Disaster Picture

The sound of a zillion exhalations you're hearing from Hollywood this week is not the result of the Pellicano Affair but instead a wave of genuine happiness, the kind Hollywood is best at -- the kind that comes at someone else's expense but so what? Hollywood is happy. Tom Cruise is down.

Just how down remains to be seen, because there's nothing like third-world-country box-office to lift things to a spinnable level. But meanwhile Mission Impossible III has opened to $48 million, a "disappointing" figure, less than Mission Impossible II, and there's almost no one in Los Angeles who can't gleefully add all sorts of additional facts to help a hapless listener absorb the full significance of all this: MI III opened in more theatres, with higher ticket prices, and still came nowhere near the opening weekend of its predecessor. On top of this, Cruise's core audience, that quadrant of moviegoers known as younger females, stayed away "in droves."

Cruise is not a particularly interesting human being, but it's been riveting to watch him bully the movie industry in recent years, and to watch the industry roll over and play dead when he demanded, for example, that a Scientology Tent be erected next to the set of War of the Worlds. There's no precedent for anything of this sort, it's inexcusable, it's unacceptable; large American corporations do not set up a denominational churches on company premises. But after a certain amount of pretend-posturing, Paramount and Dreamworks/Universal gave in and Cruise got his tent, staffed with Thetan facilitators who were ready to give neckrubs and literature to any passerby who wandered in thinking the place was a snack bar.

Then of course came the Katie Holmes romance, with the adolescent instant messages and cell-phone photos Cruise sent out to friends within days of their first date, the manic couch-jumping on Oprah, the Elmer-Gantry-like confrontation with Matt Lauer, and the coup de grace, self-administered - Cruise's attack on psychology, anti-depressant drugs and Brooke Shields' post-partum depression.

My son Jacob off-handedly pointed out to me this week that Cruise has now become the new Michael Jackson, a weirdo, an all-purpose piñata, the freak celebrity that everyone concedes is crazy, a poster boy for career immolation, a bizarre case of arrested-development, a man still playing with childhood toys. And compounding this, of course - as they compound everything these days - are the blogs.

Blogs -- and I'm sorry to have to say this because I love them - sometimes operate outside the conventions of what's known these days as Old Media. There are no rules. There's almost no such thing as libel. That's part of what makes blogs so much fun: rumors and gossip that would never turn up in mainstream media are the mother's milk of the Internet. In the months before baby Suri was born, websites like Defamer wrote hilarious, addictive attacks on the Cruise-Holmes relationship, insinuating that Cruise could not possibly be the real father of the child, that there was no pregnancy at all, that Katie Holmes was instead wearing a beach ball under her clothes, that the Cruise baby was going to be born to a third person entirely and spirited into the Cruise houseshold. All this, combined with the reported chilliness of Holmes' parents to Scientology and the increasing evidence that Holmes had become a Pod Person, turned the episode into a contemporary version of Rosemary's Baby. Longtime rumors about Cruise's sexuality were even printed in the New York Times. And Cruise himself didn't help matters. His appearance with Diane Sawyer didn't have an authentic moment, and I recommend it for his bizarrely calm reaction to Sawyer's asking him whether he was in fact the father of Holmes' baby.

It all adds up to an ideal disaster. As the writer Martin Cruz Smith once said in another context, it's like driving past a terrible automobile accident in which no one has been hurt. Except for Tom Cruise, of course, but for the moment, and thanks to him, he doesn't count.