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Control switch: On

Tom Cruise was gushing with love. Now he seems to be back to calm and collected.

June 06, 2005|Rachel Abramowitz and Chris Lee | Special to The Times

"Do you want the truth? Can you handle the truth?" asked starlet Katie Holmes on Saturday night as she introduced her new boyfriend, megastar Tom Cruise, to the fans at the taping of the MTV Movie Awards.

Of course, the seeming truth about Cruise has been up in the air for the last few weeks, ever since his couch-hopping, arm-pumping performance as a fool in love on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on May 23. Analyzed like the Zapruder film by Hollywood's chattering class, the "Oprah" bout, his May-December romance with the 26-year-old Holmes and his May 26 "Access Hollywood" appearance (where his focus was Scientology) have led to open theorizing about a midlife crisis on the part of the 42-year-old star. To say nothing of worries about a full-scale public-relations meltdown. Compounding the tension is an ongoing high-pitched battle with the new Paramount administration over the budget of Cruise's franchise "Mission: Impossible III," slated to begin principal photography in weeks, if the studio agrees to continue going forward.

On Saturday night, the slightly subdued actor seemed determined to turn back the clock, and transform himself back into the Cruise America knows best: its most calm and collected movie star. The actor had very noticeably crashed Holmes' "Batman Begins" junket on Friday. By Saturday, the pair had reverted to movie-star elusiveness, arriving on Cruise's futuristic motorcycle, with black helmets obscuring their famous features. He shunned the red carpet and holed up in the dressing room beforehand; he also skipped any appearance before the press in the green room.

The reemergence of Cruise's pragmatic, predictable side seemed to signal a return to business as usual -- no doubt accompanied by a sigh of relief in executive suites. When the business is Tom Cruise Inc., that is significant. While Cruise's domestic box office has softened ever so slightly recently, he remains the biggest movie star in the world, an international film behemoth. He usually forgoes an upfront salary for a gigantic piece of the back end, including DVD sales. For instance, on "The Last Samurai" (which grossed $457 million worldwide), two sources associated with the film say he earned between $80 million to $90 million.

During the MTV awards, the only reference to the curious media blitz of the last few weeks was the arm-pumping victory dance Holmes did at the end of her introduction for Cruise, who was receiving the cable channel's version of a lifetime achievement award. To many observers, it seemed a staged and pale imitation of Cruise's own "Oprah" theatrics.

Cruise kept to the more traditional movie star playbook, kissing Holmes chastely, and self-consciously. Later in the evening, he appeared more jovial and relaxed when bantering with his 11-year old "War of the Worlds" co-star, Dakota Fanning, as they presented another award.

The actor's apparent return to form seems a calculated attempt to shift the public focus to his upcoming movie, "War of the Worlds," the reason he's ostensibly been making the "Oprah" / "Access Hollywood" rounds recently.

Along with his displays of romantic enthusiasm, Cruise has also used his recent press forays to discuss Scientology more openly. In years past, he's addressed questions about his faith, but not elaborately. In fact, he used to be a textbook case in Hollywood image management. Junket-goers were warned beforehand about questions he would or would not answer, although they were technically free to ask away.

More recently, a number of journalists from publications as diverse as Details and Germany's weekly news magazine Der Spiegel have been invited to multi-hour tours through the various Scientology centers and outposts in L.A. and have been given an opportunity to check out the electric psychrometer before sitting down with the superstar. (According to Scientologists, the E-meter, which resembles two silver cans, is a device that measures responses to unhappy memories, hence allowing them to be discussed and "cleared.")

In its recent week-long Cruise extravaganza, "Access Hollywood" permitted the actor a hefty chunk of time to enthuse about his religion, and spout off about a Scientology bete noire, the evils of psychiatry ("You have to understand that with psychiatry, there is no science behind it, and to pretend that there is a science behind it is criminal.")

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A swipe at Brooke?

Unusual for the most polite man in Hollywood, he even took a swipe at Brooke Shields, who in her recent book "Down Came the Rain" detailed her use of the antidepressant Paxil to help cope with postpartum depression, calling her "irresponsible" and suggesting that vitamins and exercise could have done the trick.

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