He's 42, he looks about 28, and on Oprah last week, he behaved as if he were 14. Ostensibly on the show to plug his forthcoming movie, Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise tried to count the ways his professed passion for actress Katie Holmes had changed his life. He chanted the mantra "I'm in love" as if his soul could speak only in an Oscar Hammerstein lyric. A cheerleader for Team Katie, he bounded from his seat, genuflected before his startled host, jumped on the couch and pumped his fist, NBA-finals style. "I don't know what happened to you, boy," said Oprah Winfrey at her guest's baby-chimp antics. Still in an orgasmic daze, Cruise replied, "Man, I don't know either."
A few phlegmatic souls saw Cruise's effusion as the heedless enthusiasm of a top dog in puppy love. Others found the relationship, and his trumpeting of it, implausible. But for Hollywood, ever ready to flash sharp knives and sharper tongues, Cruise was a superstar in a Three Mile Island meltdown. To all the media heavy breathers--in tabloids, on the gossip shows and blogs--this was big, Michael Jackson big.
Was it all a star's desperation not to proclaim his love but to be loved? "Once you get to the 'I want you to like me' phase," says Josh Baran, a crisis-management p.r. consultant, "then you are lost in confusion. Because now, not only do people not like you, but they think you are creepy and weird. It becomes a caricature, a pathology, and that is what we seem to have now with celebrities like Tom Cruise. You sell your soul to get people to love you."
Others, noting that Cruise's press rep is his sister Lee Anne DeVette, see an isolation from reality. "He probably feels that Oprah performance is a total, 100% success," says a Hollywood insider. "No one around him will tell him anything other than what he wants to hear," according to an acquaintance, who says Cruise doesn't read newspapers or use a computer. "He only knows what they show him." And what Cruise won't be allowed to hear is the giggling behind his back. "The worst thing for a matinee idol," the acquaintance says, "is to have people laugh at him when he's trying to be serious."
It would be goofy indeed if a porn video could make Paris Hilton's career, while one grand-Oprah aria could torpedo Cruise's. But Hilton swims in less elevated waters--the septic tank--than he does. He's Tom Terrific, the very likable guy with the laser intensity and the prom-king smile. Through two busted marriages (with actresses Mimi Rogers and Nicole Kidman) and questions about his commitment to Scientology (about which he's increasingly ardent--there was a Scientology tent on the War of the Worlds set), Cruise has frolicked in the clean mainstream. For ages. His claim to fame, Risky Business, was 22 years ago. He's been a star longer than Humphrey Bogart was.