Sects, lies and videotape:
A new biography of Tom Cruise.
Sydney Morning Herald
January 19, 2008
A new biography of Tom Cruise has unleashed the fighting instincts of the star and his cult, writes David Marr.
The famous eyes stare and his head lolls about at the wonder of it all while gibberish pours from his lips. Tom Cruise is extolling the glories of Scientology. "It's rough and tumble. It's wild and woolly and it's a blast," he declares, throwing his carefully dishevelled head back and roaring with laughter. "It's really fun because there is nothing better than going out there and fighting the fight."
Scientology knows all about brawling. Fighting hard, particularly in the courts, has been its survival strategy from the first. Even as millions watched Cruise blathering on the net this week, the cult was scrambling its lawyers to pull the eight-minute clip down, denouncing its posting as a criminal infringement of copyright: "This is a video work that is exclusively for the use of our client to be shown in its Churches of Scientology throughout the world."
Those threats did no good. The clip was soon everywhere. Highlights made the television news. As we go to press the Cruise confessions are scoring five stars and hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. As the world's most famous Scientologist says: "There's nothing part of the way with me." His hand mimes a racing car. "It's pshweeeee."
Meanwhile this week, petrified publishers and distributors have choked off supplies of Andrew Morton's unauthorised biography of the actor without, it seems, any legal action being taken by Cruise or his cult. Fear has been enough - fear not of one but two celebrated litigants backed by fine lawyers with long histories of entangling critics in the courts.
For the cult, victory has never been crucial. The purpose of the brawl is the brawl. As Scientology's inventor, L. (for Lafayette) Ron Hubbard, wrote in 1955: "The purpose of a lawsuit is to harass and discourage rather than to win." At one point in the 1960s, Hubbard even threatened the state of Victoria with a £10 million suit that the premier, Henry Bolte, dismissed as "piffle" and went on to ban the cult for a few years. Few political leaders since have shown his down-to-earth determination.
Cruise first made his own name as a celebrity litigant in 1996 when the German magazine Bunte called him sterile. Hollywood's renowned celebrity lawyer Bert Fields filed a $US80 million suit on behalf of the actor that resulted, a fortnight later, in the magazine apologising and firing the writer of the article. The suit was then withdrawn.
Fields has been there through all his court stoushes since, and over the past 10 days the lawyer with a reputation for never losing a case has been leading the attack on Morton's book.
"It's a pack of lies," he told the press. "It's a boring, poorly researched book by a man who never talked to anyone involved in Tom Cruise's life or anyone close to him."
Fields has welcomed the fact that - at least for now - Morton's biography will not be published in Britain. (Nor in Australia.) "The American publishers criticised the libel laws in Britain because they require an author to tell the truth. Well, thank God for the British libel laws."
Once upon a time, libel worked to keep a lid on secrets. Not any more. Not since the net. Once the book appeared in America in the middle of the week, the worst Morton had written about Cruise was posted for the world to read. From these sketchy reports it seems the biography is, in many ways, everything the actor could have wished. It declares him fertile, heterosexual and in love with his wives.
The trouble appears to lie elsewhere: in its depiction of Scientology and Cruise's commitment to the secret tenets of Hubbard's sci-fi religion. Not that these are so secret anymore. Despite decades of court actions designed to keep Hubbard's thinking available on a for-sale-only basis, anyone with an interest in the subject can now go to the internet and read that at its core Scientology promises to free us from the malign influence of "body thetans" brought to Earth and then exterminated by atom bombs aeons ago by an alien space lord called Xenu.
Having a bizarre narrative at its heart hardly sets Scientology apart from other religions. What is special about this cult is the price believers are charged to take each step along the Bridge to Total Freedom. It's pay as you go. Pay per view of the secret texts. It's as if only cardinals were allowed to read - and then after hefty payment to the Vatican - the Book of Revelation.
Scientology's critics never cease to quote a remark Hubbard made in the 1940s: "Writing for a penny a word is ridiculous. If a man really wants to make a million dollars, the best way would be to start his own religion."
But not millions these days. Billions. How much Cruise paid on his long journey to somewhere near the top of the cult is unknown. According to a BBC Panorama documentary last year, it costs followers about $200,000 to become an elite Operating Thetan or O.T. While that's only pin money for a mega star, Cruise is said to have reached far higher in the stratosphere of Scientology: to the level known as OT VII.
The price tag is unknown but the powers are said to be enormous. According to a 2006 Rolling Stone investigation of the cult, OTs are regarded as "enlightened beings who are said to have total 'control' over themselves and their environment. OTs can allegedly move inanimate objects with their minds, leave their bodies at will and telepathically communicate with, and control the behaviour of, both animals and human beings."
So here's a riddle for Tom Cruise: if he can make Morton's book fly off the shelves by the exercise of the powers invested in him as an OT VII, why bother with lawyers?
Cruise was the shining young star of Top Gun when he married the actress Mimi Rogers in 1987. She was already a Scientologist and Cruise joined the cult soon after they met. His attachment to Scientology only deepened over time but his marriage was soon over. On the set of Days Of Thunder in 1990 he met the Australian actress Nicole Kidman and they married that Christmas Eve.
The organisation of which Cruise was a lowly member was under challenge. Hubbard was dead. Britain, Germany and France resolutely refused to recognise the cult as a religion. The tax implications were enormous. Old scandals were being dredged up by the press. Unforgotten were the convictions in America in the early 1980s of 11 senior Scientologists for plotting to break into and bug government offices and to plant spies in federal agencies. Time magazine in May 1991 published a cover story under the headlines: "The thriving cult of Greed and Power. Ruined lives. Lost fortunes. Federal crimes. Scientology poses as a religion but is really a ruthless global scam - and aiming for the mainstream." The cult sued for US$415 million. Time fought the case for a decade and won.
"It's a tremendous defeat for Scientology," said the author of the piece, Richard Behar. "But of course their doctrine states that the purpose of a suit is to harass, not to win, so from that perspective they hurt us all. They've had a real chilling effect on journalism, both before and after my piece."
The same decade saw Scientology mounting court challenges to other texts critical of the cult. The keepers of Hubbard's faith won some notable defamation victories, particularly in Britain. The lawyers were also kept busy in Australia. According to The St Petersburg Times of Florida this intense activity saw the cult spend, at its peak, US$30 million in a single year on legal actions.
While defamation wins and losses reaped headlines, the cult was also busy in the courts taking steps - unique for a body that calls itself a church - to enforce copyright in its sacred texts. These actions were generally successful. Leaks were plugged. But in 1994 high-level defectors began posting Hubbard's most secret material - including the bizarre Xenu story - on the net.
Over the next few years a last determined effort was made by the cult to use the courts to staunch the flow. In America, the defectors were raided by federal marshals and scientology lawyers. Internet service providers - including those in Australia - were threatened unless they removed material. Fresh court cases began. Exhausted and broke, many defectors dropped off and US websites closed down.
That is when the Europeans took over. Andreas Heldal-Lund runs the Norwegian website Clambake (www.xenu.net) which has become the leading repository for Scientology texts and criticism of the cult. He has not been taken through the courts. "They started seeing that the more they got involved with these crazy people on the internet, the more they sued them, the more trouble they had."
Heldal-Lund is not a refugee from the cult but the managing director of a big US corporation in Norway who comes to this issue as a champion of free speech. He has not emerged unscathed. Like many critics who have conducted research on Scientology, he complains of attempts by the cult to intimidate him.
"They are good at shaking up," he told the Herald. "When they want to attack me, they don't go directly at me. They go to my ex-fiancee. They go to my employer or they go to people in the company I work for. They go to the guy I rent the house from. They never make direct claims but ask weird questions. They do all this planting of small seeds of mistrust so that people think, hmm there's something weird about this Andreas. This has been going on for years. This is what they're very, very good at."
Britain's Daily Express last year apologised for claiming Andrew Morton had been threatened by Scientologists in the course of writing the Cruise book. "The Church does not believe in harassing those who oppose the religion," said the Los Angeles headquarters this week in its 4000-word rebuttal of the "falsehoods" contained in Morton's book.
"We're a new religion and all things new are misunderstood. Our efforts to reach out and our open-door policy belie Morton's claims. We abhor conflict and the only time we respond are when others challenge our rights to freedom of religion."
By every measure Hollywood knows, Tom Cruise ended the 1990s a megastar. Like many Hollywood stars, he was paying a bizarre price for this success: tabloid trash inventions about his private life. But Cruise was one of the few who sued - again and again.
He has every citizen's right to protect his reputation. That the actor went about it so aggressively earned him a good deal of admiration from other tabloid victims and a public bored by the front-page reporting of everything passing for rumour coming out of Hollywood. "Every time someone says something defamatory about Tom, he has brought a lawsuit," observed Bert Fields in 2001 after yet another court victory for his celebrity client. "He doesn't let people get away with it."
Fields was just the man to stand by him through all this. This sharp-witted, smooth-tongued Californian has counted among his clients the Beatles, Michael Jackson, John Travolta and Steven Spielberg. He in turn, and less happily, employed the private eye Anthony (the Pelican) Pellicano, now facing trial on charges of racketeering and conspiracy, wiretapping, witness tampering, identity theft and destruction of evidence. Fields has denied any knowledge of such activities by Pellicano.
Fields warned everyone right at the start that Cruise would fight not just to protect his reputation as a man, but to maintain the willingness of his fans "to believe that he does or could possess the qualities of the characters he plays". On screen and off he would insist on being seen as Hollywood's all-American action man.
The litigation that followed was enough to strike fear into the heart of any biographer. In 1998 Cruise accepted a huge settlement - said to be £1 million and all donated to charity - after Britain's Express on Sunday suggested his marriage was a sham arranged by Scientology to disguise his homosexuality, impotence and sterility. The Express accepted the allegations were completely false and should not have been published.
Next Cruise and Kidman both successfully sued a Los Angeles paper that claimed they had needed two English sex therapists to show them how to make love on the set of Eyes Wide Shut when they "failed to produce any sparks" for Stanley Kubrick's cameras.
In 2001 Cruise hit Chad Slater, a former "erotic wrestler", with a $US100 million lawsuit for apparently telling a French gossip magazine he had had a relationship with the actor. Slater and the magazine retracted. Then in June that year, Bold magazine was slapped with another $US100 million lawsuit for offering a reward for anyone with photographs proving Cruise was gay. The magazine retracted.
In 2006, under mysterious circumstances, a South Park episode mocking Cruise and Scientology which had already gone to air once was pulled as it was about to be rescreened. It was a huge issue in the American press. Morton claims the actor refused to do any publicity for Mission: Impossible III unless it was pulled.
He was no longer looking like the all-American kid and there was nothing much Fields could do about it. Cruise had jumped on Oprah's sofa to declare his love for Katie Holmes, who gave birth to their daughter Suri during the South Park controversy. That brought the focus back on Cruise as an apostle for Scientology. After giving the most public demonstration of his fertility and heterosexuality, Cruise was beginning to look like a religious kook.
Not all the professionals at Hollywood's disposal can, in the end, protect a star from the judgment of the public. They try of course. That's their job. Perhaps Morton's Tom Cruise is as unfair to the man as Bert Fields has been claiming all week. He is calling it "poorly researched and badly written" and not really a biography of Cruise at all, rather "an attack on Scientology". But the Cruise team is making sure as few people as possible will have a chance to check this for themselves.
The book is protected by the more liberal libel laws of the US and is on sale throughout North America. But the laws are tougher here, so few Australian shops will stock it. Last night the first copies were arriving in the country but the international distributors are now saying these will be the last we see on the market in Australia - or Britain, Asia and Africa.
Which takes us back to the uncontrollable internet where, last night, another clip appeared of Cruise in high Scientology mode standing before a grainy image of L. Ron Hubbard. With the salute he made famous in Top Gun and the crowd roaring its approval, Cruise signed off: "To L.R.H."
Cult friction: Scientology's 58 years of controversy:
- 1950 L. Ron Hubbard publishes Dianetics: The Modern Science Of Mental Health.
- 1954 He establishes in Los Angeles the first Church of Scientology.
- 1965 Victoria bans Scientology for a few years after a report finding: "There are some features of Scientology which are so ludicrous that there may be a tendency to regard Scientology as silly and its practitioners as harmless cranks. To do so would be to gravely misunderstand the tenor of the board's conclusions … Scientology is evil; its techniques evil; its practice a serious threat to the community, medically, morally and socially; and its adherents sadly deluded and often mentally ill."
- 1966 Hubbard takes to the oceans in a fleet of ships serviced by a new order of "Sea Orgs". He officially distances himself from Scientology to escape mounting controversy, but still runs it from the ships.
- 1974 John Travolta recruited.
- 1980 Scientology goes to the High Court in a futile attempt to stop ASIO gathering intelligence on its activities.
- 1983 Scientology is recognised as a religion in Australia. Justice Lionel Murphy says: "Any body which claims to be religious, whose beliefs or practices are a revival of, or resemble, earlier cults, is religious."
- 1986 Hubbard dies after a stroke at his farm in California.
- After 1986 Tom Cruise recruited.
- 1987 Scientologists fail to stop Channel Nine's Willesee broadcasting a critical program about the group. Here and abroad lawyers pursue the cult's critics.
- 1991 Time denounces Scientology as "a ruthless global scam"; 10 years of litigation follow.
- 1993 Breakthrough for Scientology: US grants tax-exempt status after decades-long battle.
- Mid-1990s Scientology mounts worldwide legal strategy to keep its secrets off the internet. Fails.
- 2002 Cruise recruits James Packer.
- 2005 Cruise criticises Brooke Shields for using anti-depressants; calls psychiatry "a Nazi science".
- 2006: US cable channel Comedy Central refuses to re-screen a South Park episode mocking Cruise and Scientology.
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