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Viral Videos and Gossip Websites Changed America and Took Down Tom Cruise

How the Internet changed the last movie star.

Except Cruise never jumps on a couch.

It is Oprah who seeds the idea that he should stand on it. She thanks Cruise for attending her recent Legends Ball, where she honored Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King. "I turned and looked at one point and you were standing in the chair going, 'Yes! Yes!'" she gushes to Cruise. "I loved that enthusiasm." Minutes later, he stands on the couch for a second, and after she and the audience cheer that, he does it again. When she continues pressing about whether he wants to marry Holmes, he exhales, "I'm standing on your couch!" as if that's the answer he thought was enough. All told, Cruise on the couch — the key image of what the gossip blogs deemed his meltdown — is less than three seconds of airtime.

The distinction between standing and jumping is small but significant. We imagine Cruise bouncing on the couch — we can even picture it — because the Internet convinced us it happened. The echoing blogosphere screaming "Kills!" and "Jumps!" rewrote over what little of the actual episode people saw.

For two decades, Cruise had tried to keep the spotlight on his work. Now, it was fixated on him. Even the old guard — after years of chafing under his publicity restrictions, and finally freed from the need to appease the powerful Pat Kingsley — happily spun everything to fit the new narrative: Cruise was crazy.

Guided by his sister's inexperienced hand, Cruise could only oblige, proposing to Katie Holmes and then debating the use of antidepressants (which Scientology opposes), specifically by a postpartum Brooke Shields, on The Today Show with Matt Lauer.

Kingsley never would have let the Today footage air. But, of course, Kingsley wasn't there. "Afterward, I remember the PR people coming in and saying, 'Well, none of that stuff on Scientology and Brooke Shields, that's not going to be on the air,'" says Jim Bell, then executive producer of Today. "I started laughing and I said, 'That's probably going to be on a promo in about 30 minutes. It's going to be airing in a loop to get people to watch tomorrow morning.'"

Breathless for more clicks, the media questioned whether Cruise's wave of bad publicity would hurt the box office for War of the Worlds. Restless reporters analyzed everything down to the decision to leave Cruise off the poster (which had been designed months before, in January). When War of the Worlds opened to $64.9 million — Cruise's biggest opening ever — and went on to be his most successful film of all time, the story stubbornly refused to change. In op-eds across the web, the "fact" was that Tom Cruise had killed his career.

"I was a little upset — not at Tom but at the press, for making such a big deal out of a kind of small thing," War of the Worlds director Steven Spielberg told Newsweek.

Cruise kept quiet and focused on filming his next movie, Mission: Impossible III. Over the next year, he married Holmes and had a baby. Even with his near-total media silence, his personal life kept his name in the gossip columns. A year after his Oprah appearance, Mission: Impossible III set a record as Cruise's hugest non-holiday debut — but the media deemed it a failure. After all, they'd predicted it would open to more than $60 million domestically, which only War of the Worlds had ever done. (Mission: Impossible III remains Cruise's third-biggest opening weekend.)

Cruise hadn't hurt his career. But Hollywood was convinced he was poison, a religious fanatic, and possibly unhinged. Three months later, Paramount boss Sumner Redstone, who had partnered with Cruise's production company for 14 years, succumbed to the bad publicity and ended their professional relationship.

"His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount," Redstone told the press. "It's nothing to do with his acting ability — he's a terrific actor. But we don't think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot." In the six years before, Cruise's movies had made 32 percent of Paramount's revenue.

The Internet told us Tom Cruise killed Oprah. The truth is the Internet tried to kill him.

Today, when even ABCNews.com runs "5 Things to Know About George Clooney's Fiancee, Amal Alamuddin," it's hard to remember that just nine years ago, the worlds of tabloid and legitimate journalism were more sharply defined. (The Huffington Post has made a fortune blurring the line.) In turn, we've become more cynical about click-baiting headlines, even as celebrities have figured out the new rules. After the summer of Cruise and the couch, celebrities go on network TV fully aware that anything they say could go viral. Actors weaned on the web can wield it to their advantage — think Emma Stone lip-synching on Jimmy Fallon.

Today's Internet-driven media culture isn't necessarily worse than the one run by the big, boring conglomerates that Pat Kingsley expertly controlled. Even Cruise has figured out how to navigate the new playing field.

But the lesson came at a cost.

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3 comments
Bradford Ashington
Bradford Ashington

yet, u gave enough of a shit to post, didn't ya? and don't believe for a sec ur turd smells like roses because it doesn't....fail

Sabrina Sutherland
Sabrina Sutherland

You have two people in this picture I could give two shits about and didn't someone flush Perez Hilton down the toilet 5 years ago?

 

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