Whore of the Worlds: How Tom Cruise’s Couch-Jumping Changed Stardom Forever

"Tom Cruise like I've never seen him!" is how Oprah Winfrey described it on May 23, 2005, at the top of an episode of her show that would go on to become its most memorable: the one with the couch jumping. She wasn't lying. Cruise was known for being guarded and tight-lipped about his private life, and his effusive display was enough to overshadow his career and to redefine his star status. Reporting on Paramount's decision to sever its 14-year production deal with Cruise in 2006, the New York Times described the post-Oprah events as, "Tom Cruise's yearlong metamorphosis from pure box-office phenomenon to pop-culture punch line."

Today, the episode turns seven years old, and it is still everything you remember it to be. Go back and watch it – the entire episode is on YouTube, as is TVGasm's 69-second highlight reel, which set the footage to Guster's "Center of Attention" and helped inaugurate this as one of the first TV-to-Internet crossover viral moments.

The awkwardness hasn't aged a day. In a declaration of love to the woman he'd go on to marry just under a year and a half later, Katie Holmes, Cruise grins maniacally and leaves the couch over a dozen times to kneel in proto-Tebow glory (six times), clasp both of Oprah's hands and vibrate her in her in her seat (three times) and nimbly leap from a seated position on the couch to a standing one (twice). The maligned move is nothing short of athletic. Intermittently throughout, Cruise shakes his fists like a campy god. He doesn't so much as mention War of the Worlds, what he was supposedly booked to promote until the end of the second segment. (Though he had the entire episode devoted to him, so who knows what they would have done to fill the time were there no Katie Holmes.)

What you might not remember is Oprah's goading. She laughs, touches him back, gasps in jubilance and refers to him as "gone," about a half a dozen times. The way she says the latter sounds out of admiration, though she'd later clarify (slash revise) the sentiment on Good Morning America:

It was wilder than it was appearing to me. I was just trying to maintain the truth for myself because I couldn't figure out what was going on. And what I was prepared for was the dance that happens when you're doing celebrities — when you know they're not going to tell you, but you're going to ask anyway, and then you try asking another way…I was not buying — not buying or not buying. That's why I kept saying "You're gone, you're really gone."

You also might not remember the crowd's ecstatic reaction to Cruise's mugging. They ate it up like it was a new car or a school for girls in South Africa. They screamed, they applauded, they embraced. They never tired of the rhythmless interpretive dance. A terrible barometer for the rest of the world and conduit for whatever Cruise was selling that day, alike, they loved it unconditionally. In 2010, Cruise explained his couch-jumping motivation to Esquire: "I wanted the audience to be happy just like I wanted to make my sisters and my mother happy when I did those skits as a kid." It's maybe the only thing he succeeded at with the entire stunt, and it was a home run.

So what does that mean? He wasn't the only crazy person in the room.

***

Whore of the Worlds: How Tom Cruise’s Couch-Jumping Changed Stardom Forever

"I like treating a woman the way she deserves to be treated," Cruise told Oprah. This was less than a month after a press release had announced his courtship with Holmes. He didn't issue it, per se: after Cruise and Holmes were spotted hand-in-hand in Rome at the David di Donatello Awards on April 27, 2005, Cruise's publicist sister Anne DeVette confirmed to Extra that the two were dating. Proud of its scoop, the tabloid show didn't wait until air to tell the world. The engine was ignited.

From the start, people smelled something funny in the gas. On May 12, 2005 – 11 days before the world would know the extent of Cruise's madness via Oprah – People.com ran an oft-cited poll asking if the courtship was "true romance" or a "publicity stunt." 62 percent of responses said "publicity stunt." This poll could be voted on infinite times and was "statistically meaningless," as Slate's Edward Jay Eptein pointed out. And yet, it seemed like the right answer.

In a New York Times opinion piece that ran that June, Frank Rich described the Cruise-Holmes affair as a "lavishly produced freak show, designed to play out in real time, enthusiastically enacted by the biggest star in the business." They both had movies out (his War of the Worlds, her Batman Begins). And of course, there were those pesky, distracting rumors.

Way before Cruise successfully sued the Express in 1998 for claiming that his marriage was a sham, the actor was dogged by rumors of homosexuality (I mean, have you seen Top Gun?). His involvement in Scientology, which has a reputation for attempting to straighten out gays, did his reputation no favors. Nor did his awkwardness when discussing the ladies – he told Reader's Digest in 2005 that women "smell good. They look pretty. I love women. I do." To Details, he called sex outside of a relationship "a little disconcerting." Founding a relationship in public with the Kidman association still fresh in people's minds (they separated in 2001) read to many as overcompensation, a gleeful proclamation of heterosexuality to drown out the din of naysayers.

In a way, it worked: today, you barely hear the rumblings about Cruise's sexuality that you once did. He's been with Holmes for over seven years now and he's remained consistent on his feelings about her. (2005: "She's an extraordinary woman. It's beautiful. I feel really happy. I'm more than enamored." 2012: "She is an extraordinary person, and if you spent five minutes with her, you'd see it.") But I'd wager that the very act of couch-jumping had a direct effect on the public's perception of his sexuality, as well. It would seem that a good way to convince people that you aren't gay is by showing them just how weird you can be.

***

"Anyone who's not happy for me, they're just not invited to the party," Cruise told Oprah. This was a testy time for him. As Patrick Goldstein surveyed in the Los Angeles Times:

Racing from one media event to the next, always on camera, Cruise has conjured up a hybrid of The Bachelor (his lovey-dovey Oprah appearance), The Apprentice (his "Access Hollywood" chat in which he said of his split with uber-publicist Pat Kingsley, "If I don't feel that [my people] are doing what I need from them...hey, I fire them!") and The Contender (his interview with Aussie journalist Peter Overton in which, after one too many Nicole Kidman questions, Cruise silenced his interviewer with an icy challenge: "Peter, you're stepping over a line now...I'm just telling you right now, put your manners back in").

In July, he'd go on to make the biggest ass out of himself yet on the Today show, where he humorlessly pontificated on the dangers of medication, called Matt Lauer "glib," and claimed, "You don't know the history of psychiatry. I do."

Elsewhere in his piece Goldstein moaned:

Somewhere at the intersection between aberrant star behavior and insatiable audience voyeurism, we've created a new entertainment form: celebrity reality TV. Our obsession with eavesdropping on people's private lives, combined with our fascination with the inner workings of showbiz, has created a new rogue genre in which celebrities act out their own reality show, free from the constraints of a network time slot or a staged setting, like a boardroom or a desert island.

In the advent of things like Twitter, getting mad about this phenomenon seems quaint and out of touch. Celebrity performance art has become the way of the world. The bonus features are written into the stories, the behind-the-scenes now set pieces. You don't get to call it a day anymore; existence is a full-time job and a full-time job is existence.

Cruise wasn't the first person to freak out on a talk show - think Madonna saying "fuck" a lot on Letterman or Drew Barrymore flashing Letterman or Farrah Fawcett spacing out next to Letterman. Nor was he the first celebrity to what we can broadly describe as a "meltdown." (Who hasn't? Goldstein's piece has a roundup of recent celebrity weirdness at the time of Cruise's and it included Russell Crowe's phone-flinging, Christan Slater's arrest for alleged groping and Lindsay Lohan's Lohaning.)

But there was something so personal, so oversharey, so necessarily engaged with the audience in Cruise's couch-jumping that it set the tone for the kind of one-person media circus we'd expect and enjoy in the years to come, to varying degrees of sadness (Britney Spears), amazement (Charlie Sheen) and despicableness (Chris Brown). Goldstein called this "bad reality TV." Now it's just entertainment, period.

***

"I'm gone and I don't care," Cruise told Oprah. Oh, but he would come to care. After prolonging the spectacle with the Lauer incident, Cruise calmed down. He soon apologized for coming across as "arrogant" on Today. He joked about it at Lauer's Friars Club Roast. He danced on BET. He and Holmes had a baby, Suri.

Whore of the Worlds: How Tom Cruise’s Couch-Jumping Changed Stardom Forever

He eventually took atoning roles that satirized entertainment and his entire image up to the point of the couch (most notably in his Golden Globe-nominated turn in Tropic Thunder, and seemingly in his upcoming role as a rock star in Rock of Ages). He retreated enough that his next major scandal was introspective and not meant for the general public – in 2008, a video of him babbling about Scientology caused a sensation, and this time we were ready for it. In his post, Gawker overlord Nick Denton wrote, "If Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch was an 8 on the scale of scary, this is a 10." Later that year, he'd return to The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey profiled him at his Telluride, Colo., estate, and this time they sat on his couch. They laughed about that.

The fallout of the couch jumping was felt to varying degrees. Yes, it ended his deal with Paramount, and in an unprecedented (and frankly unnecessary) move, the company explicitly tied what should have been implicit to Cruise's antics: "As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal," Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone told the Wall Street Journal. "His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount."

If Cruise harmed the box office performance of War of the World, you couldn't tell – it made $234.2 million in the U.S. alone. In 2006, Forbes put Cruise atop its Power 100 for the first time in five years "thanks to a combination of his awesome earnings from War of the Worlds and the media onslaught following his pairing with actress Katie Holmes. He also generated tons of ink with his couch-jumping antics on Oprah, his outspoken criticism of the pharmaceutical industry and, of course, his new baby, Suri. Love him or hate him, Cruise is Hollywood's most bankable actor."

Indeed, despite some widely acknowledged missteps (Knight and Day grossed an underwhelming $76.4 domestically; Valkyrie did $83 million), Cruise's career seems to have largely recovered at this point. The enthusiastically received Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was the seventh highest grossing movie in the U.S. last year, taking in $209.4 million. The seven movies Cruise released after the couch jumping have a higher average domestic gross ($123.2 million) than the seven he made before ($105.47 million). You can chalk that up to inflation, but consider that the seven movies starring Tom Hanks that were released after May 23, 2005 grossed on average less than the seven that came before ($128.7 million versus $134.2 million). Julia Roberts' nine post-couch jump pictures have also underperformed compared to the nine that came before (a domestic average of $56.3 million versus $79 million).

The reason is simple: time has a way of loosening people's interest. Aging in public amounts to a vocational swim upstream. (It's notable that the average domestic gross of Brad Pitt's 11 post-couch jump movies is higher than the 11 prior — $86.5 million versus $71.9 million.) This year, Cruise returned to the Forbes Power Top 10 for the first time since 2007, thanks to the success of the recent Mission: Impossible and Cruise's trailblazing back-end deal-making.

But if he's back on track, what effects of the couch jumping are still discernible in Cruise's career? I asked some peers who were either blogging at the time (or just after) and many of them seemed to agree that this was a turning point for Cruise's image.

Alex Blagg (formerly of Best Week Ever and Wonderwall):

It was obviously a clear breaking point in his career, where he went from "Universally Beloved Leading Man" to "Aging Movie Star Growing Weirder With Time." See also: Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, et al.

Jessica Coen (Jezebel, formerly of Gawker):

Now, you don't really see Tom Cruise in movies that ask the audience to make an emotional connection to his character — how could they? He's deranged…After Oprah, it was impossible to disassociate the guy on the big screen from the lunatic on the couch. Once you found out the Lev Grossman character in Tropic Thunder was actually Tom Cruise, you couldn't really watch his scenes without thinking, That's Tom Cruise.

Mark Graham (VH1.com, formerly of Defamer):

I never would have guessed that this event, in combination with the Scientology tape that Gawker/Defamer published a few years later, would effectively kill his mass appeal as a dramatic actor. Sure, people will still go to watch him in action movies, but now he'll never be able to escape those moments of "craziness" that were captured on film.

Michael K (D-Listed):

I think the Matt Lauer interview, the pounding of Oprah's couch and everything around that messed with his image as a sex symbol. Does anybody see him as a sex symbol anymore? My mom used to be into him during his Jerry Maguire days and recently I asked her if she's still into him. She said, "No! He's crazy and not in a good way. Does he even have sex anymore?" Good point.

Of course, things change. Despite Hollywood being slightly more lenient on aging men, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. There was no guarantee that Cruise could parlay his boyish sex appeal into that of a handsome older gentleman, and even if he did, he would still be running on limited time. He was 42 when he jumped on Oprah's couch. Age was bound to catch up with him at some point.

***

"I like seeing people happy... I feel like I want to share it with people because it's something that's very special," Cruise told Oprah. And boy, was it ever. We like to make a show of clutching our pearls when celebrities go off the rails or jump the couch, as some people still might say. (Does anyone really say it still, though? Also, does anyone really still call Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes "TomKat?") But in a time of pervasive fear over the state of the entertainment industry that leads to prepared answers and overall blandness, moments like Cruise's are exhilarating.

This is especially true for those of us who work on the Internet and write about pop culture. I find it increasingly difficult to separate my genuine enjoyment of a piece of entertainment from the fodder it provides – that which gives me the most to write about ends up loved by me, no matter how perversely. These things become fleeting muses, and although they are brief, the bonds they form tend to be stronger than your average digested pop culture nugget.

As the line between laughing at and with becomes blurred, the premium on effect raises and intention matters less and less. So regardless of his motives, Cruise was really good to us viewers and interpreters. His Oprah appearance was ultimately an act of generosity. What a rush! What a deliriously odd thing to behold and dissect and show us all that was possible in terms of audience response.

Things changed after that talk show far more decisively for our culture than for Cruise, whom at this point seems to at last healed from the incident. Clipping and supercutting and examining these things in ways that we'd never dream possible became de rigueur. Cruise's theatrics were once seen as a symptom of our caring too much about celebrities, but they caused more than they conjured and we haven't changed our ways in the slightest. In fact, our cultural X-rays have only strengthened. True, false, hyperbole, cover-up, Niacin-induced, whatever – whatever Cruise meant by his display on Oprah, it was primarily a bid for attention. Seven years later it is clear that it only made us more attentive.

This was his most memorable performance, a redefining and shuffling around of exactly what constituted appropriate televised behavior. And he couldn't have done it without us.

"Is it bad that I just did not think about its effects on his career?" Ben Mandelker, the cofounder of TVgasm, asked back when I inquired about his editing of the site's infamous viral video. "I really was more concerned with MY career, and I knew that if we put video up of Tom Cruise jumping around like a maniac, it would bring a lot of traffic to the website. I'm very self-interested in that way… The video was definitely a major moment for our blog, and I suppose in retrospect, it really was one of the first indications that videos and blogging could be such a potent force. It was also pretty much the last time a website could have a video like that and keep it exclusively. People couldn't really share back then. There was no YouTube. Readers were forced to visit us. It was very exciting. We were really the only place anyone could watch video of Tom Cruise jumping up and down. We had the video; Defamer had the screenshots, and about a week later, someone made that famous GIF of Tom Cruise shooting Star Wars lightning bolts at Oprah. That was it. The New York Times ran a huge article about it, and they took a screen shot from our video. We had a little photo credit. We thought we were rockstars."

[Image by Jim Cooke]