Cruise and the cult of biography

January 15, 2008
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Yes, it’s the big day. The unauthorized Tom Cruise biography is out.

Guess who won’t be reading it?

For one, a few clicks will get you all the couch-jumping, the Scientology, the wild rumors, and the rest that you could possibly want. has even offered a quick guide to the juicy bits HERE. Why pay for the book?

For another, author Andrew Morton has written books on Princess Diana, the Beckhams, Madonna and Monica Lewinsky. ‘nuff said.

While I’m passing on the Cruise book, though, I am interested in how we, as audience members, react to biographical knowledge of those who create.

In other words, are you less likely to spend your money on a Tom Cruise movie because of what you think of him as a person?

Evidence indicates that that might be the case. The last two years haven’t been great for Cruise in the media—and the take of his movies at the box office seem to reflect that. This year’s “Lions for Lambs” grossed less than $15 million according to Box Office Mojo, the lowest numbers for a Cruise film since 1983’s “Losin’ It.”

And while “Mission: Impossible III” grossed $134 million, that’s a significant drop off from the $215 million raked in by “MI: II.” We’ll have more evidence when “Valkyrie,” about a plot to assassinate Hitler, is released later this year. (See the numbers HERE.

So has—and should—off-screen, off-page or off-canvas behavior influenced your feelings toward the work of artists or entertainers? Does Charlie Chaplin’s 17-year-old bride, Paul Gauguin’s abandoning of his wife and five kids, Mel Gibson’s drunken rant or the backgrounds of many a prison poet affect your appreciation of their work?

Your thoughts?
  • History usually sorts out those with significant artistic contributions, and their personality flaws tend to subside as the personalities fade and their works live on. Of course, some of the flaws haunt even the memories of the artists, like Van Gogh's impromptu surgery or Lord Byron's sexual rapacity. But over time some of these flaws become part of the charm of the portrait of the artist, reinforcing the belief that artists tend to be eccentric. This is, of course, not even close to being true of all artists.

    Less charming (or downright repellent) traits also tend to subside with time. (It's hardly common knowledge now that Geoffrey Chaucer may have been involved in the rape of a young woman in the 1300s.) Of course, sometimes they find their way into the artist's work in ways that must be dealt with - such as, arguably, Wagner's anti-Semitism, or James Cameron's unhealthy obsession with the color blue. (<--Joke.)

    Of course, we're living in a time when the minutest details of celebrity life are thrust in front of us in unprecedented detail, so it's almost hard not to know too much about the people we're watching, reading, or listening to, unless you actively avoid such information. (I do.)

    And, of cousre, we're usually not even witnessing gossip about the great artists of our time either. While working out last night, I was subjected last night to a reality show about Scott Baio, of all people, in which viewers are given a candid and wholly repulsive portrait of the private life of a childish, self-absorbed B-list has-been. Of course, the probability of me buying full seasons of Charles in Charge on DVD was pretty well in negative territory anyway, so he hasn't hurt his market standing here. :-)
  • I won't be buying the book, but neither will I be anxiously awaiting Mr. Cruise's next movie. His attack on women who turned to medically accepted help for post partem depression has turned me off. I don't care about his religion or his marriage or his sexual preference. He's not a good enough actor for my brain to allow me to transcend his arrogance. His PR ploys to put those actions out of the public mind have just solidifie them.

    While I still (guiltily) scan the tabloids as I wait in the grocery line, I can't bring myself to pay for that crap either.
  • For some time, one of my favorite authors has been science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. I don't typically read the genre, but I love the man's work and his brilliance. He is reputed to be something of a cranky a**hole, something he wholly admits to. When asked about it, he said that readers/viewers/consumers need to separate the artist from the art. That yes, he's rude, short-tempered, etc. but if you like his writing, what does it matter? I find some of Woody Allen's personal life choices bizarre and unsavory, but I still love his work and will happily watch Mighty Aphrodite again.

    Unfortunately for Mr. Cruise, I've never liked him or his work. The only film of his I can stand watching is Legend which he loathes and wishes he'd never made.

    I don't care much about his obsession with Scientology and think he's made a joke out of himself with his ranting and antics. (Tsk tsk, you never should have fired your publicist, Tom, she kept the crazy out of the press for you).
  • The day Cruise told Matt Lauer that you don't know anything about psychiatry; I know everything there is to know about it, was the day I finally quit supporting this ridiculous highschool dropout. His denigration of women who resort to medication in necessary instances still has me steaming. I also do not recognize Scientology as a bona fide church. I read L. Ron Hubbard's book on Dianetecs, which lead to Scientology, and I still remain unimpressed. I do not watch anything with Cruise in it and never will. Just as I still do not support anything Jane Fonda does because of her treasonous treatment toward American POWs during the Vietnam War.
  • Rae,
    I, too, am a fan of Ellison's writing. While his fiction is sometimes deliberately difficult, his writing about television and film has been formulative for me. See his books The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, which collect the television criticism he penned in the late 60s/early 70s for the LA Free Press.
  • Hi Lou,

    In my book collection in the garage (no room in the house), I think I have The Glass Teat as well as The Harlen Ellison Hornbook and Harlen Ellinson's Watching. One of my professors from my film school days, author Stuart Kaminsky, is friends with him and another of my favorite writers, William Goldman. But his fiction, ohhhh, I love the fiction. I might have to dig out The Essential Ellison now ...
  • Rae,
    William Goldman's The Season is essential to any theater-lover's bookshelf. For those unfamiliar, Goldman--who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, and other films--spent a year in the late 60s following the development of every Broadway show that season. Times have changed a bit since then, but the book still holds up very well.

    Brian, etc.,
    It seems to me from your notes that it's easier to hold personality and back story against an actor/performer than it is to do the same to a writer or artist, who is better hidden behind the work. Romon Polanski is another that comes to mind. It's much easier to forget his controversial past when watching The Pianist than it is to forget Woody Allen's when re-watching Manhattan.
  • To answer your question, should biographical/behavioral stuff influence how one feel's about an artist's work? Should' is the operative word - I would say no it should not if that behavior is irrelevant to the execution of the art. That of course assumes that the art is powerful enough to eclipse the artist's own personae. The reality is, I can't look at Cruise's face without seeing a smug pipsqueek. Perhaps that speaks more to the quality of his acting. Funny how that's not the case with real actors who can step out of their own skin to the extent you believe they are the character they play...
  • A lot of the performers who currently make the biggest tabloid headlines are not the ones I care about as artists, so it's tough to say whether their personal lives are harder or easier to deal with than others. (And, as I said, I avoid celeb gossip anyway.) I never bought a Britney Spears album or saw a Lindsay Lohan movie when they were sweet, peppy teenagers, and now that they're depraved junkies, I'm . . . still not interested in them.

    Then again, there are some I take seriously. Russell Crowe has had his share of bad-boy episodes, and I'll go see him at the drop of a hat. (Especially if that hat is the one he wore in 3:10 TO YUMA.) So there's one. But word is that he's cleaned up his act now. Guess there's always good ol' Mel. Religious nut or no, I'll never stop enjoying BRAVEHEART.
  • I first saw Russell Crowe in Focus before he'd started making films in the US and knew instantly he was going to be a big deal. Yeah, he's had his scrapes and I cringed when South Park did their parody of him, but THE WORK was there and it was worth every tabloid headline and joke from my husband to see the next thing he was in.

    As for Mel, for me it comes down to, is this simple bad behavior? or is he off his rocker? If I'd thought that The Passion of the Christ was a good film, I might have given him a little more slack; when your bizarre views start coming through in the work, and the story you're trying to tell becomes a religious snuff film, then I don't need to watch anymore.
  • Hey, you've got to admit, as disturbing as it is (I was really uncomfortable for some time after seeing it), TPOTC is exceptionally well-made. Of course, one could say the same thing about TRIUMPH OF THE WILL.

    Maybe that's a whole other dimension of this discussion . . . what do you do when an acknowledged masterpiece is recognized by a later age (or even its own) as political propaganda, ethically or socially repugnant, or even embarrassingly backward? I'm thinking about works like TRIUMPH, or BIRTH OF A NATION, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (or ALEXANDER NEVSKY), even GONE WITH THE WIND with its rather romanticization of the Old South.

    Those are only examples from the film world of course . . . one might think of others, like the now-problematic rape song from THE FANTASTICKS. (Okay, it's using a different connotation of rape but that nuance is largely lost on modern audiences.) What about Shakespeare's portrayal of the Jew Shylock in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, or of Kate's humiliation in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW? I knew one woman once who thought Shakespeare shouldn't even be performed anymore because of his portrayal of women.

    What are our responsibilities when presenting works of art with such thorny perspective problems attached?
  • You're correct, it's extremely difficult to separate the artwork from its message. I remember seeing Birth of a Nation for the first time in school and it was hard not to be offended by its portrayals, but I was able to concentrate on the revolutionary new filmic language that was being utilized, and see if for the milestone that it was. That doesn't mean I want to watch it again. I've used Battleship Potemkin in my Visual Communication class when I was teaching at IUB to show cross-cutting action, how A+B=a completely new idea, Eisenstein's big advancement.

    Because we can't travel through time, it's impossible to view an artwork through the sensibilities of that time period, though hopefully we know enough about what life was like to keep it in mind. But for every Kate in Shakespeare there's a Beatrice. One could say that Hitchcock was far more mysogenistic, but I think he was really misunderstood. I even wrote a paper once contending that he subjugated women is his films because he was actually enthralled with them, particularly blonde women, and he hated that he was completely in their power. Not being able to extract himself in life, he put them in their place on film. No actress ever made more than four films for him, because he would become so obsessed with them that he tried to control everything they did. None of them would allow it and left.
  • I must say, the whole Scientology angle (thank you South Park) did turn me off of Tom Cruise, although I was never a huge Cruise fan as it was.

    And who has time to read a book these days? haha
  • Has anyone else heard the cast album for A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant?

    And does any Indy theater have the guts to stage it?

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