Horny gossip spinster Liz Smith had unwittingly curried favor with Tom Cruise by appearing on an episode of Fox News Channel's gossip-for-conservatives show Lips & Ears, in which she opined that misunderstood Nazis: Just The Nice Ones-vehicle Valkyrie should be "accepted in the same way World War II movies by Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood and Francis Ford Coppola." (The actor has a staff combing the airwaves 24-hours a day for Cruise-positive messages; both Smith and Lips & Ears have now been slid into the Allies column.) What followed was a candid chat with the actor on everything from his crumbling UA dominion, to his comedic turn as a Harvey Weinstein-type in Tropic Thunder, to his billion-year war bride Katie Holmes bruise-inducing preparations for her Broadway debut:

'I LOVE Paula Wagner, but she wants to produce elsewhere and in her own venue, and I don't intend to stand in her way. I'll say this of her leaving United Artists - whatever Paula wants is what I want her to have! And I hope we'll continue working together on future projects." So spoke Tom Cruise on the phone with me this week. He added, cryptically: "I don't run United Artists; I just own it."

WHEN I asked Tom why he felt so many people in the business have gone after the Valkyrie" project as if it's a bad idea or something historically obscene, he sighed: "It just doesn't make sense to me either. The moment I read the screenplay I knew it was an important story, and as it's a true tale of heroic resistance to one of the great villains of history, I can't imagine that people won't want to see it."

Cruise's unflappably sanguine outlook has, of course, been what has helped propel him to superstar heights, and never will it be of greater service to him than in this highly transitional period in his career. Still, we'd have expected more from Cruise in his "don't ask me, I just sign the checks!"-attitude in addressing UA's failings. In Hollywood, where blame is flung around like fistfuls of chimpanzee crap on the set of Speed Racer, a clear and focused Alpha-superstar such as himself should be expected to step up and shoulder the blame for development misfires like Lions For Lambs 2: Armaggedon Reckoning.