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The Man in the Machine

By Heather B. Armstrong

During the pre-release press frenzy of Mission Impossible: III I watched an interview with the director, J.J. Abrams, wherein he said that he had wanted to set out not to make a movie about a spy but instead a movie about a man who was a spy. Interestingly, Tom Cruise, the actor who would be playing this man, seems to have spent the last year of his life trying to demonstrate that there was a man, a human, behind the actor, behind The Biggest Movie Star in the World™.
Going in to this movie I wasn’t so much interested in the man as I was the stunts they were going to pay him to perform. I had no illusions that Mission Impossible: III would change the meaning of my life, if I wanted that I would have rented Grease 2 and watched it naked in my garage. But I haven’t ever been interested in the man behind the actor either, because to me he hasn’t ever been human. I haven’t ever wanted him to be human because as the central figure of my pre-adolescent sexual awakening I’ve always wanted him to be an untouchable wax figure, something that can’t be hurt or show weakness or wake up in the morning with bad breath.
I was 11 years old when Top Gun hit theaters, and because my conservative family had taught me to take as much pride in my patriotism as in my virginity, a man in uniform was as sacred as the right hand of God. And so the shape of Tom Cruise’s taut little body in a white navy uniform did funny things to my insides, as I’m sure it did to the insides of scores of homosexual men. My husband assures me that when he saw the movie for the first time he was struck by its homosexual overtones — the naked locker room butt-slapping, the shirtless beach volleyball, the death of the co-pilot as a metaphor for homosexual love that society wants to suppress — but all I saw was the fiery lust of a military man for his female superior. For years I had fantasies about being swept off my feet by a naval officer who would take me for rides in his F-16.
As an adult fan of Tom Cruise I know now that I have continued to like him because of those early associations. I have always wanted him to be the superstar that he is because there is a lingering, innocent part of me that has needed him to live up to the superhero standard I saw in him during my childhood. I haven’t seen all of his movies, but I have never been among the crowd who criticizes his acting or believes that he is masquerading as a heterosexual. His acting never had to be good, it just needed to have that signature intensity of the rogue fighter pilot in order for me to respond to it. As far as his sexuality is concerned, I just never wanted to think about, never wanted to consider that my sexual awakening was based on attraction not just to men but to gay men, which could explain A WHOLE LOT about the four years I spent living in L.A.
I was watching the episode of “Oprah” when Tom jumped on her couch, and I was just as shocked as she was when it happened. A seemingly consummate professional was behaving like a lunatic on one of the most influential shows in the world, but more than that this mythical masculine hero was acting like a human, was showing weakness and vulnerability and unrestrained excitement. And where I thought I would be disappointed, I actually found myself surprisingly touched. I wanted to believe his performance because I have at several points in my life wanted to jump on Oprah’s couch, have wanted to scream to anyone who would listen I AM IN LOVE AND IT FEELS SO GOOD. He really convinced me that he was crazy in love, with emphasis on the crazy.
In the weeks that followed I watched all of the press coverage of his love affair with Katie, and it made almost everyone I know want to throw up in their own lap. But I thought he deserved a break if only because people in love are always gross, it just so happens that cameras were catching every moment of his grossness. I was cutting him serious slack right up until he walked onto the “Today” show looking like he hadn’t slept in two weeks (who sleeps when they’re in love!) and told Matt Lauer with fighter pilot seriousness that psychiatry is all a bunch of crap, that anyone who prescribes anti-depressants to treat clinical depression is being irresponsible. That’s when I had to get up and leave the room.
I’m not so sure that disappointment is a strong enough word to describe what I felt that morning. I was eight years old again and my mom was telling me that all those years when she was sending my wish list to Santa that she was lying. I desperately wanted Santa Claus to be real, and I was as equally devastated to realize that Tom Cruise was unlikable. All these years when people would list off the reasons that he shouldn’t be allowed to make another movie, the reasons they couldn’t stand listening to him utter a single word, maybe these people were right.
As someone who had to check herself into a mental hospital six months after giving birth in order to overcome a daily desire to commit suicide, as someone who was saved and given a new life through medication, I couldn’t believe that Tom Cruise would use his platform as a celebrity to dismiss my condition as something a little exercise could fix. I was offended on behalf of all of us who have been helped through medication. I was equally crushed that someone who had played such an important role in my adolescence could be so fearlessly contemptuous of something that had saved my family.
But that contempt, that passion, the way he had to hold himself back from choking Matt Lauer, that was just more proof that he was human. Flawed. Imperfect. It proved he was not a robot despite the years I had spent hoping he was, despite the scripted, monotonous way he gives interviews. He is man who believes in his religion, who believes he needs to preach that religion, who believes he is doing the right thing. He is no different than a devout Catholic decrying birth control. It’s so easy for us to dismiss and criticize someone as big as he is, someone we think doesn’t exist beyond the screen.
And as much as I now dislike him, or at least dislike his need to campaign against psychiatry, I am so bored of the news stories that want to make him out to be a villain or at least a total nutcase. One, it’s too easy, and it just seems lazy to me. Two, he has a mother and a sister and three very human kids. And now he has a girlfriend who is trudging through the minefield of first-time parenthood, what could possibly be one of the most vulnerable times of her life, an episode so challenging that she may need a little exercise, and they all have to deal with that pressure, with that never-ending scrutiny. And the human in me feels sorry for all of them.

About the Author

Heather B. Armstrong

Heather B. Armstrong was a regular contributor writing about pop culture for us at Dooce Plugs In. You can read her daily at her blog Dooce.


Heather B. Armstrong was a regular contributor writing about pop culture for us at Dooce Plugs In. You can read her daily at her blog Dooce.

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