In the high-stakes celebrity fatcat imbroglio between Tom Cruise and Sumner Redstone that currently has picked up in Hollywood where Mel Gibson’s tequila-soaked highway career pileup left off, it’s hard to beat the movie star for sheer folly. It’s almost unfair, actually. Cruise is good-looking, famous and successful, and he is devoted to a religion conceived by a failed science fiction writer that believes space aliens who contain countless numbers of your past lives are floating around prepared to destroy everything you hold dear unless you turn over all your possessions and dress like a sailor.
Advantage, Thetan Tom.
Yet in the interests of fairness, let’s consider the old goat’s case. And I do so with all appropriate sensitivity and the full knowledge that someday I too might lose my marbles and publicly say something dopey enough to invite a deluge of assisted-care pamphlets in the mail.
First, Redstone is Jewish. He’s one of the highest-profile members of the entertainment community. He didn’t make a peep during the whole Mel Gibson mess. He didn’t lend his prominent voice to the many critics who publicly flogged Gibson for his anti-Semitic remarks. And yet, he cited Cruise’s “behavior” as a reason to sever their business arrangement. I believe that shows where Redstone’s priorities lie.
Also, while Redstone is perceived as a titan of big business, a mover and a shaker, a man who survived the jungle of corporate culture with cunning and guile and ingenuity, Cruise is considered by many to be merely a pretty boy actor who got lucky.
But Cruise is actually the self-made man, because in order to get where he did, he had to follow the tortured actor’s path from humiliation and bad scripts to adulation and bad scripts. Redstone’s road was made smoother when daddy handed him a chain of theaters to run. By becoming head of a conglomerate, Redstone had to work himself all the way up from head of a corporation.
As such, it’s important for Redstone to act like a chief executive. There’s a certain weight to the position. His conduct reflects upon the entire operation, down to the lowliest stockholder. Dignity is of the utmost importance. It’s a little like the expectation for the President of the United States to act presidential. Well, maybe that’s a bad example, but you get the drift.
When Paramount and Cruise/Wagner, the production company run by both Cruise and partner Paula Wagner, decided to end their long relationship, Redstone told the Wall Street Journal: “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.” While everyone assumes he meant the Oprah couch romp and the trashing of shrinks and antidepressants in a Matt Lauer interview and all the Katie Holmes moopie-schmoopie, the “recent conduct” Redstone really refers to here is the fact that “Mission: Impossible III” grossed just under $400 million worldwide and not the $591 million raked in by “War of the Worlds.”
That kind of conduct is unacceptable at Viacom.
But Redstone should have kept his lip buttoned. This was, after all, just a business negotiation that fell apart. Cruise had an incredible sweetheart deal at Paramount that allowed him to make movies and share significantly in the grosses. These days, however, stars are fading as earners. Redstone detected mad cow disease in this particular cash cow, and decided to have it exiled. Belt-tightening is happening all around the movie business, and even anorexic celebs are feeling the pinch. That’s life in corporate America.
By verbally paddling Cruise in the media, Redstone comes off as 1) a doddering ingrate who brusquely ignored the many millions the actor brought in to Paramount’s coffers over the years so he could justify the company’s sudden fiscal clampdown, and 2) an egomaniac who wants to make sure the world knows that even though he already has one foot in the cemetery, he can still beat up Ethan Hunt.
But wait. It gets worse.
Wagner predictably came out swinging in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, describing Redstone’s comment as “graceless” and “undignified” and asked, “What is he trying to do? Is this how you treat artists?” Rick Nicita, Cruise’s agent at CAA — who happens to be married to Wagner — said money wasn’t really the issue here. “What this says about Paramount is self-evident,” he said. “It was graceless and it was shocking and offensive.”
Even though they both stand to lose oodles of money from Cruise’s fall and therefore have an obvious agenda here, they’re still right.
Instead of easing off and smoothing over, Redstone handed the matter over to a flak. Wagner claims she and Cruise will continue making movies independently using money from hedge funds and that they were ready to dump Paramount anyway. That brought a response from Redstone mouthpiece Carl Folta to a reporter: “Did they give you a name?”
Did they give you a name? Are these high-level corporate executives, or are they Missy and Tammi dissing a rival clique in the cafeteria? I know Paramount released “Mean Girls,” but I didn’t realize it was based on Sumner and Carl.
The bottom line here is the bottom line. If Cruise’s next picture breaks box office records — which it could; the William Goldman Hollywood mantra “Nobody knows anything” reminds us that the decision-makers have no clue whether a star will remain up or down, and never have — then Redstone would volunteer at a Scientology information tent in order to wade anew in the Cruise/Wagner revenue stream.
As for now, fans who yearn for Tom Cruise’s visage will have to settle instead for Sumner Redstone’s snarky barbs. No wonder box office is way down.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. He lives in Los Angeles.