Spanking Stars Who Misbehave

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Groucho Marx, as Otis B. Driftwood in A Night at the Opera, and his brother Chico, as Fiorello, are haggling over a contract for an opera singer's services, when Groucho brings up one more clause: "It says 'If any of the parties participating in this contract is shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.'" When Chico demurs, Groucho soothingly replies, "It's all right, that's in every contract. That's what they call a 'sanity clause'." Chico laughs derisively. "You can't fool me!" he snorts. "There ain't no Sanity Clause!"

This week Paramount Pictures essentially invoked the sanity clause to end its 14-year deal with Tom Cruise and his Cruise-Wagner production company. (The star's partner, Paula Wagner, insisted that she and Tom had jumped out of their contract before they could be pushed.) "His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount," harrumphed Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount's parent company Viacom, as if he were the provost of a starchy boys' school and Cruise a rambunctious pupil.

The ABC TV honchos might have been thinking the same thing about Mel Gibson when, a few days after the actor-director was stopped for drunk driving and lurched into an anti-Jewish raveup at the arresting officer, the network scotched plans for a series to be produced by Gibson about the Holocaust.

Cruise's transgressions were more boyish, and less goyish, than Gibson's. The star formerly known as Tom Terrific was guilty only of behaving like a lovesick cockaloony on TV by trampolining on Oprah's couch and trumpeting his love for Katie Holmes, of slamming Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressive medicine after giving birth, and of proselytizing too strenuously for that non-religion he belongs to, the Church of Scientology. All this falls into the severely goofy range but stops somewhere short of actionable.

Besides, doesn't everyone know that actors are nuts? They're not paid to be reasonable. We watch them because on screen they express a beauty, strength, wit, agility, danger that we're not capable of in real life. And most of the time, in real life, neither are they.

The behavior Redstone really found unacceptable was Cruise's recent performance at the box office. As a New York Times list of his top-grossing films indicates, Cruise hasn't had a big hit this century that wasn't either directed by Steven Spielberg (himself a mass-audience magnet) or part of the Mission: Impossible franchise. And even there, in real dollars or inflated ones, each successive film has earned less money than the preceding one.

The boyish antics may have suggested something else to Paramount. Cruise is 44 now, a star (since Risky Business in 1983) for more than half his life; yet he still relies on the megawatt smile and man-child brio. He should be finding a way to segue to a maturity that is just as appealing, yet less... strange. In other words, Paramount to Tom: Grow up!

Finally, the bosses want to trim the fat and the inventory. At a time when studios are wailing about box-office flatlines (though this year's take is up from 2005) and insufficiently ballooning zillions from the DVD cash cow, Paramount figured that committing to another long skein of expensive movies from the erstwhile boy wonder.

The only surprising element in this family melodrama was Paramount's public airing of its displeasure — as if it wanted to sour all of Hollywood on Tom Cruise, and, by extension, other crazy or cranky stars, of which there are plenty. Since Redstone is not known for shooting from the lip, I'd guess that he, and perhaps other moguls, may be trying to tell its priciest talents that the era of $25 million paydays for a single picture — or the sort of star-studio deal that is lucrative only for the star — is over.


The bosses would love a return to the studio system of the '30s and '40s, when the front-office men were first-generation shtarkers, fresh from the rag trade, who ran movie production like an assembly line, up to 50 features each year, and never took no for an answer. (The biography of Darryl Zanuck, production chief at Warners and then 20th Century-Fox, was titled Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking.) Today's executives must look back on that so-called Golden Age with the lost-Eden ache of an antebellum plantation master or ball club owner from the days before free agency.

In the '30s and '40s, most actors were signed to seven-year contracts. They had no control over the movies their bosses told them to appear in, and were loaned out to other studios, like leased cars or chateaux or cattle, with their employers pocketing most of the gelt. And in the rare instance of actors acting up, they got slapped down.

James Cagney machine-gunned his way to stardom with The Public Enemy and other gangster movies in the early '30s. Immediately he agitated his studio, Warners, for more varied roles. Twice he took a voluntary suspension to make his point, returning each time for a higher salary and a tad more creative input. He left Warners again in 1936 and put himself on the open market. Though Cagney was a major star, the big studios stayed away from him, fearful that if one actor could dent the system, anarchy would ensue. He made one picture for tiny Grand National, but it was unable to secure bookings with the major theater chains — which were owned by the studios! He went back to Warners and stayed there well into the '40s.

If Cagney embodied the sass and snarl of newly urbanized America, Bette Davis represented the assertive, neurotic ur-bitch. She came to Warners in 1931, making five to seven films a year and, like Cagney, campaigning for better parts. (She made her first big impression, in Of Human Bondage, on a loan-out to RKO.) When she turned down one role she was suspended and left for England, hoping to make pictures there, but Warners sued her for breach of contract.

In vain did her lawyer itemize Davis' grievances: that she could be suspended without pay for refusing a part, with the period of suspension added to her contract; that she could be called upon to play any part within her abilities regardless of her personal beliefs; that she could be required to support a political party against her beliefs; and that her image and likeness could be displayed in any manner deemed applicable by the studio. (This is from Wikipedia.) The barrister for Warners sneered at this list, saying "that this is rather a naughty young lady and that what she wants is more money." Davis lost the case and returned to Warners, where she remained until 1949.

Someone had to break this monopoly, and it wasn't a movie tough guy or tart. Olivia de Havilland, yet another Warners contract artist, had specialized in doe-eyed darlings, notably as Melanie in Gone With the Wind— again, a loan-out, this time to the Selznick Studio. And again, she wanted to expand her range. When Warners kept casting her in all-sugar, no-spice roles, de Havilland balked and was suspended. She then challenged the studio in court, arguing that since the period of suspension was routinely added to the length of the contract, an actor was in danger of permanent involuntary servitude. Miracle of miracles, she won, in what became known as the de Havilland Law of 1945. A year later, she left for Paramount, where she won a Best Actress Oscar for To Each His Own. Two years after that, the Supreme Court ruled the industry acted as a monopoly, separating the production companies from their theater chains and hastening the end of the studio system.


The twist to this story is that, in a town ruled by lucre, this one wasn't about the money. Davis, for example, was earning $1,350 a week when she attested of her "slavery" in that 1936 British court. (The Warner counsel drawled, "If anybody wants to put me into perpetual servitude on the basis of that remuneration, I shall be prepared to consider it.") No, it was about the power that a paternalist organization wanted to keep holding over the actors it saw as its pampered children. I protect you, sustain you, give you this generous allowance — why won't you be home by eight?

And in fact, the studios did protect their assets. The publicity machines saw to that. They assured that the stars looked beautiful, and spoke decorously, in public. Whispers of alcoholism, drug addiction or homosexuality stayed out of the press through studio pressure and payoffs. The only times an indiscretion got out was when it became a police or judicial matter.

In 1935, actress Mary Astor was involved in a messy divorce case, with her husband publishing parts of her diary that described bedroom details of her affair with playwright and director George S. Kaufman. (She had breathlessly described Kaufman's "incredible powers of recuperation" — back then, even sex scandals had a touch of literary elegance.) Sam Goldwyn, who had his own studio, stood by Astor and allowed her to return to the film she had been making, the immortal Dodsworth. Her career continued for another quarter century, though she now played women with a darker allure, like Bogart's femme fatale in The Maltese Falcon.

In the late '40s, hardened by the war, exposed to the fatalism of film noir, American moviegoers learned to be a little indulgent to their stars — if the indiscretion fit the actor's on-screen personality. Robert Mitchum was convicted on a marijuana charge in 1948, and did some time for the crime. But since his appeal was a sleepy, surly sexuality (which he radiated brilliantly, by the way), audiences mostly shrugged, as if the police-blotter notes were just the scenario for some unfilmed Mitchum movie. The actor coasted on that reputation for decades. "The only difference between me and my fellow actors," he said, "is that I've spent more time in jail." And when quizzed about his 60-day stretch at a California prison farm, he replied, "It's like Palm Springs without the riffraff."

Mitchum was an early exponent of the actor as outlaw, more interested in getting a role than being a role model. Brando sanctified that posture — the insolent slouch — which over the last half-century has been assumed by a hefty plurality of actors and musicians (mostly male, but there are exceptions). If a star doesn't crash his car, trash his hotel room or smash in a photographer's face, he's not being true to his art, you know what I mean?


So Hollywood can't suddenly mind if its stars make occasional fools or louts of themselves. And Paramount can't find much fault with Cruise's "recent conduct"; he's done nothing lately but deprive tabloids of his and Katie's baby pictures. This time, it is about the money. Cruise, the studio had decided, is more trouble than he's worth. His shenanigans, they compute, have diluted his box office clout. Not morals or ethics. Simple arithmetic.

So, you ask, why do studios bother with prima donnas like Cruise and stick with the reliables, the stars of hit comedies? All this millennium, Adam Sandler has made medium-budget blockbusters, grossing more than $100 million at the domestic box office six years in a row. Jim Carrey can be huge in the right project. Will Ferrell has become a major deliverer. Talladega Nights, if it keeps on motoring at its turbo pace, could end up one of the top five grossers of the year (after Pirates of the Caribbean 2, Cars, X-Men III and The Da Vinci Code); and it was made for less than half the cost of any of those films.

The problem: Hollywood is an international enterprise, and comedy is a local vintage that usually doesn't travel well. Sandler's movies make from 60% to more than 80% of their income in North America. Even The Wedding Crashers, a comedy with presumed appeal beyond our borders, took in only about a quarter of its revenue overseas. Comedy is what's lost in translation.

To dominate the world market, Hollywood doesn't need comedy stars. It needs action stars, movie stars. Somebody like Tom Cruise. For ages, that somebody has been Tom Cruise. Beyond him, what is there? Tom Hanks — a movie star, but not an action star. Johnny Depp — a wonderfully eccentric actor, but a star only as Jack Sparrow. Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe — they are, relatively speaking, minority tastes. Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood — together, they're 140 years old.

Cruise may be more expensive than he was, and not earn what he used to. But Paramount, after it finishes sighing with relief that he's gone, should ask itself: What — whom — have we got to replace him? Then Redstone may ruefully wonder if it wasn't his studio, not Cruise, that flunked the Sanity Clause.