up, there’s like an instant shaming. What I’ve taken away from this is even though I see a headline and a video, it doesn’t mean I know the full story. It’s given me a reminder that I need to pause before I shoot off like a mean tweet or, or a joke at somebody else’s expense, because I think reality is a lot more complicated than the internet condenses it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And he didn’t jump on that couch.
AMY NICHOLSON: And he didn’t jump on that couch! [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amy, thank you so much.
AMY NICHOLSON: Thank you, Brooke. This has been great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amy Nicholson is the head film critic for the LA Weekly. Her new book is called, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, and it will be published by Cahiers du Cinéma at the end of July.
TOM CRUISE AS FRANK T.J. MACKEY: Tame it!
Take it on headfirst with the skills that I will teach you at work and say no!
TOM CRUISE AS MACKEY: You will not control me! No!
TOM CRUISE AS MACKEY: You will not take my soul! No!
TOM CRUISE AS MACKEY: You will not win this game! ‘Cause it is a game, guys. You want to think it's not, huh?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Tom Cruise in Magnolia.