Viral Videos and Gossip Websites Changed America and Took Down Tom Cruise
It was Jason Tugman's first day of work. Almost a decade later, he still remembers the screams.
A former circus fire-eater, he'd taken a job as a lighting technician for The Oprah Winfrey Show after burning off a chunk of his tongue. The pay was $32 an hour and he didn't want to screw it up. But as Tugman carefully hung black curtains in Studio B, directly behind the orange set where Oprah taped, those screams wouldn't stop. The crowd sounded as if it was going to tear the building down.
"I could just hear the audience going absolutely apeshit," Tugman says. "Just the absolute losing of minds." He glanced at a monitor that transmitted a silent, live feed. Tom Cruise was on a couch.
You've seen it, too. You can probably picture it in your head: Tom Cruise, dressed in head-to-toe black, looming over a cowering Oprah as he jumps up and down on the buttermilk-colored couch like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Cruise bouncing on that couch is one of the touchstones of the last decade, the punchline every time someone writes about his career.
There's just one catch: It never happened.
Like Humphrey Bogart saying, "Play it again, Sam," Tom Cruise jumping on a couch is one of our mass hallucinations. But there's a difference. Bogart's mythological Casablanca catchphrase got embedded in the culture before we could replay the video and fact-check. Thanks to the Internet, we have video at our fingertips. Yet rather than correct the record, the video perpetuated the delusion.
In May 2005, the same month that Cruise went on Oprah, the world of celebrity changed. Perez Hilton and the Huffington Post launched, with TMZ right behind them, and the rise of the gossip sites pressured the print tabloids to joining them in a 24-hour Internet frenzy. Camera phones finally outsold brick phones, turning civilians into paparazzi. YouTube was a week old, and for the first time a video could go viral overnight.
The Internet finally had the tools to feed us an endless buffet of fluff, chopping up real events to flashy — and sometimes false — moments that warped our cultural memory. The first star to stumble in front of the knives was the biggest actor in the world — and the one who'd tried the hardest not to trip.
Tom Cruise had always been edgy around the press. When Risky Business turned him — a 21-year-old kid with three bit parts and one flop on his résumé — into an overnight sensation, he disappeared. "I'm not personally ready to do this," he told the film's publicity team. Instead of giving interviews and swanning around Hollywood with his best friends, Sean Penn and Emilio Estevez, Cruise ditched the flash bulbs and escaped to London, where he hid out for two years while filming Ridley Scott's ill-fated Legend. (Sniffed one British director to The Hollywood Reporter, "Nobody would notice a boy with that little experience anywhere in Europe.")
By the time Cruise flew back to America, he'd been half-forgotten — a breakout talent who'd been shortlisted as one of 1983's "Hottest Faces" by the Los Angeles Times, only to vanish. Meanwhile, his buddies had been christened "the Brat Pack," and Penn was marrying Madonna, exactly the kind of splashy spectacle Cruise wanted to avoid.
To promote Top Gun, Cruise finally agreed to his first round of major interviews in 1986. He wanted to make one thing clear. "I want no part of that or this Brat Pack," he insisted to Playboy. "Putting me in there is absolutely absurd, and it pisses me off because I work hard and then some guy just slaps me together with everybody else."
Just 25, Cruise could already sense that quick fame was a curse: for every Robert Downey Jr. who transcended the '80s, there'd be a Judd Nelson, frozen in time.
He didn't want to be a trend — he wanted to be a legend. That meant controlling his public image: no drunken nights, no false moves. The attention had to be on his work. After Top Gun became the No. 1 box office hit of 1986, Paramount offered to quintuple his salary if he'd rush into Top Gun 2. He said no.
Instead, he agreed to play second fiddle to Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. Money versus Money, swagger versus respect. It's the most telling choice in Cruise's career. He seized the chance to learn from, and link himself to, the old-fashioned, closemouthed, serious actor he wanted to become. Forget the new Brat Pack — he'd be the last classic movie star.
"When I get to be Newman's age, I'm looking to still be playing the great characters he plays," Cruise said in his first cover story, for Interview (written by Cameron Crowe, his future Jerry Maguire director).
After The Color of Money, Cruise turned down more leading-man offers to take second billing to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Like Newman the year before, Hoffman won a Best Actor Oscar for the film.
Those awards wouldn't exist without Cruise's selfless supporting performances — Hoffman doesn't even appear on screen for the first 20 minutes of Rain Man. Cruise was proving he had the talent to work with the best, and demonstrating his box office clout. His name on the poster not only got an oddball movie about autism funded; it made it the top-grossing hit of the year. Cruise was the rare star who used his power to make good movies that matter: He could both rescue Born on the Fourth of July from 11 years of development hell and turn in a barnstorming, heartbreaking performance that earned him an Oscar nomination.
But what he didn't do is equally striking. Cruise didn't make an action movie for the first 15 years of his career. Even in Top Gun, he never throws a punch.
"I'd been offered a lot of different kinds of action movies, but nothing really interested me," he explained to Boxoffice Magazine in 1996. "I thought I'd seen it before." He wanted different challenges and different directors — he needed to push himself and grow. When he finally did launch an action franchise, that year's Mission: Impossible, he produced it. (And instead of hiring a fashionable blockbuster helmer such as John McTiernan or Joel Schumacher, he hired auteur Brian De Palma.)
Meanwhile, he kept his private life private. Unlike Penn, no helicopters circled his weddings. When Cruise married Mimi Rogers in 1987, even his agent didn't know. The bride and groom wore jeans. Three years later, when he quietly married Nicole Kidman on Christmas Eve, People dubbed it 1990's "Best-Kept Hollywood Secret."
Around that time, Cruise linked his future with another woman: publicist Pat Kingsley. The media had started asking about his new religion, Scientology, which he claimed had cured his dyslexia. The highly secretive faith fascinated the press. How to field endless questions about his minority beliefs while still charming majority-Christian America? He needed the help of the tough-as-nails Kingsley.
She was adamant about keeping Cruise out of the tabloids. At press junkets, she demanded that journalists sign contracts swearing not to sell their quotes to the supermarket rags. Then Kingsley expanded her reach and insisted that all TV interviewers destroy their tapes after his segment had aired.
Reporters were exasperated, but there wasn't much they could do about it. Kingsley had a slew of other big talents (Meg Ryan, Sandra Bullock, Al Pacino) on her roster. Thanks to media consolidation, she was able to keep the media on track by making only a few phone calls threatening to cut off access. American Media Inc. owned The National Enquirer, National Examiner, The Globe, The Star and The Sun. Time Inc. owned People and Entertainment Weekly, and Wenner Media owned Us Weekly. The eight-headed hydra was easily slain. If the tabloids refused to toe the party line, they could be sued: for claiming Cruise was sterile, that he and Kidman had to hire sex coaches, that he'd seduced a male porn star. He won or settled those cases and gave the proceeds to charity.
But the Internet was about to transform the gossip world. What if the tabloids didn't have eight heads — they had 800?
Mario Lavandeira Jr. loved tabloids. In college, he cut them apart and lined his NYU dorm room with homemade collages of celebrities. "I had a lot of Leonardo DiCaprio, like every girl," he admits.
Lavandeira — better known by his pseudonym, Perez Hilton — wasn't tech-savvy. His apartment in L.A., where he'd moved after graduation, didn't even have Wi-Fi.
But blogging software had just hit the tipping point, where anyone could have an online voice. In the course of 2005, the number of blogs skyrocketed from 10 million to 25 million. The majority were online diaries written for an average audience of seven people. Hilton didn't want to talk about himself, a young, single, gay man who'd just been fired from E! for saying something mean about former supermodel Janice Dickinson. He wanted to gossip about celebrities.
"People didn't really use the Internet to talk about celebrity news," Hilton says with lingering amusement. "In fact, the celebrity magazines like People and US Weekly didn't even use their own websites to talk about celebrity news back in 2005. They just used their websites as a way to get subscriptions, like, 'Go here to sign up to get a subscription.' It was all about the print. They were not about breaking news online."
Hilton's timing was perfect. From his table at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Sunset Boulevard, he could publish stories in minutes — not days — and trump the print tabloids that had spent decades playing softball with publicists.
"Because it was all so new, celebrities were behaving differently," Hilton says. Like rabbits stumbling into a snare, they and their handlers realized too late that no space was a safe space. Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and, yes, Paris Hilton were making headlines every day. "Send us your hot dirt!" Hilton's website pleaded.
Armed with cellphone cameras, his readers did just that.
Hilton's first effort, PageSixSixSix.com, grew so fast that, six months after he began blogging, the New York Post threatened to sue him for infringing on its "Page Six" trademark. In May 2005, he debuted PerezHilton.com. Two of his first stories that month announced that his just-carved niche was about to get more crowded: the Huffington Post and a U.S. version of OK! were launching. "Things are gonna get a little bit bloody," his post foretold.
Hilton had already nicknamed Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie "Brangelina" ("It was just such a long time ago that people don't remember," he sighs). When Cruise coupled with Katie Holmes, Hilton was thrilled to have another massive romance to flog. TomKat went public on April 27, and PerezHilton.com embraced their relationship with exuberant cynicism. Wrote Hilton, "We can't get enough of the TomKat show because eventually the paint will start to chip and we will hopefully see all the ugliness as openly as we've been shoved the lovey-dovey bullshit."
With gossip sites mushrooming like a nuclear cloud, Kingsley's fear tactics no longer worked — in fact, she wasn't even around to wield them. She'd spent a decade and a half shielding Cruise from questions about his religion. But as Scientology increasingly drew fire from the media, Cruise seemed to have decided to be more vocal about defending his beliefs. When he sought to promote Scientology on his press tour for The Last Samurai in 2003, Kingsley later told The Hollywood Reporter, she told him to cool it. A year later, in March 2004, he ended their professional relationship, replacing Kingsley with a fellow Scientologist, his sister, Lee Anne De Vette.
As then-In Touch editor Tom O'Neil told Variety in 2004: "Tom's sis doesn't have Pat's secret weapons. She can't nuke a media outlet's access to other A-list celebs if a journalist doesn't bathe Tom in honey." And even if De Vette did, for Perez Hilton and the bloggers, access didn't matter. They had no pretensions of scoring an interview with Tom Cruise. They wanted web hits.
When their faster, meaner formula worked, the old guard was forced to follow suit. In May, People's blog, then a half-hearted affair, ran seven stories about Tom Cruise. In June, it ran 25.
"The rise of the Internet changed how I do my job," says veteran publicist Joy Fehily, who was mentored by Kingsley. "Everything started changing at once, and the conversation moved a lot faster." Instead of having a week to handle a photo running in the next National Enquirer, suddenly Fehily could walk out of a meeting to discover that a breaking news story had spread online before she'd had a chance to shape it.
Fehily found herself spending less time coaching her clients about how (and whether) to do interviews, and more time coaching them how to live their lives. "I just remember having to explain to clients how nothing is private anymore," she says. "It's about walking down the street as a normal person because everybody has the ability to take your picture, to catch you doing something." (Political blogs, which had arisen the year before during the presidential race, had already taught candidates the destructive power of the Internet — remember Howard Dean's scream?)
By comparison, TV seemed safe. When Cruise went on Oprah in May 2005, he and De Vette surely imagined most viewers would see the show live.
"Viral video was a very difficult thing to pull off," says Andy Baio, a Portland, Oregon-based writer and coder who would go on to help build Kickstarter. Before the summer of 2005, in order to watch a clip online, you had to download it and hope it worked with the software on your computer. Most people didn't bother: Video downloads were slow and risky. What if you were accidentally downloading a virus?
Plus, there was no cash benefit to spreading a video. If a video caught on, its host could actually lose money.
"At the time, if you wanted to host a video, you had to have a server and you had to have bandwidth, and even then it could be challenging," Baio explains. "You could only host so much, and if something got so popular that you exceeded it, you had to pay per gig[abyte], and it could get really expensive." Early bloggers would stop hosting videos because they couldn't afford it, leaving the Internet littered with broken links that added to would-be viewers' frustration.
Baio's site, waxy.org, had a terabyte of bandwidth. At the end of a month, he'd see how many gigs he could spare and do what he'd call a Bandwidth Blowout, and host something that geeks would like. He found a nerd swinging a golf club retriever like a light saber and dubbed him "Star Wars Kid"; he was the first to put Danger Mouse's Jay Z/Beatles mash-up, The Grey Album, online.
Baio's uploads went viral because he realized that online video needed infrastructure: To make sure his links always worked, he set up a script connecting his content to mirror sites that would share the traffic. He was trying to tame the Internet.
But suddenly, in the spring of 2005, he didn't have to.
"YouTube changed everything," Baio says. He could upload a video to YouTube's servers and people could watch it in their browsers: no downloads, no long waits, no plug-ins, no bandwidth fears, no cost. "That was mind-blowing," Baio says. Now bloggers — like him, like Perez Hilton — could share videos without even sending their readers off their site.
Neither Tom Cruise nor Oprah was likely aware of YouTube when he agreed to tape an episode in early May. The site's first video, "Me at the Zoo," had only been uploaded a few weeks before. Even Baio didn't hear about YouTube until June 14. "Wants to be Flickr for video," he wrote on his blog.
A week later, Baio hosted another funny video he found on a private sharing site, a short mash-up of Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Cruise's appearance on Oprah, two pop culture jokes from that May. Dubbed "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah," the movie star cackles in slow-motion as he blasts the talk-show host with a jolt of Jedi lightning. Baio thought the video was "awesome." He put it online and, just as "Star Wars Kid" had before, it blew up.
This time, however, it wasn't just the geeks linking to his video — it was MSNBC and USA Today.
"It's hard to imagine now, but six months before I posted that Tom Cruise video, that viral spread was practically impossible," Baio says. "That was a pivotal point, 2005."
A weird thing happens when people watch a viral video. In catching up with a cultural touchstone, the clip everyone's talking about at the water cooler, we assume we're on top of the whole story. After all, we've seen what everyone else has seen. Whatever gets edited out isn't part of the conversation.
Tom Cruise and Oprah talked on TV for 43 minutes. "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah" was 15 seconds. Even the longer YouTube clips of Cruise on Oprah's couch clock in at only four minutes. Yet it was the latter two that were shared, discussed and remembered.
With all context gone, we're judging soundbites of Cruise on a screen. We forget he was experiencing a live, long and loud interaction — a literal stage performance before a raucous crowd.
Harpo Studios seats 300 audience members, all of whom answered a questionnaire months before, listing their favorite actors. The show's producers try to match up their spectators with their guests. It's a recipe for good TV. "They want the bat-shit people," Tugman explains. "All those people that were in there were most likely picked because they're Tom Cruise fanatics."
That's why Tugman could hear their screams from the next studio over. It was his first day on the job, but during the next 200 episodes, it was the loudest audience he'd ever hear except for the crowd for George Clooney.
If you track down the full Tom Cruise episode on YouTube — only one user from Spain has bothered to upload it across four videos, thanks to the site's roughly 10-minute cap — the room is deafening. Oprah's first words to the live audience are, "OK. Let me just say you all are going to have to calm yourselves." They don't. They're on their feet jumping up and down. She has to ask them to settle down twice more before Cruise even walks onstage, and then the screams get even louder. Oprah starts screaming, too. If you listen closely, you can hear Cruise says, "Wow! Is it like this every day?" "No," Oprah says, shaking her head. After a full minute goes by, Oprah starts to look annoyed. "It's too much," she commands the audience. "Sit down, sit down."
Like a gladiator at the Coliseum, Cruise plays to that screaming room. When a fan in the crowd pumps both his fists in the air, Cruise pumps his back. When kneeling on the floor makes the audience holler, he simply keeps doing it.
"The energy in that room was just pandemonium, and that had to enable him," Tugman says. "He could be thinking, 'Oh, I'm making such a great example of how much I'm actually in love, I'm going to take it further and further and further.'"
Cruise also was playing to the daytime TV viewers at home, predominantly female like the studio audience. He flatters them. He brings up being raised by women, how he loves to treat women right. The women wanted to hear that he was in love, and Cruise — who had just been anointed the 3rd Greatest Movie Star of All Time by Premiere magazine, beating out Paul Newman at No. 6 — was finally ready to loosen up and tell them.
Oprah was thrilled. Cruise was giving his first unchecked TV interview, well, ever. She ups the energy by getting physical, ruffling his hair with both hands and grabbing his legs and arms as she presses him with personal questions about his public girlfriend of a month: Is it love, will he marry her, has he asked her father, does he want more children? She clutches both of Cruise's hands, pulls her face close to his, and asks if he will propose to Katie Holmes today. Cruise gives a reasonable answer, "I've got to discuss it with her," and Oprah leans back, disappointed.
When Cruise finally stands and grabs her shoulders — the moment that was remixed into "Tom Cruise Kills Oprah" — it's while jokingly begging if they can talk about his new movie, War of the Worlds.
It's a performance reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated role six years earlier as Magnolia's Frank T.J. Mackey. In that film, Mackey gets into a showdown with a pushy interviewer and deflects questions by showboating. When Mackey gets antsy, he does a backflip in his underwear. When Cruise doesn't want to say if he's marrying Holmes, he distracts attention by falling to one knee — a crowd-pleasing move Mackey stole from Elvis.
Neither he nor Oprah thought they were about to tape something that would have a life that stretched far, far beyond the people who watched her show on May 23. The crew didn't, either. After the interview, they didn't gossip about Cruise — they went to the season wrap party, where Oprah gave everyone a trip to Hawaii.
"There really was no water cooler talk," Tugman says. It wasn't until after the show aired that Tugman realized he'd been a witness to pop culture history: Tom Cruise scaring Oprah by jumping on a couch. Says Tugman, "I heard about it as more of an Internet thing and was like, 'Oh my God, I was there for that.'"
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.
Building up to 2005, Cruise had tackled some of the most challenging dramas of any actor of his generation: Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky. Even his popcorn flicks — Minority Report, Collateral, War of the Worlds — were intriguingly dark. He'd never played it safe or shot a cash-grab. He trusted that if he chose movies he believed in, the audience would follow. And he was right.
Post-2005, we've lost out on the audacious films that only Hollywood's most powerful and consistent star could have convinced studios to greenlight. Cruise was in his mid-40s prime — the same years when Newman made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting — and here he was lying low, like the kid who'd run away to London. Imagine the daring roles that he hasn't dared to pursue. Cruise's talent and clout were responsible for an unparalleled string of critical and commercial hits. We gave that up for a gif.
Like an insistent heart monitor, the box office numbers continually prove Cruise is alive, but even he seems to have been convinced of his own premature demise. He'd finally opened up and been harshly punished. Cruise closed ranks, retreating not just from the press but also from his own personal career ambitions. He made fewer films, tried fewer challenges. He wanted us to love him again.
When Cruise's cameo as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder was a hit, instead of daring to think we might embrace him in another comedy, he cautiously considered only a Les Grossman sequel. And when Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol was deemed his comeback (not that he'd ever made a flop — even Knight & Day earned its money back), he decided that audiences wanted only one version of Tom Cruise: the action hero he'd never wanted to become. He's even said yes to Top Gun 2.
Cruise's present-day, crowd-pleasing action crutch hasn't been bad. He's given every film his all, and some of them have been quite good.
His latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is ambitious fun. Cruise plays Lt. Col. Bill Cage, a smooth-talking, cowardly Army recruiter forced to fight on the front lines of mankind's make-or-break battle against alien species the Mimics. No one expects him to live more than a few minutes. And he doesn't.
But Edge of Tomorrow's high-concept twist is that, to his surprise, every time Cruise is killed, time resets and he wakes up the day before the battle, alive and eager to try again until he gets it right. It's an energetic blockbuster that balances Wile E. Coyote cartoon hijinks with his painful, unending martyrdom. It's also a nifty parallel to Cruise himself: the last great screen hero who refuses to die.
It won't earn him an Oscar, but maybe Cruise still has time. After all, Newman won his Oscar at 61.
Amy Nicholson is the chief film critic at L.A. Weekly. Her book Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor will be published in July by Cahiers du Cinema/Phaidon Press.
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