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Sincerity takes a fall






The incredible thing about Tom Cruise's mad love, Russell Crowe's telephone tantrum and Michael Jackson's boyish follies isn't that these men have been acting badly.

It's that they've been such bad actors about it.

Here you have two of the world's biggest movie stars and the self-anointed "King of Pop," all three capable of creating characters of universal appeal. And yet, lately, they've proven themselves rank amateurs in putting forward convincing real-life personas.

There's a sincerity gap between what Cruise, Crowe and Jackson are saying and doing and the public perception of it. The gap is getting bigger by the day, and the three aren't alone. As many people in the spotlight are discovering to their peril, the chasm between celebrity foible and public tolerance yawns greater than ever.

Movie stars and pop stars have always engaged in scandalous behaviour. There are people who still won't forgive Elizabeth Taylor for "stealing" Eddie Fisher from his wife Debbie Reynolds or Woody Allen for ditching Mia Farrow so he could marry their adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn.

But there used to be an unwritten code that stars could get away with little more than a hand-slap or a bit of tsk-tsking, because they were stars, after all. They were special, unlike you and me.

And there was a certain decorum to how celebrity miscreants conducted themselves. They may not have apologized for their actions, but neither did they go out of their way to parade them.

It's impossible to imagine a star of an earlier generation, say Cary Grant or Gary Cooper, acting as weirdly as Tom Cruise has of late. In a few short weeks, this formerly secretive and soft-spoken actor, once admired for his humility, has managed to convince much of the global populace that he is off his nut.

After two failed marriages, enough to sober up most men, he fell for fellow thespian Katie Holmes like a teenager getting his first kiss. Then Cruise, 42, went on The Oprah Winfrey Show and bounced off the furniture while cackling like a speed freak, all to demonstrate his devotion to Holmes, a woman 16 years his junior.

"I'm in love! I'm in love!" he proclaimed, as Winfrey looked on with shock and amusement.

"Something happened to you!" she said.

Yes, indeed, and few people are buying the puppy-love scenario. Talk to anyone on the street or spend a few seconds trolling the Web, and the overwhelming reaction to Cruise's outburst is breathtaking cynicism. Most people — including the star-struck readers of Us Weekly and People, who were actually polled on the matter — believe the Cruise/Holmes coupling is just a publicity stunt to boost his new movie The War of the Worlds and her new film Batman Begins.

Cruise hotly denies this, but his disconnect with the public mood obviously hasn't sunk in. He's been further muddying his once-sterling image by wading into discussions where his opinions are neither sought nor valued. His disastrous tour of the talk shows has also seen him denouncing psychiatry and prescription medicine. At the same time, he's been evangelizing with renewed fervour his belief in Scientology, his controversial creed.

He appeared on Access Hollywood to denounce modern psychiatry as a "fraud," insisting that Scientology is the real answer. He stunned host Billy Bush with a wild-eyed pitch to the audience.

"I feel responsibility because I care, man. I care," Cruise said. "I care about you. I care about your children. I care about these people here in this room. Every one of you. And I mean it. That is not just words to me. That is a promise."

The problem is, it all does sound like "just words" to Cruise, like he's reading a badly written movie script. He seems unaware of how insincere he seems to the average person, who rightly wonders just how much a Hollywood millionaire cares about the average Joe.

The sincerity gap has also swallowed up Russell Crowe, who is busily attempting — and not succeeding — to convince us that his most recent act of public violence is the fault of stress, jet lag and loneliness.

Crowe last week was charged with assault and possession of a weapon after he hurled a telephone at a hapless New York hotel clerk, in a fury over a failed connection. If convicted, the 41-year-old New Zealand actor could spend up to seven years in an American prison.

He appeared on David Letterman's TV talk show two nights later and apologised for what he did. He was taking a leaf from Hugh Grant's successful confession before Jay Leno a decade earlier, after Grant was caught with a prostitute in a car on Hollywood's Sunset Blvd.

Crowe called his telephone tantrum "possibly the most shameful situation I've ever gotten myself in in my life," and there was no argument there. Since his rise to fame in recent years, he's become notorious for bar brawls and other arguments.

But Crowe didn't seem sincere in his chat with Letterman. His apology was directed in the main at his wife, Danielle Spencer, who lives in Australia and whom Crowe had been attempting to telephone the night of the hotel incident. He seemed more worried about offending her than for having injured hotel clerk Nestor Estrada, who received a facial cut from Crowe's flying phone.

Crowe finally did express sorrow for Estrada's injury, but the apology came as almost an afterthought. And he muted his mea culpa by bragging about having received special treatment from New York City cops because someone high up "made a few calls and, you know, just simplified things." (NYC Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne has angrily denied the suggestion of favouritism.)

It hardly helped that Crowe made his public act of contrition while still wearing a promotional jacket for his new movie Cinderella Man, the same jacket he wore two nights earlier when the police arrested him. Combining sorrow with a promotional opportunity isn't the best way to win public favour, and so far, Crowe's confessional gambit hasn't paid off.

His wife has let it be known to Australian media that she isn't accepting at face value his claims of loneliness and stress. "I don't want to make excuses for him because I'm certainly not," she told her local newspaper the Sydney Sun-Herald.

Worse yet for Crowe, the movie-going audience isn't sympathetic or even curious. Most critics praised Cinderella Man, but Crowe's depiction of a Depression-era boxer struggling against unbelievable odds has been struggling at the box office. It slipped to sixth place in the North American Top 10 last weekend, leading to speculation by industry observers that Crowe's antics have brought him a beating from disillusioned fans.

Crowe, like Cruise, isn't getting the message that people no longer look the other way at celebrity slips, especially when the insincerity is so palpable.

The same is abundantly true of Michael Jackson, the dethroned pop king whose acquittal this week on child molestation charges has done little to reverse his public decline. He may have been declared not guilty, but that's not the same as being innocent, as several of the jurors stated after handing down their hotly debated decision.

Few people accept Jackson's argument that there's nothing wrong with a 46-year-old man sharing his bed with children who are not his own. He may not be a pedophile, but he is seen as being too weird for his own good, and his career has likely suffered irreparable damage, as his slumping record sales attest.

Is any of this getting through to Jackson? It hardly seems likely, judging by the bizarre celebration of his court victory on his official website (http://www.MJJsource.com), which equates his acquittal with the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the freeing of Nelson Mandela and the 1968 Apollo 8 moon voyage. Jackson sees himself as a force of history.

Cruise, Crowe and Jackson have failed to present themselves as decent and honourable men, or even to make a good show of pretending to be that way. But they aren't entirely to blame for their fall from grace.

They have fallen prey to the all-consuming nature of modern media, which has removed much of the mystery and wonder of stardom and diminished the respect accorded public figures. The rise of the Internet over the past decade has accelerated a trend away from hard news and toward celebrity journalism, where bad behaviour is encouraged, privacy is violated and rumours are treated as fact even when proven groundless. Journalistic rules of fair play are ignored, as catty comments are immediately posted on various websites and blogs.

Popular sites such as Defamer.com and Gawker.com exist for the sole purpose of hurling mud at the high and mighty. Even mainstream newspapers, which once avoided tabloid dirt and paparazzi photos, now devote vast amounts of space to both.

"Celebrity journalism has increasingly taught us to see celebrities as pathological characters — that is, we're encouraged to concentrate on the odd, eccentric behaviour of stars, and to speculate on `what's behind it,' what childhood trauma or recent breakup may have caused the acting-out," said Kevin J. Hagopian, a senior lecturer in media studies at Pennsylvania State University.

"Recently, the stories that journalists and editors have decided have the best `legs' are those which portray celebrities as pathetic. It's impossible to tell, of course, whether celebrities are personally trustworthy, or not. But the false sense of intimacy which the new celebrity journalism has created invites us to obsess on incidents that make the celebrity seem immature, impatient, or cruel, rather than hapless, or just the victim of a passing angry or irrational moment, like the rest of us."

Average people are fascinated by stories about the misery and mistakes of the rich and famous, Hagopian added, because it confirms the common belief that money and fame don't buy happiness.

And it seems we can't get enough of such stories. The New York Times reported this week that ad pages for gossip magazine Us Weekly, Star Magazine and In Touch Weekly are all up sharply, reflecting the popularity of their sex-and-sin editorial content with millions of readers.

People snap up such stuff even when they suspect it isn't true, said Elayne Rapping, a professor of American studies at the University at Buffalo, who has also written several books on pop culture.

"On one hand, we are incredibly sophisticated about media hype and know it's largely spin. But what is far more interesting, I think, is the near addiction people, in the U.S. especially, have for celeb gossip," she said.

"Celeb gossip mags proliferate and make huge amounts of money. Whether people `believe' the hype or not is less interesting to me than the fact that this stuff excites huge interest and debate, in spite of — or maybe because of — the confusion about the hype and the reality. People don't seem to care too much. In fact, I think, like old-fashioned back-fence gossip, people like to speculate."

But the fact that people will happily stand and gawk at a car crash doesn't exonerate a reckless driver. For all of their claims of annoyance and hurt feelings over having their personal lives invaded and their reputations sullied, celebrities often are willing participants in their public shaming, as long as it suits their marketing needs.

Take the instance of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the stars of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, currently the No.1 movie in North America. It opened last weekend with a remarkable $51 million (U.S.) ticket haul, no doubt spurred in part by relentless media speculation that an on-set affair between Pitt and Jolie had led to the breakup earlier this year of Pitt's fairy-tale marriage to Jennifer Aniston.

Pitt and Jolie both denied sexual impropriety, going so far as to demand that journalists attending the Mr. & Mrs. Smith junket sign agreements not to ask probing personal questions. Jolie was quoted as saying she'd never knowingly have sex with a married man.

They may have been telling the truth, even if the rumours did help sell movie tickets. But the sincerity of Pitt and Jolie must be called into question after the publication this week of the latest issue of W Magazine. It features a 60-page (!) photo spread on the two stars, billed as "Hollywood's hottest couple," who are dressed up as a traditional 1950s couple and the parents of five children.

It may be martinis and high chairs in the living room, the pictorial shows, but in the bedroom it's all steamy action. Pitt and Jolie make out like bandits. It certainly looks real enough to have angered Aniston, who is reportedly preparing to break her silence in the next issue of Vanity Fair, when she will reveal that her divorce from Pitt was prompted by his straying.

Pitt and Jolie have also fallen into the sincerity gap, but unlike Cruise, Crowe and Jackson, they don't appear to have suffered for it. Not yet, at least. Rapping surmised it might have something to do with how coy they've been up until now.

Said Rapping: "The huge turnout for the Brad/Angelina movie I believe was due — unlike the Affleck/J.Lo fiasco — to the very fact that they refused to comment or appear together, so people filled theatres trying to see if there was real `chemistry' or just hype. With Affleck/J.Lo, they were engaged and clearly a couple and all the coverage made people bored with the two of them."

It remains to be seen whether the public will also get bored with the shenanigans of Pitt and Jolie, which seems likely. The one constant of celebrity gossip is that it never stays focused for long on one person or couple. There is always another car wreck heading down the turnpike, ready to crash and burn.

The tide may be starting to turn. Celebrities are becoming more aware of the sincerity gap, and regret having jumped into it.

Separate news reports this week quoted pop star Madonna and gadabout socialite Paris Hilton as both having second thoughts about past excesses.

Madonna, famous for baring her soul and her body, admitted, "Sometimes I was being overtly sexual for the sake of showing off when I didn't need to be."

Hilton, newly engaged to Greek playboy Paris Latsis, said she's tired of being viewed as a dumb blonde and spoiled brat. She plans to settle down and have children in two years, when she turns 26. She's sick of the "losers" who demand things from her and she's fed up with the endless partying. "I can't believe I used to love doing this," she told Newsweek.

Are Madonna and Hilton to be taken seriously? They may be telling the truth, but nothing in their past behaviour would suggest that they are worthy of the public trust. They have both been caught mocking people who they deemed to be naïvely honest and truthful.

In his DVD commentary to his 1968 thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, Canada's Norman Jewison made an observation about the sincerity of his star Steve McQueen that seems remarkable in today's pop-culture context.

"I believe him," Jewison says of McQueen. "When he looked at you, boy, I tell you, there was something there."

Of how many current stars could such a statement be so sincerely made?

And the sad thing is that so few of them realize it.

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