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...

Deep Pop.  We love it.


Teddy Tenenbaum said...

I agree completely. Sure, Scientology sounds a little nutty to me, but what religion doesn't, from the outside? Germany has threatened to ban his movies because of his religion. What could be more dangerous than religious intolerance from Germany? What does that have to do with us? I think their reaction to him is just an institutionalized version of so many American's feelings. Rock on, Tom. Do what moves you, because that's what America is supposed to be about.

Lori Lakin Hutcherson said...

Forgot about the Germans... thanks for adding that information and the insight into it!

Dena said...

I agree with you about the concept of the "other". We are a people (the world view of "we") that has spent an eternity trying to eliminate everyone "other" than ourselves (not necessarily 'me' as that 'ourselves' but you get the picture). Take your pick - there's only a few (very few) people that haven't spent some time running from someone who wanted to eliminate them because they looked different.

The thing with Tom Cruise for me is this - Like you, I know virtually nothing about Scientology (and am not terribily interested in learning about it) BUT (and this is the significant part) it's his arrogance that irritates me to no end.

How obnoxious would it be if I went around saying that I'm better than everyone because I am the "chosen people"? It would not only piss people off - but I would find myself quite alone in the friend department.

John Travolta, Kirsite Alley, Chick Corea - they are all Scientologists and I don't have to hear about it.

The great thing about religion is that you believe you're going to be saved, I believe I'm the chosen people and our lack of acting like everyone around us is losing out is what makes religous freedom great.

I married into a very Catholic family - my Jewishness (or lack of belief in Jesus as the savior) has had no effect on my relationship with a simply wonderful family (who I am spending the weekend with as I write - incidently). If they had the same arrogance as TC, then I could have been in serious deep guano.

Lori Lakin Hutcherson said...

I agree that implicit in all religions is the concept that "our way" is "the way" and those who run around saying that loudly are indeed annoying and arrogant. But I personally have never heard Cruise say he thinks he's better than everyone because he's a Scientologist. Even on the video, which was never supposed to be seen by anyone other than other Scientologists, it appeared to me he was talking about the virtues of being a Scientologist and how he believes it prepares a person to be more ready to handle challenges than a person who is not.

But perhaps you have heard him say this and if you have then I understand your irritation with Cruise, because that's partially why I'm irritated with Mel Gibson. Even though I've never seen Gibson quoted as saying his pre-Vatican II Catholic beliefs are better than anyone else's, his remarks about Jews and his disrespect of women makes me think he's got some serious issues. Or perhaps, like me, you extrapolate from Cruise's remarks and behavior what I have extrapolated from Gibson's.

Maybe Cruise is a zealot, but I'm not convinced the way I am with Gibson. And BTW, Gibson has said and done much worse things than Cruise but he hasn't been tabloid fodder the way Tom is. I think, unfortunately, a lot of people tacitly agree with Gibson...

Dan Evans said...

Preach the Pop Gospel, sister!

I think part of the issue (and we really saw this with Howard Dean) is that we have come to expect everyone to act the same in public forums. Completely non-offensive and predictable. We are now scared and horrified if people show any realy emotion.

That said Cruise does look kinda creepy when he laughs in that video.

Dena said...

It's not so much that he "said" it, but that it's been implied to the extent that it has. it left a fairly bad taste in my mouth. it's that old saying, "perception is reality". Not sure who said that, but it's a good one.

Michael in New York said...

On a very basic level, yes. If America's sweetheart is revealed in real life to be a supertramp, people will be more upset with her than if her original image weren't so wholesome. So since Tom Cruise was definitely All American, when he diverged from mainstream attitudes people got angrier than they would at, say, Christopher Walken. And of course when you've been a gigantic star for 20 years, when you fall, you fall hard. I'm not sure Germany threatened to ban new Tom Cruise films from their theaters (or even old Tom Cruise films, though banning Legend might just be a nice thing). Like many countries, they consider Scientology to be a cult and a money-making enterprise rather than a religion and treat it accordingly. They were at first less than cooperative about helping Cruise make a movie about one of the Nazi officers who conspired to assassinate Hitler for various prickly, "hey, that's our story" reasons. And they also drew parallels between that movie, Scientology and the glorification of cults. But the net result was a reluctance to make certain sites of national historic significance open to the filmmmakers, not to ban him or future movies from their screens. I've always "defended" Tom Cruise from the people who insist he's gay because he's been bedding hot women since he was 17 and I've always been convinced Mimi Rogers and Nicole Kidman have better things to do than be a beard for a closet case. However, that video is interesting, with Cruise insisting that when someone is in an accident, he KNOWS that as a Scientologist he is the only one who can stop and help (as in physically help their medical condition) and that ONLY a Scientologist can really help. Personally I'll wait for an ambulance. Finally, I disagree about your take on religions. It's simply not true that all religions insist their way is the only true way and all others be damned. There are many, many faiths that accept and celebrate that there are many paths to enlightenment or heaven or what have you and indeed happily andn humbly insist they don't have all the answers or even all the questions. Unitarian Universalists, reform Jews, many Episcopalians, many Buddhists and many others. Dogmatism and narrowmindedness is not an inevitable part of faith. (Of course, I've Eckhart Tolle considers all organized religion a negative thing. True?)

Lori Lakin Hutcherson said...

Michael I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I think all religions are dogmatic. That is not the case at all -- I know many to be inclusive -- the ones you mentioned as well as almost every eastern religion out there -- Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, etc.

As far as Eckhart Tolle goes, he does not consider organized religions negative, but that they are often stuck in ideology and dogma and don't truly nurture spirituality. What he extols is awareness, whether you're a Christian, Catholic, Jew, Buddhist, etc.

As far as Tom Cruise goes, he may be limited in his thinking, he may be caught up in the Scientology ideology -- or he may not be. The point I was trying to make was that, in my opinion, the vehemence with which he's been attacked for his viewpoint is out of proportion with what he's said or done. Trying to answer "why" was the supposition of the blog and obviously a springboard for much more thought/talk/opinions. I love it!!! Thanks for chiming in and allowing me to clarify.

Michael in New York said...

Oops, just saw your answer and I repeated the question on the Oprah post.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

Very interesting post Lori. I agree there is a fear of the "other" in our culture.

I don't feel the need to defend Tom. He is going to be okay. He put all his business out there with the very public "romance". You court that kind of publicty, don't complain when you can't control it. I disagree that the backlash was because Katie is some kind of sweatheart. It's because nobody bought what appears like some kind of bizarro marketing thing.

I would have had the same "are you kidding" me reaction to Tom's meltdown if he were, Baptist, atheist, laspe-Catholic whatever. From a PR standpoint it was a nightmare. Spielberg was pissed that instead of promoting War of The Worlds Tom was pushing his beliefs.

Also, the Scientologists I know see everyone else as the other. Not all belief systems are like this. I find any organization that discourages dialogue, questioning of beliefs, education etc., very scary.

Scientology is all about "self' and money. It has nothing to do with followship, worship, greater good etc. I see why (especially after going to the Celebrity Center) Scientology is so popular with actors and other people in our business.

I have read up on Scientology. Tom's happy with it ...good for him but there is no need to look down on non-believers.

Germany's weary of Scientology because of it's past. Scientology is not recognized there as a religion but as a cult.