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By John Thomason
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Shouldn't have said yes, couldn't say no. The deal was simple, and those who chose to accept it had made their own private pact with the showbiz-journalism devil. "You will spend an hour with Tom Cruise and an hour with Steven Spielberg," said the publicist, a lovely woman from 20th Century Fox whose tone of voice nonetheless suggested bad news. "But"--a-ha, here it comes...wait for it--"they will not be doing one-on-ones. They'll only be doing roundtables." A roundtable means the two will be ushered into a hotel room one at a time, plopped down in front of half a dozen tape recorders and offer canned responses to what barely pass as questions: "Tom, you and Steven are two of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Is that the case, or is that overstating the fact?" Oh, no, Mr. Woodward. Not at all. Good one.
A day later, the publicist called back to inform of the scheduling change: "Tom and Steven can only do half-hour interviews." Yes, excellent. That's plenty of time to ask these men thoughtful questions that will elicit insightful responses. But calling most who peddle publicity as reportage "journalists" is like calling the guy who makes fries at Burger King "a chef." In some city, usually New York or Los Angeles but occasionally in Dallas or other remote outposts in the flyover, The Famous and The Fatuous gather every weekend to trade pride for press. It's a public-relations gang-bang, a never-ending circle jerk. Check your humility with the concierge, then head to the hospitality suite for their free cups of coffee and bottles of Evian and mouthfuls of cold-plate meats.
From all over the South they came to Dallas two weeks ago for the Minority Reportjunket--from Tennessee and Arkansas, from Florida and Louisiana. They were TV talking heads and writers of free ad copy, some of whom accepted tickets from the studio, some of whom paid their own way. They carried their clothes and supplies in studio-provided luggage; one writer hauled around his Spider-Manbag, emblazoned with the web-slinger. They wore gimme caps and freebie T-shirts plugging forthcoming releases. They collected toys doled out by publicists eager to please and placate. (This time, they handed out gigantic models of the futuristic Lexus Tom Cruise drives in Minority Report, and they'll wind up either on trophy shelves or eBay, where they're going for about $40.) They say flattering things and couch their questions in compliments. They lick the hand that feeds them.
"Well, it's another great science-fiction film," says the man sitting nearest Spielberg, who strolls into the interview room wearing a light-brown leather jacket despite Dallas' early-summer heat and humidity--a combination that makes mere mortals leak sweat. "Man, it is unbelievable," gushes this guy, whose size suggests much time spent in the hospitality suites. "I was transfixed watching the movie. I mean, you have made two of the best science-fiction films ever." The man, wearing a ball cap, then pushes up his shirtsleeve to reveal his A.I.watch, which he picked up the last time Spielberg was on the PR circuit. The director laughs loudly, beams proudly--he's complicit in this arrangement, and if he's grossed out, he doesn't let on. He knows he's in for good press, so he's willing to play along. In return, he spins a few good stories, bad-mouths his own movies (just one, actually, 1941) to prove he's a regular guy.
These people who live on the junket circuit all look vaguely the same--soft, round and pale, no matter age or gender. Many have gray hair, gray face, gray teeth, gray clothes. They spend too much time in the dark, too much time in planes breathing recycled air, too much time chasing the famous from coast to coast. They're the very reason the Chicago Tribunerecently issued the decree that it will no longer allow its film writers to conduct interviews with celebrities in hotel rooms, where publicists linger just outside the door with stopwatches to make sure no one goes over his or her allotted 15 minutes in the company of fame.
They and people like them--say, Ain't It Cool News' Harry Knowles, who accepts studio-funded trips to movie sets and is still taken seriously by movie execs as a film critic, despite being quasi-literate--are why the studios can trim the "interview" time from 60 minutes to half an hour. They know they'll get good pub regardless of the setup--an hour in a restaurant, a handshake in a hotel room, a howdyon a movie set. Those bearing cameras and recorders are just happy to breathe the rarefied air of celebrities, collect their goodie bags full of logo-covered crap and share the same prepackaged quotes that spread like Colorado wildfire the days before and after a movie's release.
Everything Cruise and Spielberg said that day has shown up elsewhere--in Entertainment Weekly(where Cruise beams eerily from the cover, showing off his new braces), in USA Today, in the Thrifty Nickel. The topics were predictable: What about all the special effects? Tom, do you like doing your own stunt work? What attracted you to the movie? What was it like working with Tom/Steve? How are the kids now that you and Nicole have divorced? (No one ever has any shame about prying into a star's private life, which makes sense; they are more interesting than we are.) And the answers, rote: Special effects are overrated. Yeah, I like doing my own stunts when Steven lets me. It's a great story with a heart. The kids are fine, thanks for asking.
No one had done his homework, because he didn't have to. They could cheat off each other's papers, sharing answers while showing off their love for movie stars but not necessarily the movies they make. They pepper the queries with loving adjectives: "incredible," "amazing," "unbelievable." A sampling, because a little is enough:
"Tom, you seem like you would be a great director, too." (Cruise's response, through a bright braces smile: "Well, thank you." No, dude. Thank youfor being Tom Cruise.)
For Cruise, again: "The public still loves you through everything." ("They have been incredible, incredible.")
And, again: "Do you feel like there is sort of a destiny to your life, or do you feel like you are making the choices?"
To Spielberg: "When you look at something like this and you see the future that you've envisioned, what would you most like to have happen in your lifetime, you know, that you could do? I love the jetpacks and stuff." ("You stole my answer," the director replies, grinning. "That is what I was going to say.")
"Steven, this is kind of an off-the-beaten-path question, but I am doing a story on the Joan Crawford biography coming up on TCM. You worked with her, of course, on Night Gallery." (You have to hand it to this guy--at least he asked a question the answer to which was useless to everyone else.)
There are some nuggets of revelation that show up from time to time, but they're accidental. A woman sitting next to Cruise asks him the inevitable question, what passes for hard-hitting on Entertainment Tonight: "So, Tom, how does it feel to turn 40?" Through that enormous grin, that mouth full of under-construction teeth that look like white tombstones, he insists it's no big deal, that he never thinks about it unless asked about his encroaching birthday during interviews like these.
But, in reality, he seems to be obsessing over it, in small, subtle ways. Throughout the half-hour, he kept talking about movies well in his past: Risky Business, All the Right Moves, Legend. It's as if George Clooney were to give an interview about The Facts of Life. It's ancient history, or ought to be, yet Cruise keeps dipping into the yellowing scrapbook--back to the good ol' days when Tim Hutton and Matt Dillon were in their prime, when Cruise was just a doughy comer. "It has made me kind of reflect on when I started out when I was 17," he says. "I remember being a young actor and thinking that I couldn't wait to get older, because here I was, 21 years old, sitting at board meetings going over marketing things for pictures. It is something that when I look back, I think that I have done all right, and I don't feel nervous or weird or bad about it."
It's a rare reflective moment for Cruise, who's one of the least contemplative actors to sit in front of an open microphone. At least he didn't bring up Cocktail or Days of Thunder. The most insightful thing about Cruise is that maniac laugh of his, that hysterical bwah-hah-hahthat scares the hell out of you if you're unprepared. He let it out of its cage a couple of times--once, when a reporter spilled a bowl of jelly beans placed before him. It was pretty funny.
If Spielberg's no more insightful, he at least seems more sincere; film, after all, is a director's medium, and he knows how best to sell the product. Though he's just as adroit at sneaking in references to his older films--he says he and Cruise almost made Rain Mantogether, and it was their first, ahem, "close encounter"--he's also prone to doling out a little more insight. Maybe that's because directors think of things like legacies, while most actors daydream about things like paychecks and premieres. Spielberg is asked what he means when, in recent interviews, he says he's becoming "more courageous." Does he, in fact, mean "subversive?"
"I don't think anything I do is ever in service of changing my image, because I like my image," he says, cringing at the suggestion he's trying to shirk his rep as a soft touch. "And I've been celebrated for that image. It is not like people have condemned me and said, 'You have to be darker. You have to be darker. We are sick and tired of E.T., and we are sick and tired of Raiders. We are sick and tired of all these silly movies,' you know. So, I am taking a chance by exploring a path that came from a realization one day that I was no longer afraid of the dark. I was attracted to it, as a matter of fact."
He's revving up for a long talk about making dark movies about virtual sex and virtual murder. Spielberg's about to open up, to turn this prefab chitchat into a thoughtful conversation about violence and sex, about why he quit making graphic video games full of gore, about why he...
"Speaking of Raiders," interrupts the guy with the A.I.watch, "are you going to be directing the new one?"
"Oooh, when does that start?"
"It starts shooting May of 2004."
Yeah, pal. Start making your travel plans now.