Stars' political opinions often stir controversy

As the fight for the presidency heats up, Hollywood’s celebrities will be speaking their minds about the candidates and the issues — and studio chieftains already are cringing. Politics breeds controversy, and there are many who feel that stars should be seen and not heard. The campaign will be shrill enough, they reason, without celebrity input.

There’s more than a little hypocrisy to this position. The corporate Brahmins wield their wealth and power to support favored candidates, one could argue, so why shouldn’t stars put their celebrity muscle behind their causes?

Alas, the most forceful argument for muzzling actors can be summed up in two words: Tom Cruise. He never planned it this way, but Cruise has made himself the poster boy for those who feel that stars should keep their political and religious opinions to themselves.

Two years ago it seemed as though Cruise had turned a corner. After Sumner Redstone told him to get lost, Cruise responded by setting up his own label — United Artists. He hired himself a new press agent and put forth the message that he was now a studio chief — an industry force — as well as a movie star. He seemed eager to take on both the responsibilities and the constraints of this new status.

Last weekend, Cruise was in his element. Striding on stage to present the final honors at the SAG Awards show, Cruise was the picture of confidence and composure. Unlike most of the other presenters, however, Cruise had no involvement with any of the films being honored. It was as though SAG had accorded him some unique place in the Hollywood constellation.

But not really. Though he’s stopped jumping on Oprah’s couch, Cruise advocacy of Scientology and its satellite causes seem to have become even more strident and contentious. More than ever, his actions reflect the conviction that he, Tom Terrific, has sole and unique access to the ultimate truth about life, science and cinema.

To be sure, his achievements as studio chief thus far do not reflect this unique status. His first movie, “Lions for Lambs,” was a flop and his efforts to promote the film seemed oddly distanced. Throughout his brief forays, Cruise remained “on message” — this was a movie he supported out of respect for Robert Redford, his co-star and director. The word “antiwar” was never invoked, nor was the theme of the film explored.

Cruise’s stalwart dedication to remaining on message is vividly spelled out in Andrew Morton’s new book, “Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography.” On its cover is a fabled Cruise quote: “You can’t drive past an accident, because, as a Scientologist, you are the only one who can help.” Little wonder that Cruise’s bizarre “salute” to Scientology is a major draw across the Web even though it’s apparently several years old.

Since the appearance of the Cruise salute, I have been peppered with anecdotes from top players in the industry describing instances in which Cruise has used his bully pulpit to advance his cause. His fervor once again is tilting the entertainment community against him. He is a target of suspicion rather than respect.

Anyone has a right to advocate a cause, of course, but Scientology’s beliefs and protocols — and its history of litigious behavior — set Cruise apart. To be a Scientologist is not like being a Lutheran. Witness Cruise’s famous lecture to Matt Lauer about psychiatry or about the treatment of hyperactive children or his harangue to Brooke Shields.

I’m gratified that Cruise has achieved the level of Operating Thetan VII within his peer group, that he really believes L. Ron Hubbard may return to earth, and that he was sufficiently motivated to help the cause of Scientology in Europe to seek out meetings with Scooter Libby and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. During his shoots, Cruise apparently sees to it that volunteer ministers are on duty in tents to give “assists” to actors who might be interested in the precepts of Scientology or be otherwise needy.

There is something at once admirable and disturbing in Cruise’s zeal. Clearly he feels his beliefs have helped him and can help others, but in a free society there are limits to what constitutes acceptable proselytizing, and Tom Terrific seems unable to put himself on Cruise Control.

The impact all this will have on his new studio is of concern to his colleagues at UA and at MGM, and to their financial backers. Andrew Morton’s book argues the dubious proposition that the production of “Valkyrie” in Germany (Cruise stars as the German aristocrat who failed in his attempt to assassinate Hitler) actually constituted a new initiative on behalf of Scientology to expand its beachhead in Europe.

Indeed, there were protests in Germany against Cruise’s use of certain locations — protests that were overcome. Scientology always has sparked controversy in Germany, exacerbated by Cruise’s one-time depiction of psychiatry as a “Nazi science” during a TV interview.

It’s become clear that Cruise is still Cruise. He is at once gracious, respectful and disciplined. When you meet Cruise in person, it’s impossible not to like him. But he’s also a lightning rod for controversy — a condition that is aggravated by his new status.

That’s also the reason why, to Hollywood’s power players, movie stars should be wary about their advocacy on social issues. Stars like Cruise have become brands, and a brand must be agnostic. Brand means bland. And that means apolitical.

In these coming months, apolitical may prove to be the most difficult constraint of all.

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