Tom Cruise effectively wrote my first published paper for me. The couchjumping, the Matt Lauer-attacking, the Eiffel-Tower-wooing….and Perez Hilton’s exploitation of Cruise gone mad helped prove how digital technologies could accelerate and accentuate a star’s publicity faux pas (or, in this case, string of faux pas). Cruise is very, very calculating — which is part of the reason that when a hole appears in his finely constructed image, we can’t look away. The Emperor wears no clothes, etc. etc.
A divorce is not a priori scandalous — it was scandalous in, say, the 19th century, especially if you were Christian, but the end of a marriage is not in and of itself scandalous. Something about the end of that marriage has to render it scandalous. Otherwise, it’s just par for the course. Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes get divorced. No big deal. A few murmurs about the way she talked about Leonardo DiCaprio at the Oscars, but whatever. There wasn’t enough traction there — not enough real life evidence.
Sometimes there is something big — like, say, I dunno, a hot movie you’re filming with Angelina Jolie — that renders your divorce scandalous without much effort. But sometimes the gossip magazines need to push: take a string of events and turn them into a narrative that reads not only as scandalous, but as melodrama. Because as anyone who’s consumed melodrama (in reality television, Twilight, Gossip Girl, The Wire) understands, once you’re hooked, you have to consume more.
In today’s celebrity landscape, most stars have established exquisitely fabricated PR exteriors that make such PR debacles impossible. Brangelina calls the shots on their own image, so does Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Beyonce, George Clooney, even RPattz and KStew. Kim Kardashian was actually doing an incredible job with her image until the artifice of her marriage tipped the scales. But those stars keep their images pristine so as to not distract from the large properties to which their names are attached: movie franchies, of course, but also consumer products.
But B- and C-List celebrities need to generate scandal in order to maintain interest in their images and products. They need the melodrama, and the media conglomerates who produce their products facilitate its generation and distribution. See: every cover about The Bachelor, Teen Mom, and Jon and Kate Plus Eight. It’s no accident, for example, that the rise of The Bachelor-cover coincided with ABC’s investment in Us Weekly in the mid-2000s. As you can see below, Us has been trying mightily to make a melodrama out of the current season of Teen Mom. I can’t remember the last time a lack of pregnancy merited the cover of a gossip mag. Oh, wait, yes I can.
As I’ve discussed several times on this site, the form, systems of distribution, and speed of gossip have changed substantially over the last century, but really, everything new is old. And turning star scandals into melodrama — something that resembles the plot of a movie, complete with clear-cut good and bad guys — is nothing new. It happened with Fatty Arbuckle; it happend with Debbie Reynolds-Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor. Sometimes the roles that stars play in those melodrama change: when Taylor got pneumonia and almost died, she became the victim; when Angelina Jolie gave birth to the so-called Chosen One, she became some version of the whore-turned-Madonna.
Which brings us to TomKat.
There are a few extenuating circumstances that would make this divorce scandalous no matter how skillfully it was handled:
1.) The shroud of secrecy surrounding Cruise’s two previous divorces, including the implication that Cruise broke up with Nicole Kidman on the eve of their seven year wedding anniversary, when the terms of their pre-nump would’ve changed substantially. Kidman also seems to have signed a non-disclosure agreement, which begs the question: why so secretive, Tom Cruise, if you don’t have anything to hide?
2.) The unseemly courtship of Holmes, filled with discourse concerning the fact that she “auditioned” for the role as his “beard.” Others speculated that she had been lobotomized or entrapped; hence the gossip rallying cry to “Free Katie.”
3.) The involvement of Scientology. The religion has never had a “good” reputation, but the longform expose in last year’s New Yorker reinvigorated the whiff of scandal that surrounds the organization. Trailers for P.T. Anderson’s new film — a historical indictment of Scientology — went viral last month. Things do not look good.
4.) Gossip surrounding John Travolta’s alleged inappropriate passes at male masseuses. You might not think this insignificant, but recall that Travolta, like Cruise, has long been rumored to be gay — and that Scientology has allegedly been entrusted with “curing” him of his gayness. Holes in Travolta’s image mean it’ll be even easier to pick holes in Cruise’s.
In other words, even if both Cruise and Holmes release statements attesting to how “amicable” their break-up is, there’d still be lots of gossip. But Holmes gave the outlets something to really work with, and they’re running with it full speed.
If you haven’t been following the aftermath, here’s the details:
- Holmes has been living apart from Cruise for several weeks, if not more. She rented an apartment in New York several weeks ago — separate from the apartment they shared in NYC. Cruise has been filming in Iceland, and when he came to NYC to visit, she was the one who brought Suri to his hotel.
- Holmes is asking for sole/primary custody.
- Cruise did not expect Holmes to ask for sole/primary custody.
- Cruise gave a statement to the effect that he was “disappointed.”
- There were a bunch of cars spotted around Holmes’ homes. There was some speculation that they belonged to Scientologists. It’s since become clear that they were “security.”
- Holmes has acquired a new set of security — a set that never worked for Cruise.
- The Church denies involvement.
Let’s call those the plot points. And with those plot points, various outlets have decided to make six slightly different narratives — let’s call them summer gossip blockbusters. In each of these blockbusters, we have the same cast of characters, the same plot points, but different directors, different ways from getting from Plot Point A to Plot Point B, even potentially different roles for our characters. They have different marketing campaigns, different slogans, different aesthetics. But they’re all the same f-ing movie — just marketed to slightly different audiences.
So let’s take a look the plots being sold:
THE HORROR STORY:
This might be my favorite. Us Weekly found “someone close to the family” (read: someone who is not close to the family) who said that Holes “Felt Like She Was in Rosemary’s Baby” during her marriage:
Katie Holmes‘ Hollywood fairy tale with Tom Cruise definitely did not have a happy ending.
When the 33-year-old actress filed for divorce from Cruise, 49, last Thursday — aggressively moving for sole legal custody of daughter Suri, 6 — it was the culmination of a year-long attempt to break free of a confining, Scientology-influenced marriage to Cruise, sources tell the new Us Weekly, out now.
“Every move she made and everything she did was controlled . . . She felt like she was in Rosemary’s Baby,” says one insider, referring to the classic 1968 horror film, in which an aspiring young actress (Mia Farrow) unwittingly bears a child for her husband’s Satanic cult.
Indeed, her shocking divorce filing, which has blindsided a “furious” Cruise, wasn’t simply about the Kennedys star’s own personal contentment, a Holmes source says.
“This is about protecting her daughter,” the insider explains to Us. “She wants to be in charge of how Suri is being raised and didn’t want her to have an exclusively Scientology education.”
Like many horror stories, the narrative is set-up as a fairy tale — Cruise swept Holmes off her feet; she’d loved him since she was a teen — gone horribly wrong. In this scheme, Cruise is the pawn of a larger, more satanic force — The Church. Note, however, that none of this rhetoric comes directly from Cruise, Holmes, or even the Church. It’s been suggested by a source, and it just happens to fit with the characters, their backstory, and the way we expect Hollywood narratives to work. The “advertisement” for this narrative features the cover at the beginning of this post, highlighting how Katie, like the heroine in a horror film, “breaks free” from the spell of her captor/evil forces/big bad/abject evil/Tom Cruise.
THE CONSPIRACY THRILLER:
TMZ, brilliant dirt digger that it is, put together that Suri had just turned 6, and 6 is when she could be sent to Sea Org, a Scientology “work camp” that has been referred to as glorified child labor. (Read the New Yorker scientology article. I really can’t adequately emphasize how good it is).
The title of the post is great: KATIE HOLMES: Afraid Tom Would Ship Suri To Radical Scientology Org . Radical! Fear! “Ship”! All of it implies force and intrigue. And just take a look at the image:
That is some serious decoupage/Photoshop magic — and perfect for a film poster. That TMZ touts it as an “exclusive” points towards some sort of cover-up, now uncovered — with only you, its readers, privy to the knowledge that Cruise seemed to be planning to send his six-year-old daughter to dig ditches in the Florida swamp. Here’s the full-text:
The final straw in Katie Holmes‘ decision to file for divorce was that she was convincedTom Cruise was going to send 6-year-old Suri away to a hardcore Scientology organization known as Sea Organization … sources connected with Katie tell TMZ.
Sea Org, as it is known, is where the highest levels of Scientology are taught and kids as young as five can be sent to live there … without their parents — and our sources say Tom is a big fan.
Our sources say Katie and Tom had been arguing over Suri’s indoctrination into Scientology — and we’re told the Sea Org was the flashpoint.
The Sea Org has been often compared to a boot camp and several ex-Scientologists (including Oscar winner Paul Haggis) have been outspoken against its military-like conditions. The Freewinds, the massive Scientology boat that was the location of Cruise’s infamous birthday party in 2004, is entirely staffed by Sea Org members.
According to the official Scientology website, members of Sea Org sign “a one-billion-year pledge to symbolize their eternal commitment to the religion and it is still signed by all members today.”
Katie herself has first-hand knowledge of the Sea Org. When Holmes and Cruise first hooked up in 2005, Jessica Feshbach, a prominent Scientologist who had been with the Sea Org since 1994, was transferred and became Katie’s assistant/Scientology chaperone. Feshbach, in one of Katie’s first interviews after getting together with Cruise, was described by a writer for W magazine as “cold-eyed” and “a third-wheel.”
In the end … we’re told Katie felt the only way to save Suri from being shipped off to Sea Org was to file for divorce and seek sole legal custody.
Note: details that seem at home in a Bourne film (or, for that matter, Cruise’s own Mission Impossible), emphasis on the lack of consent, Tom’s implicit endorsement of the organization (that he’s been hiding!) Cruise is the agent who’s too deep to see what’s going on, Jessica Feshbach is Holmes’ devious “cold-eyed” handler, and Holmes is getting out before it’s too late. One billion year pledge! Not even Michael Bay would push the narrative that far!
You might think this sounds insane, but this theory is gaining traction — or, at the very least, the notion that Holmes was getting out before the church took control of Suri. She might not have been headed for Sea Org, but she, like her mother before her, was definitely headed towards something secret.
A close cousin to the conspiracy thriller, forwarded by People – TMZ’s more cautious conglomerate cousin. The headline “Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise Split: The Scientology Mystery” accompanies the post announcing this week’s cover:
The cover promises to answer the “mystery” of “Why Katie Left Tom” — which includes “Her Dad’s Secret Plan.” Her parents “wanted old Katie back,” which implies that something — something mysterious! – happened to her. The online article leads with the question: “Who are the mysterious men talking on headsets and taking photos outside Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise’s new apartment building in New York City? Their presence has sparked reports that they are Scientology operatives, hired to follow Holmes after her surprise divorce filingfrom Tom Cruise.”
Because People is People, it’s quick to admit that “sources close to the situation say the men aren’t related to Scientology at all – they’re actually a new security team hired by Holmes herself. The Church of Scientology has also denied having Holmes, 33, followed. “There is no truth whatsoever to the [report] that the Church of Scientology has sent anyone to follow or surveil Katie Holmes,” Gary S. Soter, an attorney from the church, said in a statement.”
“Mystery” is just People‘s style: it’s less controversial than the conspiracy theory, less sensational and tabloid-y than the horror story. It’s slightly titillating, but not in poor taste — they don’t want to offend Holmes, whose publicity team gave People first access to the information.
Cycling back to Us, which changed its tune from horror story to tragedy to explain the first photos of Holmes out in New Yorks sans wedding ring. The “Somber Katie Holmes Steps Out Without Wedding Ring,” “noticeably somber in a long-sleeved navy blue dress.”
….Holmes’ wedding ring was conspicuously noticeably missing as she made her way to Parsons School of Design in downtown Manhattan.
A source tells Us Weekly, “She looked really sad and was looking at the ground the whole time.”
Holmes called it quits with Cruise, 49, after five years of marriage and one child together, daughter Suri Cruise, 6.
First breaking the news, Holmes’ attorney told Us, “Katie’s primary concern remains, as it always has been, her daughter’s best interest. This is a personal and private matter for Katie and her family.”
“Kate has filed for divorce and Tom is deeply saddened and is concentrating on his three children. . . Please allow them their privacy,” a rep for the Rock of Ages star told Us Weekly Friday. Cruise and his second wife Nicole Kidman share kids Conor, 17, and Isabella, 19.
As Us previously reported, Holmes prepared for her surprise filing by secretly renting a $12,000-month apartment on her own in NYC. For the past couple weeks, she’s been quietly moving into the residence.
“This is about protecting her daughter,” an insider explains to the new issue of Us Weekly, out now. “She wants to be in charge of how Suri is being raised and didn’t want her to have an exclusively Scientology education.”
Again, Us gets the “source” to set the tone — “she looked really sad.” Just think at how easily this could have been skewed otherwise — “she looked really smug.” “She looked like she didn’t give a shit.” An outlet could get after her for going to work so soon after the announcement, or trying to exploit the divorce to revive her career. But as evidenced by all four narratives, she’s the victim. That’s not in flux. What is in flux is whether Cruise himself or Scientology at large is the “villain,” the “source of the mystery,” or the sadness, or the conspiracy.
No established outlet is really running with this one, but for us avid, engaged consumers of gossip, it’s dominated the coverage. This is the narrative that uses a punchline like “Guess her contract was out!” to sell the story. It was the dominant narrative strategy immediately following the announcement on Twitter, as evidenced by a very small sample size below:
This narrative is subversive — no publicist is encouraging you to believe it. Rather, like any subversive reading, it finds the cracks in ideologies — in this case, that of a purely heteronormative man — and expands them to make humor. In the process, the humor shatters, or at least significantly challenges, the foundation of the image. For those who take pleasure in this narrative, there’s no good guy or bad guy, at least not in the way that we traditionally think about them. Instead, the notion that someone could be as straight as Cruise — and that he would expect us to continue to believe it — is “bad.” What’s “good”? Undermining that understanding. Calling attention to the hilarity and transparency of his machinations — his apparent desperation to maintain his image. Whether or not Cruise is in fact gay doesn’t matter much here….it’s his hilarious, over-indulgent defense of heterosexuality that becomes the butt of the joke, the pivot upon which the satire rests. Within this narrative, Holmes, like Suri, is little more than a prop — like fake vomit or dog poop, her existence (and his frantic-ness around her) is what heightens the satire.
There’s one final way of connecting the dots — and it’s clearly my true favorite.
This is what’s going on over at Lainey Gossip, it’s what’s going on here. It’s taking a step back from the traditional narrative, disassembling it, putting it back together. Like meta-narrative in film — which acknowledges that the film is, indeed, a film — this narrative is still a narrative. It’s just one telling you that there’s lot of other narratives. There’s no outside of ideology, as the theorist Althusser was fond of asserting. Put differently, just because I can see the other narratives around me doesn’t mean that I’m not participating in one myself.
But you, readers of this blog, like a narrative that challenges you, that forces you to think differently about the characters and what “character” even means. You’re okay with being disappointed, with having your illusions dis-illusioned. You’re fine with low production values and the fact that director of this narrative gets paid little to nothing for her efforts. In fact, that makes you like it even more, because it seems less produced, more authentic, more cerebral, less CGI. You’re the art house audience of gossip narratives, which brings with it a whole set of positive and negative connotations. These meta-narratives are not for everyone. Some people dismiss them as overly intellectual or weird or a poor use of taxpayers’ dollars. But meta-narratives have always fascinated me far more than summer blockbusters….and my hope is that you’ll continue to feel the same.