Ick-led Pink: Tom & Katie's Hollywood Engagement

Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise's love has bloomed during promotional tours.
Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise's love has bloomed during promotional tours. (By Chris Pizzello -- Reuters)
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 18, 2005

Katie and Tom. Tom and Katie. It hasn't even been two months, but Tom Cruise has popped the question -- yes, at the Eiffel Tower -- and Holmes is, she gushed yesterday, "so happy."

What century are we in again? This is a classic 1940s Hollywood romantic picture. Or perhaps an episode of "The Love Boat," where, in the span of a three-day cruise, couples meet cute, fall desperately in love and declare their eternal devotion (all despite the surely distracting presence of Captain Stubing in those awful white Bermuda shorts).

That's not today's fairy tale. Or is it? As Carrie Bradshaw opined in the final season of "Sex and the City": Are women today romance-phobic? When her dashing, established, rich, well-known older man (Aleksandr Petrovsky, played by Mikhail Baryshnikov) read her poetry or wrote her a song, she declared it "the ick heard 'round the world." And when he whisked her away to a fine hotel in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower, she ran off with Mr. Big instead.

Let us put aside, for the moment, the swirling suggestions that this relationship is all just a publicity stunt by two actors with big summer movies to plug. Take Cruise's mad declarations of love -- and couch-jumping on "Oprah" -- at face value. Take Holmes's shy, hesitant expressions of affection as those of a young woman who has been swept away by the man of her girlhood dreams.

Face it: This is a Harlequin romance in the era of chick lit. It's a Danielle Steel novel, not "Bridget Jones's Diary." To post-feminist, post-ironic women, it's a great big "ick," right up there with the marriage proposal on the Jumbotron at a baseball game.

And it also might be the reason there is so much public fascination with Tom-and-Katie (that and the fact that Cruise is 16 years older and that this would be his third marriage, of course).

"I think in some ways that's part of the appeal of" their retro romance, says Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "Those kinds of ideas are not being let go in our culture nearly as fast as we want them to. They linger. They continue to have their echo, even though most of us don't subscribe to them."

And it only works because Cruise found himself a girl like Katie. Katie, who still has her "ie." Holmes is not a star, she's a starlet. It doesn't matter if she's actually 26 years old, an age at which many of her Hollywood contemporaries are already married and popping out babies (Reese Witherspoon and Kate Hudson, for two). She comes across as the ingenue, the young thing, the innocent. Unlike, say, 18-year-old Lindsay Lohan, she does not yet have what Thompson calls "the stench of Hollywood." She still seems like the new girl in town.

A lot of that, of course, has to do with the arc of Holmes's career. Sure, she's had her magazine covers, made a few films and a television show. But that show was "Dawson's Creek," it was all about teenagers and not only was it not set in California -- one could never compare Holmes's current oeuvre to any of the female teen stars of "Beverly Hills, 90210" -- it wasn't shot there either. The bulk of her career has been spent in the cocoon that is Wilmington, N.C., where "Dawson's Creek" was filmed. And she remains a real-life version of Joey, the classic "good girl" she played on TV. Sure, Joey was smart, and sexy, and had her independent streak, but in the public mind-set, she's crawling through Dawson's window and offering up that innocent, dimpled grin.

So there's an impulse to worry about her -- is she being taken advantage of? Is the quick immersion in Scientology (the controversial religion that Cruise follows) a signal that he holds far too much sway over her than might be healthy? These are not things that worry people when it comes to the Jennifers (Aniston, Lopez, Garner); they've shown their business savvy, made their big career moves and, well, if their big public romances go pfffftttt, there's not much time angsting over broken hearts or broken spirits. But Holmes, she's different. The doe eyes, the dewy skin -- the whole package prompts protectiveness. Never mind that she's already had one broken engagement to an actor. Even that coupling fit the image: She was with Chris Klein, best known as the earnest, respectful lunk among the many lunks that populated the "American Pie" movie franchise.

Then there's that sticky age thing. Holmes was 5 when "Risky Business" made Cruise famous for dancing in his tighty-whities. She was 8 when "Top Gun" hit the scene and he became a bona fide heartthrob. She's said that she grew up fantasizing she'd marry him, and, voila, he gives her a call and then, later, there's a late-night proposal at the Eiffel Tower and a very large ring.

Thompson recognizes the traditional romantic story line, "but also the creep factor plays out because of the older man-younger woman thing."

It's so old Hollywood: The big established star selects the right pretty woman to be on his arm. It's hard to imagine any relationship between them in which he is not the dominant partner. It will always be his town (Hollywood), his industry, his universe, his career -- not to mention his religion. Think about it: The public announcement of their engagement came as a part of a media junket for his new film, "War of the Worlds." (One wonders: Did she get to call her mother first? Her best friend? Or did they find out via CNN?)

The best friend is still her childhood buddy from Toledo, and Holmes is close to her family. We know this because of a cover story this month in In Style, the magazine that adores celebrities and never points out their fashion faux pas or needs for pedicures. She didn't score the cover because of Cruise -- their relationship is so new it didn't exist when the issue was in production -- but because she's the new love interest in the just-released "Batman Begins," her first blockbuster picture. In the article, Holmes is portrayed as the fresh-faced girl who just made the big leap to getting her first New York City apartment. Asked about her breakup with Klein, she answers in what one can only imagine is her very sweet voice:

"He's a lovely guy, and we still care a lot about each other. We just decided that ultimately we want to be friends."

Then she adds this explanation for their decision not to head to the altar: "And we are very young."

Not anymore, sweetie. Not anymore.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company