Pop Culture

Once-aloof Cruise now spoofed

Tom Cruise remains one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, but since his manic, couch-hopping appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” last month, he also has leaped to the forefront of celebrity punch lines.

The 42-year-old actor has become the butt of jokes from late-night television comedians, tabloid columnists, Internet spoof artists and pranksters in the midst of promoting one of this summer’s most heavily publicized films.

Cruise drew the kind of attention most celebrities go out of their way to avoid in late May when he spent the better part of an hourlong interview with Winfrey giddily professing his love for actress Katie Holmes, 26.

Footage of the twice-married Cruise on “Oprah,” jumping on the guest sofa, dropping to one knee to pump his fist and ushering Holmes on stage to declare, “I love this woman!” has been played repeatedly. Bootleg copies were selling on eBay for $20.

The interview triggered suspicions of a shameless publicity stunt to promote his new film, “War of the Worlds,” and hers, “Batman Begins.” The two upped the ante weeks later with a Paris news conference to announce their engagement.

The couple got engaged at the Eiffel Tower just two months after revealing their relationship. No wedding date has been announced.

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson called the romance an unintentionally hilarious act of “frantic, naked desperation.”

“It’s a sign of the celebrity-market bubble that a bona fide, top-gun movie star has to make such a spectacle of himself just to stand out from the crowd. There’s such a glut of celebrities that they’ll soon have to begin storing the surplus in silos in Iowa,” he wrote.

Adding to the controversy has been Cruise’s recent intense public discussions of his belief in Scientology, the church founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, including criticism of actress Brooke Shields for revealing that she had taken antidepressants.

In a testy exchange on NBC’s “Today” show Friday, Cruise called psychiatry a “pseudo science” and told co-host Matt Lauer: “You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”

Blank slateCruise’s behavior has ignited speculation that he might damage his image and undermine the success of his movies.

“He needs to remain enough of a blank slate that we can forget about him as a person when we see his movies,” said Marty Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor of communications. “Whether we can still suspend disbelief, or whether all we can think about while watching him act is L. Ron Hubbard and Oprah will be measured by his movie’s grosses.”

The fallout also has begotten a kind of open season of snickers rare for a movie star of Cruise’s stature, putting him into a category of big-game celebrity prey recently occupied by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck.

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“Tom and Katie got engaged on Friday and, once again, the media somehow found out about it,” late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel said on his show last week. “If we promise to go see ‘War of the Worlds,’ will you please make this stop?”

In Britain, a group of TV pranksters squirted Cruise in the face with water when he stepped up to a faux microphone. They were arrested and an apology was issued, but film clips of the incident circulated on the Internet.

Separately, a short Internet spoof on the “Oprah” interview, titled “Tom Cruise Kills Oprah,”  shows the actor jumping out of his seat to clasp hands with Winfrey, shooting simulated bolts of electric current into her body as he laughs madly.

Another Web site was hawking “Free Katie” T-shirts, stickers and coffee mugs.

Allan Mayer of the Hollywood “crisis P.R. firm” Sitrick & Co., said Cruise’s recent soul-baring reflects his decision to cast off the carefully controlled “packaging” that publicists provide most stars.

By firing long-time personal publicist Pat Kingsley and replacing her with his sister, Mayer said, Cruise “has decided, ‘I’m not going to be very carefully groomed when I speak in public. ‘I’m going to speak my mind ... and let the chips fall where they may.”’

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