Saga of Tom and Katie may be as much about showbiz as about a failed relationship

Katie Holmes gripped, or was gripped by, the hand of Tom Cruise that night at the Uptown Theatre. He was chatting with one Washington well-wisher after another at the movie premiere, fixing each one with that intense I-am-listening-to-you stare. She was rarely in the conversation but affixed to his side, glancing around the room with those shy saucer eyes and a round-cut bob that made her pale face look like a balloon hovering slightly above him, tethered to him, however tenuously.

Trapped by him. Lost without him.

Hey, look, I don’t really know what their deal was. That was just my amateur analysis of their body language at the November 2007 D.C. screening of “Lions for Lambs” — yet another mediocre film where Cruise was fantastic and audiences were largely unmoved, like a lot of his official output in recent years. Unlike his private life, which gave them so much more to parse.

Publicists announced Friday that Holmes had filed for divorce from Cruise after 51 / 2 years of marriage — and, of course, you can never really know what’s going on in someone else’s relationship. Yet this was a relationship presented for public consumption. From those early couch-jumping days through those public family outings with dolled-up little Suri until his last movie-promotion junkets a few weeks ago, Cruise made his relationship Topic A.

“I love this woman. She’s magnificent,” he told Access Hollywood in 2005, a few weeks after they started dating. “We go scuba diving together. . . . She likes all the stuff that I love to do.”

“She is an extraordinary person, and if you spent five minutes with her, you’d see it,” he said in Playboy’s June issue. “She’s funny and charming, and when she walks into the room, I just feel better.”

Hollywood stars have always married Hollywood stars, but Cruise and Holmes connected at a time when these unions began to feel like mergers — strategic consolidation in the face of industry-wide contractions. Audiences were losing interest in movies and TV, but stars could maintain brand value via the new multimedia celebrity-gossip complex that began with People and Us magazines and took flight with TMZ and reality TV and Twitter — as long as they had enough baby-bump or weight-loss or love-life fodder to provide.

The tabloids gave these romantic mergers names that were bright and snappy, like late-’90s tech companies: Brangelina. Bennifer. TomKat. Indie-film actress Sienna Miller became an Us magazine cover star by virtue of her relationship with Jude Law, and then even more famous when he cheated on her. After that, lesser stars became famous just by dating her — all before she ever made a movie that made it into a multiplex. Were Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn (Vaughniston?) actually dating and being coy about it or not dating but willing to let us keep guessing? On the strength of their movies, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore were B-list; as a couple, they were A-list.

Not every star opened up his life. Clive Owen, it was said, sheltered his kids from the public, wouldn’t bring them out to show-biz events. Maybe that’s why Owen never became Bruce Willis, whose children grew up in front of the cameras — not exactly in show business, but accomplished paparazzi bait and red carpet-walkers nonetheless.

Given that we were invited to gawk at Cruise and Holmes (and Suri), what could we tell?

The more Cruise told us how happy they were, how rich-and-satisfying-yet-totally-normal their life was, the more he encouraged us to draw our own conclusions. And she looked tense, she looked unhappy and she looked lonely. Granted, being chased by photographers can make one tense and unhappy, and being super-famous can leave one feeling lonely. Still.

So here’s what we know about the breakup:

She initiated it, filing for “irreconcilable differences” in New York, said to be a more advantageous state for a mother seeking full custody.

Cruise was said to be blindsided by the divorce — which might be true or might just be what his people need to say so we feel sympathetic toward him.

TMZ and other outlets are speculating that his devotion to Scientology made her uncomfortable. There’s no evidence to support this — but hey, we all saw the video of a super-revved-up Cruise evangelizing about his awesome Scientologist life, and it made us uncomfortable. So, we can just project a bit, right?

People and Us reported over the weekend that Holmes leased a new apartment in New York while Cruise was filming in Iceland and quietly moved her things there the same day she filed for divorce. It’s not specifically said that she did this without Cruise’s knowledge, but it bolsters the narrative you’ve created in your head about a captive wife seeking to break free.

Study the body language as much as you want, but the only real evidence we have is empirical: Every one of Cruise’s marriages (previously, Mimi Rogers and Nicole Kidman) ended when his wife was 33.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Or maybe being married to Tom Cruise is strictly a young woman’s game.

Amy Argetsinger is a staff writer for the Style section.
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