Cruise Control: The Battle Over the Celebrity Image

Curator's Note

Tom Cruise is, perhaps, the quintessential modern American movie star. Since Top Gun, Cruise has been reliably bankable as an action hero and even earned a measure of critical respect in more serious roles (Born of the 4th of July, Magnolia). Yet his broader star image, particularly since the infamous Oprah couch-jumping moment in 2005, illustrates key shifts in the battle of control over the star image in contemporary celebrity culture. The celebrity image is a push-and-pull between the screen image and the private or “real” self behind that image presented to the public via entertainment and gossip media. While audiences can find pleasure in the consistent image, when star “really” seems to be who he appears, Cruise’s image since the couch-jumping moment is more rooted in a disconnect between the All-American action hero seen on screen and the crazy, control-freak, Scientologist that is central to media coverage of his private image.

I’m not suggesting either one of these is the “true” Tom Cruise, but rather that the ongoing battle—and it is a battle, where Cruise regularly threatens or files lawsuits countering these stories—to define his stardom. But I view the couch-jumping moment as a watershed one that speaks to two key elements of the construction of, and battle over, the contemporary celebrity image. First, it reveals the key role of celebrity workers behind that image. Cruise split with long-time publicist Pat Kingsley, whom many credit with the tight crafting of his image, the previous year. Kingsley’s influence was felt in her absence, as the era of the more “crazy” Cruise began. More crucially, this couch-jumping moment coincided with the rise of the Internet as a source of constant celebrity gossip and surveillance in the mid-2000s. The couch-jumping video went viral, making it a centerpiece of Cruise’s current celebrity image. But it also marked the beginning of increased intervention of online gossip media (notably blogs) into Cruise’s image. Cruise was certainly subject to rumors and covered by gossip media before, but continuous and interactive flow of online gossip has played an important role in shifting that image. The Internet offers bloggers and their audiences the publicly visible space to dissect Cruise’s public image, intervening into what was once private and controlled and highlighting gossip as the central way celebrity images are made in contemporary celebrity culture.


Erin, Your piece does an excellent job of framing the discourse around Tom Cruise's persona and his function as a star. The notion of a battle between myriad modes of Cruise's stardom is I think a really useful way to consider how Cruise's screen persona can be used to diffuse the often public battles which Cruise has engaged in with the media and those in the industry who have questioned both his profitability and his sexuality. A final thought for me concerning the role of social media is whether embracing Twitter would help Cruise stabilize his image or perhaps lead to more chaos if he were to provide the culture with a 'supposed' look at his life.

Thanks for your comment, Brian. Many celebrities have turned to Twitter to try and regain control over their image. It's done well for some (Lady Gaga springs to mind) and has been a disaster for others (Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes). Cruise does have a Twitter feed (@TomCruise), but it's just from his official website and is mainly used for publicity and/or more controlled glimpses of Cruise. I haven't seen anything about his private life on there or even specific counters to tabloid stories. It gives the illusion of some access, while still being controlled, which is, I think, a unique feature of Twitter for celebrities and one that lets them play the same sort of game as the blogs. I don't think Cruise is even really trying to give that illusion on his Twitter feed, he just sticks to the professional there, which is probably for the best because it could easily, as you say, lead to chaos.

Thanks, Erin for your piece and for reminding us how precarious the management of stardom can be. I especially like your take on Cruise's hyper-visibility - it reminds me of how closely Scientology regulates those sanctioned for global visibility and those it considers invisible - the furor over Shelly Miscavige's disappearance speaks to this, I think.

Thanks for this post, Erin! This moment is so interesting, especially given Oprah's open acknowledgement in this clip of Cruise's behavior and its incongruence with his guarded image. And, of course, it also sets the stage for the narrative surrounding Cruise's relationship with Katie Holmes--what I remember more than the actual jumping, fist pumping, etc., is Cruise actually chasing a reluctant, embarrassed Holmes and marching her onto the set.

Just to add to what Alice says here - it's funny to think that the ostensible reason for that interview with Oprah was to promote War of the Worlds. Who remembers her asking him about that now?! (when I was researching this I purchased a copy of the transcript of the whole interview - it was an hour long and from what I can remember, it was mostly about War of the Worlds, but of course thanks to the online media environment that Erin's speaking to here that's obviously not how we remember it!). All the same, despite the fact that attention on the film was completely eclipsed by this at the time, it still became his high grossing film to date, and remains so even now.

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