How the internet killed Tom Cruise

America's last movie star sealed his fate on Oprah's couch

How the internet killed Tom Cruise
Kevin Scanlon

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.

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.

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.

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34 comments
misaoudia
misaoudia

I'm not an Oprah fan or a Tom Cruise fan, so I never saw the YouTube video until now.  That was one weird meltdown.  

Sarah Cleary
Sarah Cleary

Scientology ruined Tom Cruise. I don't care how many couches he jumped or didn't jump on.

Forrest Cahoon
Forrest Cahoon

... because, thanks to the Internet, we all know how vicious and evil the cult of Scientology is, and don't want to support anyone who enthusiastically endorses it? I don't spend my life thinking about actors, but if Tom Cruse's career is going down the tubes, that's less money he will give to the Church of Scientology to be spent spying on, suing, and generally making life miserable for Scientology's critics. So, good. The Internet is working.

Yana Borisov
Yana Borisov

I like the article, it's well written and gives me an overview of the history of the internet and internet's gossip mechanisms.

Kyle J. Holman
Kyle J. Holman

I don't like him as an actor. Really he doesn't have any emotional diversity.

Darlene Eliopoulos
Darlene Eliopoulos

I like Tom Cruise. I don't care if he did jump on the couch. I watched that day. Big deal. Like his films any way.

Ryan Wachtel
Ryan Wachtel

I'm ashamed I even started reading this article.

ruggaby
ruggaby

Truly well-written and well-reported story. Tabloid journalism has been an infection of journalism since Pulitzer and Hearst, and Cruise - like any person - deserves more understanding and less judgment than headlines and internet memes permit.

Still, the discrimination and intolerance of Scientology should not go unmentioned in an article that defends the honor of one of its most ardent supporters. Most of what Amy Nicholson reported is enlightening and critically accurate, but more objectivity could be warranted regarding Cruise's affiliation with that Ponzi-religious institution.

PutzWithTheMutz
PutzWithTheMutz

This is SUCH BULLS*&^. Did the author even watch the original? IT DID HAPPEN. The man jumps on the couch multiple times in the original airing, like a lunatic, and as other commentators are saying. He then practically assaults Oprah multiple times by pressing her hands and tugging on her shoulders, and, multiple times, makes his strange touch down gestures. MULTIPLE TIMES! IF you believe this article you DESERVE to be fooled by the internet. What a machine. What a tool. Then again, if you believe anything on CityPages you deserve to be fooled by the Internet.

DawnH
DawnH

Really he did this to himself. Hes not a great actor, he was a great star; there is a difference. He works hard, but his ego stunts him.from ever becoming a great actor. I guess I'm an acting snob. This article just dismayed me, it didnt persuade me. Yuck.

James477
James477

Um... I had to go back and watch the clip again on YouTube, and he most certainly does act like a lunatic. He did JUMP up on the couch and back down, they laugh hysterically, get up and pace around a few times while laughing like a madman, get down on his knee and do an arm pump a few times... I had just about gotten over this, but you made me watch it again and it's so... disturbing.

thoughts
thoughts

he could save his career by sitting down with someone spilling all the stuff scientology has on him and then telling everyone he's leaving scientology. 

eyetod
eyetod

playing a samurai killed tom cruise. 


Carlos Xavier
Carlos Xavier

This newspaper only works to pick up my dog's poop!!!

Raj Airque
Raj Airque

Say what u want about the man as a person, but his does make good movies 90% of the time.

Nell Gelhaus
Nell Gelhaus

Buzzfeed promoted this article already? Still, a good read.

Angela Robinson
Angela Robinson

He's smarter than Hollywood wants its fans to believe.

Quinn Thomas
Quinn Thomas

I just looked it up and watched him jump on the couch. Why does this article say that didn't happen???

Len Mark
Len Mark

Com Truise >> Tom Cruise

ruggaby
ruggaby

@PutzWithTheMutz Dude, are you seriously judging a person by a five-minute video from one of the most scrutinized, mass-audienced television shows in history? Your derision of Tome Cruise is implicitly supporting the hack journalism of Perez Hilton, TMZ, and any other paparazzi-nourishing tabloid outlet.

You're allowed to not like Cruise, but who gives a flying f**k if he jumped on a couch cushion? How may ass-brained things have you or I done that we had the great fortune of NOT being on TV or repeated across the worldwide web?

The whole Scientology debacle should be looked into well before making any comment on his appearance on Oprah-freaking-Winfrey. Who cares? 

PutzWithTheMutz
PutzWithTheMutz

Because Amy Nicholson is the chief film critic at L.A. weekly and her book Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor will be published in July by Phaidon Press. Ms. Nicholson clearly has an agenda to push with the book or support for the book depends on ... OR ....



jason.dorweiler
jason.dorweiler topcommenter

You must read the article to get what the author is saying. Its the line that gets the reader to continue reading...it worked on me, ahhhh!

PutzWithTheMutz
PutzWithTheMutz

@ruggaby @PutzWithTheMutz Dude, I'm not judging anybody. And I would be inclined to agree with your statement on the "scientology debacle." My issue is with the article being a BLATANT LIE. I don't care whether Tom Cruise is a lunatic, a normal human being, or a space alien. What I found disgusting about the article is that it is blatant mistruth... "It never happened." Ugh.

 
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