By Jon Bonné
Updated: 2:46 p.m. CT Aug 23, 2006
Tom Cruise's impressively bitter split with Paramount has most everyone asking just one question: Which was it, the money or the crazy?
In a juicy smackdown between two massive egos, Cruise — arguably the world's biggest movie star, certainly the most well-paid — was summarily sent packing by his longtime studio. No less a figure than Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, who in sheer influence can be considered the media-mogul equivalent of Cruise, aired this beef in the most public of ways.
“It's nothing to do with his acting ability, he's a terrific actor,” Redstone told the Wall Street Journal. “But we don't think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot.”
Even a recluse who makes wallpaper from “Top Gun” posters could easily parse Redstone. It wasn't just that Cruise can't get a moment in the spotlight without a Scientology joke being floated. It wasn't that his romance to Katie (make that Kate) Holmes was so shamelessly public, so seemingly contrived at times, that nearly everyone smelled a rat amid the five-carat diamonds.
Even on the spectrum of eccentricity, there is such a thing as going too far. As Redstone told it, Paramount felt that Oprah couch-jumping, picking fights with “glib” Matt Lauer about Ritalin and having the former Mr. Mapother generally appearing in public like an adrenalin-infused neurotic couldn't possibly be helping them sell movie tickets. Even if Cruise managed to personally egg the door of every single American, he'd still be big in Japan, and yet while “Mission: Impossible III” didn't completely tank, it was lukewarm even at the global box office. True, $393 million is nothing to sneer at — but when your marquee star has a lucrative development deal, a 20 percent cut of box office and a hefty portion of DVD revenue, it does start to look like chump change.
So what's really up? Let's consider five theories:
1) It really was about the money. Certainly, numbers don't lie, and if the second “M:I” film grossed $545 million around the world, Redstone's calculation that Cruise cost the studio $100-150 million is a matter of simple arithmetic. You have to believe that a third-time franchise would score as big as a previous sequel, but we'll get to that in a moment. It's not just a matter of losing the money, because if Paramount really thought this was a minor downturn that could be righted, Redstone would have found a way to make a deal.
Cruise and moviemaking partner Paula Wagner have scored the studio $2.5 billion since they walked onto the lot in 1992, and if Paramount had any reason to think Cruise could rebound, the deal would have been cut. (If you consider that Paramount was reportedly offering them some $2 million a year, down from $10 million, it's not hard to read the implicit message. A $8 million cut is a pretty hard smackdown.)
2) “M:I:III”? Yeah, right. It's easy to pin this on Cruise overall, but when he had the right project, there was money to be made. “War of the Worlds”? Add Steven Spielberg, a decent script (we're ignoring the tripods-catch-a-fatal-cold thing) and some killer effects, and nearly $590 million global box office materializes. No matter how big the blockbuster, a third-time sequel doesn't exactly scream “must see” unless it involves Mr. T and a theme song by Survivor. OK, not even then. Of course, “War” was released nearly a year before “M:I:III,” and the timing there is crucial. The couch-jumping and Brooke Shields catfight all emerged as “War” was being released, but it was still sort of funny and at least halfway interesting at that point. The really unsettling part of Cruise's behavior didn't come until we'd all had several months to watch Katie's pregnancy, hear tales of familial infighting, and finally watch (or not watch) as the mysterious Suri was birthed, possibly in silent fashion. All of which takes us to ...
3) It was about Cruise Control on the fritz. Maybe it was about the money, but that doesn't mean Redstone shouldn't be taken at face value: that Cruise had grown too erratic to keep around. Even Paramount's officially sanctioned promos for “M:I:III,” with the speedboats and the motorcycles and the skydives, were all about The Intensity, which is Cruise's defining attribute. But The Intensity doesn't look so good when you pair it with the other half of Cruise's high-octane personality, which bared itself not only during the Oprah and Lauer episodes, but even at what should have been innocuous meet-and-greets. And the assumption that The Intensity has become so universal that it has become a full-on gossip pastime to poke holes in the official Cruise hagiography. Studios like stability, and despite Cruise's moneymaking potential, The Intensity does not lend itself to stability. The Intensity instead lends itself to red-carpet tonsil hockey and one of the more bizarre childbirths in Hollywood, which ... again, studio not so happy. Then add in the Scientology issues. Then add Tom dumping uberpublicist Pat Kingsley for his sister Lee Anne De Vette, and later dumping sis for pro Paul Bloch. Could it be that someone did the math and realized that without a good handler, Cruise's behavior could be as unpredictable as Mel Gibson on a moonlit night in Malibu? Would you want to be Sumner Redstone, taking this pile of fun to your shareholders? Yeah, didn't think so.
4) Stick a fork in. Cruise is done. And wouldn't Cruise-haters love to think so. On balance, this has been about as bizarre a year for him as any movie star could dream up. Do you think that he's still feeling, as he did a year ago amid his post-engagement buzz, that this is “a great time” in his life? The assumption was always that Cruise's off-screen antics were irrelevant so long as he put butts in seats. By Redstone's calculation, he's no longer doing that — at least not to the point that he can justify his absolutely-top-of-the-heap salary demands. It might take a full two hands to count the number of uncynical Cruise supporters still out there, but even the most casual observer has to conclude that something truly unusual is going on in Cruiseville. Shake your underwear and turn up the Bob Seger as loud as you like: At some point, a 44-year-old man has to act his age, and The Intensity needs to evolve. It hasn't, and it shows no signs of stopping, even with fatherhood revisted upon Cruise. Once you're a punchline, it's hard to go back short of a display of humility that would do Robert Downey Jr. proud.
5) Other deals are in the offing. If you believe Cruise's side of the story, as told to the Journal, he's got a hedge-fund posse ready to pay for his grand cinematic adventures. We'll have to see whether Cruise/Wagner will end up funding their own blockbusters and sell distribution to the highest bidder, or will aim for something more modest. Certainly, studios have little appetite for the actor-take-all sort of deal they signed with Cruise long ago and wouldn't re-up. But that doesn't mean there aren't deals to be cut. Can Cruise live with making a mere mortal's salary, something comparable to, say, George Clooney? Can he be convinced to try a role without falling back on The Intensity? Can he, in fact, handle the truth?