The age of celebrity: A little squirt (Or: Why do we all hate Tom Cruise?)

When the Hollywood star was targeted by a reporter with a water pistol at a London premiere this weekend, he responded with indignation. Was he afraid that his carefully constructed image would suffer - or is it unfair that he should have to put up with such a prank? By Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent Online

If Tom Cruise's life was a movie scripted by publicists (and there are those convinced that it is) here is how the story would go: The world's most successful male film star - dashing, sexy, energetic, focused, youthful, charming, and not nearly as short as all those cruel journalists keep insisting - continues to glide from one stellar project to another.

If Tom Cruise's life was a movie scripted by publicists (and there are those convinced that it is) here is how the story would go: The world's most successful male film star - dashing, sexy, energetic, focused, youthful, charming, and not nearly as short as all those cruel journalists keep insisting - continues to glide from one stellar project to another.

His critically lauded turn as a cold-hearted hitman in last year's Collateral is followed up by a fab turn in this summer's sure-fire blockbuster, Steven Spielberg's remake of The War of the Worlds, which then segues into the third installment of the Mission Impossible series (whose production start date, 18 July, has taken on the sort of totemic weight usually associated with successful revolutions in Latin American dictatorships).

The superstar's personal life, meanwhile, continues to be an ever-replenishing fountain of beauty, happiness and magazine-cover photo ops. After the failure of his marriage to Nicole Kidman, he moves on to a euphonious four-year association with the Spanish actress Penelope Cruz. And now, just in time for the summer season, he conducts a whirlwind romance with Katie Holmes who, despite being 18 years his junior and a native of the distinctly unsexy town of Toledo, Ohio, is apparently the object of the sort of unbounded passion usually associated with hormone-addled teenagers.

Tom pops the question atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris, immediately announces the good news to a cheering press corps in the City of Lights - with Katie, fat diamond ring on her finger, in blushing attendance - then rushes off on a whirlwind tour of Europe's glamorous cities.

Now, let's imagine that this is indeed a script, that Tom Cruise is not a flesh-and-blood human being so much as a fictional construct whose handlers are forever thinking of ways for him to conform to his public role as the World's Biggest Male Celebrity. And let's imagine that you, dear reader, are invited to pronounce on this script's viability as it goes into production in the great global publicity marketplace. Could you buy it? Or is it altogether too slick, too packaged, too nauseatingly improbable?

Well, the production of Tom Cruise: The Movie is in full swing and the response, at least so far, appears to be a resounding thumbs-down. Cruise's hosing by a prank television crew at the London premiere of War of The Worlds on Sunday was the latest of many indications in the past few weeks that the public is not buying the story.

Cruise was doused in water from a fake microphone, brandished by a member of a camera team from Channel Four which was working on a new comedy programme. His response was restrained but indignant: "Why would you do that. That's incredibly rude. You're a jerk."

But though the star kept his cool, the stunt will have been heartily applauded by those who are beginning to tire of Cruise's endless self-promotion

In Hollywood, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who believes the romance with Katie Holmes is anything but a sham designed to generate publicity for both of them (her summer blockbuster, Batman Begins, having just been released in the US a few weeks ahead of War of the Worlds.) The industry scuttlebutt on last Friday's impromptu engagement is that it was merely Cruise and Holmes' way of making an excessively sceptical world believe they really, really are in love. Who, after all, gets engaged on the spur of the moment and calls a press conference a mere two hours later to announce the news?

It is, of course, possible that everything Cruise and co have been telling us is genuine, and all the rest no more than the warped product of cynical, hostile minds. But the scepticism has never been far from the surface, ever since Cruise and Holmes announced they were an item in April. And it blossomed into expressions of open disbelief and derision after Cruise's now-notorious appearance on Oprah Winfrey's chat show in May, in which he jumped up on the furniture, punched his fists in the air and declared his undying love for his new girlfriend. The whole thing looked like an amateur-hour audition in which an uncertain and inexperienced performer is plainly unaware of the degree to which he is over-acting.

To the studio executives and private consultants who make their living crafting celebrity images, all the better to lure bottoms on to cinema seats, the problem was not that Cruise might be trying to posit the existence of a love affair that was really no more than a business arrangement (something he and his handlers have repeatedly, and vehemently, denied.) The problem was that by making the case so unconvincingly he risked ripping down the entire curtain concealing Hollywood's frequently shameless publicity-making machinery.

"You can easily imagine how the deal was set up," one publicity executive at a major studio said. "She is told she will be turned into a major star in the next five years. In exchange, she is expected to play the perfect partner and do the other things he asks, like convert to Scientology. Perhaps they will get married. Perhaps they'll even adopt a kid ...

"The entertainment press will go along with it because they don't have a choice. Nobody will ask any questions they are not supposed to ask, because they know that would be the immediate end of their access to Tom Cruise, or any other Hollywood celebrity. Everyone has to make a living, to pay the mortgage and feed their children."

The executive spoke these words before the water-squirting episode, which perhaps highlighted more than anything that went before that someone out there has less than total respect for Tom Cruise and the adoration fest he is conducting. Granted, there may have been little that was noble or uplifting about the prank, perpetrated by they players behind an upcoming Channel 4 series, Grand Classics, in which all manner of celebrities from Paris Hilton to Sharon Osbourne get squirted with water, just for the fun of it.

From the television producers' point of view, it may in fact have been a colossal miscalculation. Cruise's spokespeople were threatening some non-specified form of legal action yesterday, pushing Channel 4 into making a distinctly half-hearted apology and raising the question of whether Grand Classics will get away with squirting any more celebrities.

Quite a bit of the media reaction argued that Cruise actually comported himself with considerable poise - chewing out the pranksters as ungrateful jerks (he was granting them an interview at the time the fake microphone shot water into his face) and wiping himself off before continuing his chit-chat with the crowd more or less unfazed. For the first time in weeks, he proved that he can actually come across in public as though he were actually human - with vulnerabilities, emotions and a certain amount of class too.

The damage to the Cruise publicity machine is nevertheless palpable, and creating an atmosphere of disbelief that is rapidly extending to the rest of the celebrity culture. Take, for example, the other hot romance of the summer - this one undeclared but nevertheless exploited: the match-up of Brad Pitt and his on-screen co-star, Angelina Jolie. The gossip columns are openly wondering whether they are really an item, or whether rumours of their off-screen dalliance were merely a device to attract greater crowds to their summer entertainment Mr and Mrs Smith, in which they play a married pair of professional assassins each given the assignment of eliminating the other.

Elsewhere, it has not gone unnoticed that a number of entertainment-world couples have chosen to cash in on their relationships to keep their names in the papers. Britney Spears' pregnancy and marriage to Kevin Federline has been the subject of a reality TV show that ended its first-season run last week. Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston will try to resuscitate their faltering singing careers later this summer in the similarly candid Being Bobby Brown, rolling out on cable TV at the end of the month.

As The New York Times television critic David Carr wrote sardonically in yesterday's paper: "Romance is not dead in Hollywood. It has just become another profit centre."

Money is, naturally, the back story to everything. It is almost impossible, in fact, not to consider the Cruise-Holmes romance and the Pitt-Jolie smooch rumours without also considering the fact that Hollywood is suffering from its roughest period at the box office in 20 years. Since February, the weekly big-screen revenues have been consistently lower than they were last year - the first time that has happened over so long a stretch since 1985.

One tentpole movie after another has either flopped or failed to live up to expectations - Ridley Scott's Crusades epic, Kingdom of Heaven, the animated extravaganza Madagascar and, most recently, Ron Howard's Depression-era boxing movie Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe. The only bona fide hit of the year has been the final installment in the Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Sith, but that has benefited scarcely anybody except for George Lucas, the writer-director-series creator who bankrolled the whole thing himself and only used Twentieth Century Fox on a contract basis to handle distribution.

What's an increasingly panicky Hollywood to do? Wait and hope that War of the Worlds, Batman Begins, and the summer's other big-budget extravaganzas - a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp, and a film version of the old TV series Bewitched, starring Nicole Kidman - do the kind of box-office business that has been so sorely lacking in recent months? Or try to chivvy things along, with the help of their publicity departments?

If the publicity has been manufactured to some degree, it is certainly beginning to pay off. Batman Begins, in which Holmes plays a secondary role, took in more than $70m in its first five days, a huge improvement on the performance of the last Batman movie, Batman and Robin, in 1997, and the best take from a new move release since Star Wars almost a month ago.

The moral of the story? From a financial point of view, at least, Tom Cruise shouldn't feel too upset about his public drenching. He was, at the end of the day, just taking one for the team.