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Scene in perspective

Analise Lipari | Friday, September 1, 2006

It’s been more than a year since Tom Cruise took to the couch on an unassuming broadcast of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” declaring his love for much younger actress Katie Holmes. Viewers were intrigued – albeit somewhat shocked – at this up-close-and-personal exposure to Cruise’s formerly very private life.

Cruise’s antics during the year that followed only added to the perception that he was odd, or even slightly disturbed. Few can forget his famously calling Matt Lauer “glib” while discussing anti-depressants on “The Today Show,” while still fewer can watch a Cruise film without the thought of his bizarre endorsement of Scientology on their minds.

It is true that “Mission Impossible III” did yield more than $400 million dollars worldwide during its on-screen run. However, Cruise’s recent split with former partner Paramount, allegedly due to his recent behavior, suggests that the power of negative public opinion remains an indelible factor in Hollywood.

The experiences of Cruise and other celebrities, such as the recently maligned Mel Gibson, call to mind the question public perception in an entertainer’s career. When entertainment magazines revealed the details behind the gates of Neverland Ranch, that information undoubtedly altered Americans’ opinion of Michael Jackson. Charlie Sheen’s recent redemption from the bowels of Tinseltown has been hampered yet again – this time by the accusation of former spouse Denise Richards of alleged wrongdoing during their brief marriage.

Be it through tabloids, E! Entertainment Television or the internet, the American – and the increasingly global – public finds more evidence of a seamy underbelly to their favorite stars’ lives. Often, these revelations can have a powerful impact on those actors’ or actresses’ careers.

Is it right to judge a man’s craft based on the details of his private life or personal opinions? Despite the truth or falsity of this question, history has shown in the end, the public has the final say.

Actors are not alone in this uncomfortable circumstance. Nineteenth century Britain shunned the formerly beloved playwright Oscar Wilde, upon discovering that he had been convicted of engaging in homosexual behavior. Politicians are clearly not immune from public scandal, as Americans have seen in the damaged reputations of Trent Lott, Bill Clinton and even John F. Kennedy.

It is a peculiarity of entertainment, however, that success is so tightly linked to public opinion. To put it bluntly, if an actor or actress has no audience, they simply will not act. The crux of the problem lies where the public’s enjoyment of celebrities’ screen personas and its fascination with celebrities’ personal lives intersect. Where one ends and the other begins is the question that must be asked.

Disconnection with that audience due to personal behavior casts a negative, and often irrevocable, shadow. Despite being a nation of self-proclaimed free thinkers, American sensibilities still contain a strain of Puritan ethic, and social norms still have a say in the actions of celebrities.

The future success of men such as Cruise and Gibson remains to be seen. Bouncing back from scandal can take precious time and money. However, the ultimate redemptive factor may just be the passing of time. In the annals of film history, Orson Welles is remembered more for the critical darling that is 1941’s “Citizen Kane” than he is for the tailspin of weight gain and bad career decisions made in his later life. Marlon Brando is remembered for being off-kilter, sending an actress posing as a Native American to collect one of his Academy awards. However, he is more remembered for his eternal portrayal as Don Corleone in “The Godfather” and Stanley Kowalski in “The Streetcar Named Desire.” Some celebrities stand the test of time aside from abnormal behavior.

Only time will tell how our generation’s stars are remembered.