Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"Cruisin'" For A Bruisin': In Defense of Tom Cruise

I was on the phone with my friend PJ a few weeks ago and the topic of Tom Cruise and his recent YouTube Scientology video came up.  I'd heard about it of course (who hadn't?), but wasn't interested enough to check it out until PJ went on and on about how "over-the-top crazy" Tom was in it.  Having seen the famous "Jumping-On-Oprah's-Couch" incident as it aired in 2005 and its numerous spoofs on television and the internet, I figured maybe it was time for me to check out the latest pop-culture brouhaha inspired by the formerly untouchable Cruise.  I decided to look it up while on the phone so PJ and I could have a proper conversation about it.  (By the way, I find cable modem/DSL/video streaming to be particularly satisfying internet advances -- you can instantly have a conversation with someone about something they insist is fascinating and not go "I didn't see it.  Can you get me the tape?"  By the time you get the tape, watch it and bring up the topic again, everyone has moved on.  In a weird way, fast connections and video capability allow us to have more complete discussions, even though conventional wisdom says people are more disconnected because of the internet.  But that's another topic. Right now, I'll stick to Tommy Boy.)

As I watched Cruise talk to an unseen interviewer about what Scientology meant to him, P.J. supplied unsolicited commentary.  "Do you see his eyes, Lori?  Looking all glazed and freaky?"  Personally I'd choose the adjectives "intense" and "focused" but potato/potahto... who was I to disagree?   I still had eight minutes of video to watch and the "glazed freaky" could be lurking just around the corner.  So I watched... and watched... and only saw more intensity and focus -- two qualities often present in Cruise's better acting performances.  About seven minutes into the video I said to my friend, "I don't know, PJ.  If he replaced 'Scientologist' with 'Born-Again Christian' I don't think there'd be much difference.  Except someone would nominate him for President."  PJ conceded this point but continued to insist that Cruise was "out of his friggin' mind" and the scarier part of the video (which was forcibly removed from the internet) where he gets a medal in front of a big image of L. Ron Hubbard and salutes undoubtedly made him look like a lunatic.   Since I couldn't see this part of the video, the conversation shifted into a brief discussion of Scientology, of which I know close to nothing about, moved on to lighter topics (travel, makeovers), then PJ and I said our good-byes. 

Off and on during the following weeks, I thought about Tom Cruise and how the pendulum of general opinion on him had in two-and-a-half years swung from super-likeable, talented megastar to complete-and-total nutbag -- and stayed there.   Then today when I walked into Barnes & Noble to buy the latest Oprah's Book Club Selection "A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purpose" by Eckhart Tolle so I could prepare for Oprah's "live class" (a pop culture moment I do not want to miss), the first thing I saw was an unavoidable display of Andrew Morton's unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise.  Where was Oprah's book in relation to this?  Crammed behind the discount DVDs, off to the side of the register.  Clearly, the "Tom-Cruise-Is-Fucking-Insane" crowd is more valued than the "I-Want-Oprah-To-Help-Me-Live-My-Best-Life" crowd, at least at this particular store.  On the ride home, I thought about Cruise some more.  Really, what had he done other than overzealously proclaim his love for his now-wife Katie Holmes on TV (most of us are lucky to have our similar moments preserved only in the minds of a select few, not the whole world) and profess his devotion to his chosen religion?
I'm sure the fact that Scientology is a "new religion" (founded in 1952) with what people believe to be cultish tendencies plays a factor in the anti-Cruise shift, but religious intolerance ultimately does not keep Americans from enjoying their favorite entertainers (think the Osmonds, Richard Gere, every Jew who ever was and still is successful, including glass-eye-having, Swedish-model-dating-very-short-black-man Sammy Davis, Jr.).   Besides, Cruise has made no secret of his religion for well over a decade, so why would it cause a backlash now?   The more I thought about it, the more I realized the deeper reason for the switch from TomKat to TomHate is because before the couch jumping and the Brooke Shields attacking and the L. Ron Hubbard saluting, for a vast number of people, Tom Cruise represented the quintessential American man. 
Cruise, particularly in his movies, was so every guy (who can forget him in "Risky Business" lip-synching and sliding around in his underwear as we all do?), so patriotic and heroic (in "Top Gun" or "A Few Good Men" or even "Born On The Fourth Of July") or so selfish-but-ultimately redeemable ("Rain Man," "The Color of Money," "Jerry Maguire"), that every guy wanted to be him and every woman wanted to be with him. He was a successful, handsome, wealthy and charming self-made individual.  But then he threw that image into turmoil on "Oprah," then into an incinerator when he argued to Matt Lauer on "Today" that psychiatry was essentially quackery and taking medication for mental health issues was unnecessary.  Cruise is far from the only person who believes psychiatrists/psychologists/therapists are con artists (the term "headshrinker" didn't invent itself and certainly wasn't invented by Cruise) or that his or her religion can save people in distress, but the fact that in the process he slagged Brooke Shields, an American sweetheart, well, that was akin to having the captain of the football team chop up the head cheerleader and fertilize the end zone with her.
Even though Cruise later apologized to Shields and mended that fence well enough for her and her husband to attend his wedding to Holmes, as far as America was concerned, it was too late.  Tom Cruise had already become "The Other" -- someone who is not "us," not of the majority, no longer a reflection of the collective American self-image.  Fear and hatred of The Other is rampant in our culture -- there are examples of it everywhere, from the politics that led us to the current war in Iraq, to every racist or sexist joke you've ever heard, to classic Disney movies.  (Think about what's going on in "Snow White" for a moment -- everything is cool when the Queen looks into the mirror and sees herself as the fairest.  But as soon as that image isn't reflected back to her, she goes insane and wants the heart of The Other cut out and brought to her in a box.  Yikes, right?  But it's this pathological desire to stamp out The Other that terrifies and fascinates equally because we all have it within us.  In fact, everything truly memorable in "Snow White" is motivated by the twisted actions of The Queen.  Watch it again and you'll see -- the dwarves, the prince, even Snow herself -- they don't hold a candle to Queeniepoo.)  

Even though it's typical for The Other to have different skin, a different religion, a different nationality or a different sexual orientation, in Snow White and Cruise's cases they are reviled all the more because they appear to be just like "us" but they are not "us" (although they are because really, when you go even deeper with it, there is no "Other."  But to remain in existence, our egos take our worries and insecurities and fears and make our psyches give credence to the idea of The Other.)  

So instead of forgiving Tom Cruise for having the human moments we all have (misguided, strident, glazed, freaky, real -- whatever you want to call them) we say, "How can the guy we nailed Russian MIGS with, agented football stars with, solved impossible missions with, shook cocktails and shot pool with -- a guy we thought we knew -- how can he be a guy we no longer know?  And if we don't know him, how can we know ourselves?"  And when we turn the mirror on ourselves like this, we react like The Queen in "Snow White" -- we try to cut Tom's heart out.

As an alternative to heart-cutting, we might want to take a longer look in that mirror -- past our anger and our hatred and ask ourselves why we are reacting that way.  Cruise, like everyone else, carries the best and worst within him.  Instead of reviling and ridiculing him, consider defending him, even if just as an exercise.  I have and I have found that at the end of the day, I just want to give Tom Cruise a break.  Not because I love his work (and I do) and not because I'm trying to "be cool" (and I do try) and not because I agree with him on basically anything, but because simply, if it were me, I would want the same break.  There's a major opportunity for preciousness right here -- I could quote "Do unto others..." and wrap this all up very piously and quippily -- but that's not my bag, at least not today.  Because even with all of this said about Cruise, I still think Mel Gibson is the biggest sack of the nuttiest nuts ever to come from the planet Nut. (Perhaps because of his intolerant, sexist remarks and his consistent perpetuation of the idea of The Other?)  Something else to think about...

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