Considering “The Master,” Part 1: Tom Cruise’s Craziness is a Little Sad

The psychology of religious leadership is an important aspect of “The Master,” but there’s no mention in the film of Galactic Warlord Xenu’s nuclear strike against our volcanoes. “The Master” is a feast, but contrasted with real events it reiterates an often-surprising notion: truth is stranger than fiction. I bring this up because of Tom Cruise.

Think about Tom Cruise. He stars in huge – sometimes great – films. Rich. Famous. Powerful. He dates gorgeous actresses and even married Nicole Kidman, one of the most beautiful and talented of them all. The world belongs to Tom Cruise.

He’s got this other thing in his life, though, that makes it all a little less awesome. A blockbuster Vanity Fair article this month about Cruise made headlines because of its strange central story on a program by top Scientologists to find Cruise a worthy girlfriend in the middle 2000’s. More interesting, though, in the context of “The Master,” is a subplot of this article about the head of Scientology, David Miscavige. He and Cruise are close, dear friends.

“Miscavige…. prided himself on being able to produce with a snap of his fingers anything Cruise desired, as well as to remove whatever he considered to be obstacles in the star’s life, such as his last wife, Nicole Kidman, and his last girlfriend, Penelope Cruz.” Oh yeah, Cruise dated Penelope Cruz. That is nice work. But this article says the church wouldn’t have her. It got creepy.

“Kidman and Cruz had been found wanting in their embrace of the organization and therefore unsuitable for the highly prized Cruise – Kidman especially. … As Penelope Cruz became Cruise’s new love interest, she took her own set of courses, but, the sources say, she soon ran afoul of Miscavige, who dismissed her as a mere ‘dilettante’ when it was learned that she was unwilling to forsake her Buddhist beliefs.”

The religion is inserting itself into Cruise’s personal life and manipulating his relationships, this article says. “There can be no underestimating how valuable Cruise was to Scientology.” During Cruise’s marriage to Kidman, Miscavige “got reports on the couple through members of their personal staff – devout Scientologists. The staff ‘was reporting every single detail going on in the house during the entire marriage with Nicole – how they were getting along, their disputes, what he was doing movie-wise, and his relations in Hollywood.'”

The leader of the church was snooping on Cruise and his wife, this story says. Why the obsession? And why would Cruise be cool with that?

He received a “Freedom Medal of Honor” from Miscavige, “an award created specifically for Cruise.” Did that prize make up for the intense interference in his private life?

It gets worse. Creepier. “Auditing sessions” are big deals in Scientology. They are “its expensive version of Roman Catholic confession, administered by an auditor posing hundreds of questions to a paying subject holding on to two metal canisters wired to an Electropsychometer, or E-Meter, which measures the body’s reactions to questions somewhat as a lie detector does. Subjects are encouraged to bring up any disturbing past memories or transgressions and get them out in order to be ‘cleared’ to go up the Bridge of Total Freedom, through many levels leading to eternal spiritual happiness, a process that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Scientology’s “former inspector general and No. 2” told Vanity Fair he made written reports following each of Cruise’s auditing session, to deliver to Miscavige. “Miscavige eagerly awaited the Cruise reports and those of other high-profile Scientology members at his Gold Base headquarters…. According to several sources, he often read them out loud to entertain whomever he was with… Miscavige – often joined by his wife, Shelly – would whip out a bottle of Macallan scotch at two or three in the morning in the Officer’s Lounge, play backgammon, and read the Cruise reports with a running commentary.”

The running commentaries were about Cruise’s sex life, another ex-Scientologist told VF: “‘He would roll his eyes and say ‘Jeez, can you believe it?’ All the while, Miscavige claimed to be Cruise’s best friend.”

Come on. That’s sad. Not tragic, but sad. No matter how rich and famous Tom Cruise is, it’s sad that this religious leader is his “best friend” (Miscagive was best man at the Cruise-Katie Holmes wedding) while trashing him behind his back and messing with his marriages.

Which brings us to “The Master.” The film’s director, Paul Thomas Anderson, has gone back and forth about how much his movie is influenced by the story of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. There are some instances too hard to ignore, though. The film’s central authority figure is Lancaster Dodd (played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a religious leader who authored a book called The Cause. Dodd says our spirits are trillions of years old – older than the universe – and we’ve been cycling through lives the entire time. He says we must get rid of our “negative emotional impulses and bring man back to its perfection.”

Dodd’s auditing is called “processing.” He asks several questions. “Do you like to linger at bus stops for pleasure?” “Do your past failures bother you?” “Do your past failures bother you?” “Do your past failures bother you?” “Are you unpredictable?” Subjects are instructed not to blink as they answer. The questions get sexual. It’s a total mind fuck. Dodd believes (or says he believes) that evil forces implanted our spirits with fear trillions of years ago.

Real-life Scientology believes that, from Vanity Fair: “…75 million years ago a galactic emperor named Xenu sent millions of frozen souls on spaceships from his overpopulated kingdom to the bases of volcanoes on Earth; the volcanoes were hydrogen-bombed, and today the scattered and reincarnated spiritual beings, or ‘thetans,’ pick up human bodies as ‘containers’ to inhabit. Their excess emotional baggage can haunt the human hosts, however, so it needs to be cleared out.”

“The Master” takes place in the 1950s, the same decade Hubbard launched Scientology. It took decades of change for the real church to become what it is now, with pampered celebrities keeping it relevant. But in Dodd we see someone like the modern Miscavige of this article, claiming to be pious and good while privately knowing that’s bunk. Spying on Cruise and his family is creepy and weird, the act of someone superficial and, on some level, kinda stupid.

“The Master” is about a religious-movement leader who easily manipulates a shell-shocked, psycho-sexual war veteran into becoming his violent disciple. In real life, the leader of Scientology is (according to this article) manipulating one of the world’s biggest movie stars into serving as a perfect hood ornament to the cause. Meanwhile, Miscavige is the ultimate obnoxious Us Weekly reader, actively influencing his favorite celebrity’s personal life.

Maybe Tom Cruise would have never been the star he’s become if not for Scientology, so it doesn’t really matter if the religion objectifies him. Fair trade. Maybe movie stars aren’t worth worrying about. This story bothered me, though, and not just because I like Tom Cruise’s movies.

There’s a seediness that’s primal in the relationship between celebrity and Scientology. “The Master” gets the oddness just right, but its story only scratches the surface of what can happen when a religious leader becomes obsessed with one of his followers.

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