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The first time I saw Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise together, they were kissing. It was London or Paris or Los Angeles, and Cruise, in leather jacket and Risky Business shades, was planting one on his gorgeous new girlfriend. It was that same side-on kiss he always gave Nicole, the one where the chick looks coy and he looks like he’s just won the biggest prize at the fair.


It’s been about five months since Katie emerged as Tom’s new prize. A bit longer since she ended her engagement to Chris Klein and longer still that she stopped dating Josh Hartnett. She’s 26 with her star rising; he’s 43 and has spent much of his career making award-winning films while battling infertility and homosexuality (or asexuality) rumors in the press. But reports that Tom paid Katie $5 million over five years to pretend to adore him, or tried first to make life partners out of Jennifer Garner, Kate Bosworth, and Scarlett Johansson, go too far.


Or do they? Always quick to litigate before, Cruise is now just shaking off these reports. And Katie, well, she only repeats her love and respect for the “most amazing” Tom. Both refuse to appear anything but completely freaking bizarre.


It started, of course, when Cruise jumped up and down on Oprah’s guest couch. Not once, but 58 times (approximately), sliding on his knees and elbow-punching the floor between leaps, struggling to catch his breath as he wailed about his wonderful new girlfriend. Oprah laughed and Tom jumped some more. “The boy is gone!” was all Oprah could say. He kept it up on Leno, and pretty much everywhere else he went, making fun of the crazed moment much like everyone else made fun of it (my favorite was Dane Cook on Jimmy Kimmel Live: “She’s exquisite, she’s so many words in my vernacular”).


He looked nuts, if not about the girl, then in general. He came across as a caricature, like he desperately wants to look in love with his girlfriend, to seem normal. You’ve got to wonder, though, if Tom Cruise even knows what normal looks like. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t fit in. Even when married to Nicole Kidman and playing husband and dad, he was scrutinized by media, frequently in relation to their decision to adopt their children. The gay/infertile/wannabe-monk stories filled the rags again.


Still, prior to the Holmes Affair, Cruise did seem mostly comfortable with his decisions, professional and personal. Even his suits over the sex-coach stories and the Chad Slater’s affair allegations, might have been read as standing up for movie stars in relation to tabloids. Now, he seems without reason, picking odd targets—Brooke Shields (post-partum depression), Matt Lauer (“the history of psychiatry”), and Australian 60 Minutes reporter Peter Overton, whom he schooled on good manners.


When Overton asked him about his kids, his religion, or his ex-wife, Cruise turned defensive and accusatory. “I don’t mind answering questions, but there’s a way of phrasing something that’s polite and has manners,” he said. Overton didn’t press the point, but perhaps he should have. Why was Cruise getting antsy about innocuous Nicole questions, yet had no problem revealing details about his engagement to Holmes, her adoration of him? The mistake Cruise makes is in his defensiveness. He’s right that there’s a “polite” way to ask a question, but there’s also a smart way to answer a question, a way that doesn’t make everyone feel uncomfortable and suspicious. One has to wonder where Oprah’s usual inquisitiveness went during her interview with Tom. Every question made him look good, or cute, or super-duper great. She’s not as cutthroat as someone like Overton, but she’s rarely as constrained as she was with Cruise.


It’s a puzzle. And there’s another piece that links the old Cruise and his newer, weirder self. Last year, he dumped super-agent Pat Kingsley in favor of his sister, Lee Ann Devette. Cruise has gone from keeping a relatively tight lid on his personal life to openly discussing Holmes and his wedding plans (as recently as 8 September, Katie announced she was considering taking Cruise’s last name—this during the Katrina catastrophe).


If this whole thing is planned—publicity for their movies, schemes to reach different audiences—why is it so apparently out of control? Surely Cruise, and even Devette, have some sense of how the world works. Media and public perceptions are subjective, unpredictable by even the best publicists. Tabloids will pick the most outrageous angle for celebrity stories, and talk show hosts need material every night. The smallest misstep and a celebrity is guaranteed his embarrassing moment in the sun. Those who can recover usually fall back on talent, a sense of humor, acceptance. Cruise’s problem isn’t that he’s acted like a dick for the past seven months, it’s that he seems so utterly unaware of his dickishness. Or feels so entitled to it.


Tom Cruise’s current public image is unfortunate, to say the least. And he only has himself to blame: if only he had calmed down a bit, or let his girlfriend speak for herself. Whatever the story is behind this coupling and Cruise’s attempts to make you really, really believe in it, however eager the media were to eat up and spit out, one question remains: how did anyone care, for that moment this summer?

Nikki Tranter has a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology/Criminology from La Trobe University in Melbourne and George Mason University in the U.S., and an M.A. in Professional Communication from Deakin University in Melbourne. She likes her puppy (Fulci the Fox Terrier), reading, painting, Take That, country music, and watching TV. Her favorite movie is Teen Wolf.


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