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Give me back the old Tom Cruise

Former quintessential nice guy now seems like a love-crazed zealot
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Is Tom Cruise’s relationship with Katie Holmes real?

Who knows. What is remarkable, however, is seeing the once hyper-private Cruise literally leaping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch to declare his love for the former “Dawson’s Creek” cutie — a move that smacked of desperation rather than sincerity. It felt like a bird’s eye view of Tom Cruise’s midlife crisis — not pretty. Hasn’t Oprah told the 42-year old that 40 is the new 30? When he finally dragged Holmes out on stage, the girl had the quintessential deer-caught-in-the-headlights look. One can only puzzle over what the 26-year-old starlet thought of Cruise’s display. Heck, what if it turns out she’s “just not that into him”? After all his posturing, he’d be an awfully hard guy to break up with. Looking at it with a jaded eye, the whole thing came off like the extreme-sports version of a publicity stunts. But was it?

Strange behavior seems to be normal behavior for Tom Terrific these days. In addition to mooning over Holmes, Cruise suddenly can’t seem to stop talking about Scientology. He recently chastised actress Brooke Shields for using prescription drugs to help overcome her post-partum depression. In his “Access Hollywood” interview, when Billy Bush asked if former wife Nicole Kidman minded that their kids were being raised as Scientologists, Cruise replied that she did not mind because she was not a “bigot.”

Wait a sec, scoffing at a “religion” like Scientology makes you a bigot? Who is this guy, and what has he done with the real Tom Cruise?

When Cruise split from longtime publicist and guard dog Pat Kingsley and gave her job to his sister Lee Anne DeVette (a fellow Scientologist), everything he’d been holding inside finally came spilling out. We already knew Cruise was a Scientologist, but these days he seems to be actively recruiting. Cruise even had a Scientology tent on the “War of the Worlds” set – which, according to the New York Times, didn’t thrill Universal executives. He may even be jeopardizing “Mission Impossible 3” with his evangelism, which according to the Huffington Post, has been put on hold. Note: this has since been settled.

Behold, the new Cruise
My first taste of the new Cruise came while watching an episode of “Inside the Actors’ Studio.” The ever-effusive James Lipton pointed out that many of Cruise’s characters had absent fathers – such as in “Top Gun” and “A Few Good Men.” Since Cruise’s own father left his family when the star was young, Lipton asked if Cruise drew on his own experience to help him prepare for those roles. “No,” Cruise emphatically replied. He insisted that he simply used imagination to create those characters. OK, but why wouldn’t he draw on those past experiences? Cruise doesn’t need to use his imagination to know what it’s like to be without a father. And yet, he was insistent. He was so vehement in his response; it was as if he refused to believe those bad memories actually existed.

Of course, in the context of his disbelief in psychiatry as a science and his belief prescription drugs used for mental illness are harmful, it starts to make sense. In that context, Cruise becomes a guy who believes he can will things to happen. He can will his painful past to go away, he can will himself into loving Holmes, he can will “War of the Worlds” into making box office magic. And it makes sense; the guy is the most successful movie star around. The power of positive thinking works for him. At least, up until now.

But what seems positive to him may come off as unhinged to his fans. At the end of the “Actors Studio” episode, he talked about L. Ron Hubbard and what Scientology had done for him. Because he was talking to acting students who were there to hear about craft, it seemed completely out of place. And it’s the intensity with which he talks about Scientology that is so unnerving. His true believer zeal is in-your-face in every single interview now. Haven’t we already been through this with Mel Gibson?

Damage control
Is it fair to expect Cruise to behave “normal”? When you’re surrounded by yes-men telling you that every decision you make is correct — and have the millions to prove it — how could you possibly be expected to be normal? Just ask Michael Jackson.

Perhaps what’s disturbing to fans is that for so long Cruise was the ultimate nice guy. My sister has had a crush on him since we were both teenagers. There was something sort of innocuous and asexual about him — the safe guy to inhabit your teen daughters’ fantasies. Except for those pesky rumors that he was gay, he seemed to have almost no baggage — nothing you had to drag into the theater with you when you went to see one of his films.

Some speculate that if the Holmes/Cruise relationship is just a publicity stunt, it’s a way for the 42-year-old Cruise to connect with younger fans. And yet, that doesn’t mesh with the intensity of Cruise’s personality. I get the sense that Cruise acts based on a sincere belief — that it's the only way he knows how to behave. Only Holmes, Kidman, Mimi Rogers and Penelope Cruz know the truth about Cruise’s personal life — and they’re not telling. As for it being a publicity stunt, in the past 10 years, he’s only made two films that haven’t grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. — “Magnolia” and “Eyes Wide Shut.” So why use such extreme measures now to connect to fans? Tom Cruise doesn’t have to will fans into the theater, they’re already coming — especially when Steven Spielberg is at the helm.

It’s hard to say whether Cruise’s outbursts will have a negative effect on his career. Although I shake my head every time he opens his mouth these days, I still want to see “War of the Worlds.” Yet, I’ll never quite be able to see Cruise the same way. It will take more than Cruise’s power of positive thinking to bring back the nice guy with the megawatt smile. Now, he’s the zealot who jumps on Oprah’s couch like a love-crazed monkey and lectures America about our nasty pharmaceutical habits. Can I please have back Joel Goodsen now?