How YouTube and the Internet Killed Tom Cruise, America's Last Movie Star

How YouTube and the Internet Killed Tom Cruise, America's Last Movie Star
The infamous couch jump.

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 might 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 can probably picture it in your head: Cruise, dressed in head-to-toe black, looming over a cowering Oprah as he jumps like a toddler throwing a tantrum. Cruise bouncing on that couch is one of the touchstones of the last decade, the punch line every time someone writes about his career.

There's just one catch: It never happened.

In May 2005, the same month 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 into 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 real events into 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 best friends Sean Penn and Emilio Estevez, Cruise ditched the flashbulbs 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 was 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."

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.

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, 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 (written by Cameron Crowe, his future Jerry Maguire director).

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 might not exist without Cruise's selfless supporting performances. 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.

But what he didn't do is equally striking: Cruise didn't make an action movie for the first 15 years of his career. Even in Top Gun, he never throws a punch.

"I'd been offered a lot of different kinds of action movies, but nothing really interested me," he explained to Boxoffice magazine in 1996. "I thought I'd seen it before." When he finally did launch an action franchise, that year's Mission: Impossible, he produced it and hired auteur Brian De Palma.

Next Page »

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!