There are lots of ludicrous aspects of the massive magazine hype about Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman and the new movie they get naked in, but only one actually made me laugh out loud on the Metro, causing other passengers to slink away in fear.

It came in the Rolling Stone interview with Kidman when the actress says, apparently with a straight face: "Tom and I aren't exhibitionists; we've never been. It's not in our personalities."

Wait a minute, Nicole. Isn't that you on the cover of Rolling Stone, wearing nothing above the waist except a strategically placed fedora? And isn't that you inside Rolling Stone, caught in the act of removing your shirt? And isn't that you in another RS picture wearing nothing but that fedora and a pair of knee-high leather boots? And isn't that you in Harper's Bazaar, wearing nothing above the waist but a scarf? And isn't that you in Time magazine looking naked and ecstatic as Tom, who also appears to be naked, licks your neck while leering lasciviously at the camera? And didn't you get naked in a play on Broadway and in London? And aren't you and Tom naked in the not-yet-released movie "Eyes Wide Shut," which all these mags are hyping?

If that's not exhibitionism, Nicole, what is?

Don't get me wrong. I have nothing against exhibitionism, particularly when it's engaged in by women as lovely as Kidman. What irks me is how magazines, even the allegedly serious ones, get all soft and gooey in their shameless eagerness to pander to Hollywood and its stars.

The "Eyes Wide Shut" hype is a very good example. Cruise or Kidman or both are on the covers of Time, Rolling Stone, Us, Harper's Bazaar, even Good Housekeeping. Newsweek probably would have gotten into the act, too, but it put Kidman on the cover last December, when she was naked on Broadway.

We haven't seen this much movie hype in magazines since--well, since last month, when the mags went gaga over "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." Or the month before that, when they hyperventilated over "Star Wars."

But the "Eyes" coverage is even more ridiculous than usual because of one interesting fact: The writers of these stories haven't actually seen the movie. The studio is keeping the film top secret, and the writers saw only the trailer, which shows--you guessed it--Tom and Nicole in a naked embrace.

It's tough to write about a movie you haven't seen, so these articles contain some wonderfully absurd prose. Dana C. Topping of Us starts off with a lurid, soft-core description of the trailer--"the twin white cupcakes of her bottom" and "the taut mounds of her breasts" and the nipple "visibly swelling to his touch like a bud on an April morning."

Unable to describe the film, Time asks the stars to do it--and gets only the vaguest of replies. "The movie is whatever the audience takes from it," says Cruise. "It's different for every person who watches it," says Kidman.

Bazaar quotes Cruise saying: "Gee, I wish you'd seen it. It would be so cool to be able to talk through a couple of scenes and tell you how we achieved what's in the movie."

This cryptic utterance is apparently very significant because writer Richard Rayner immediately adds: "and I get an unexpected glimpse of another, less guarded Tom Cruise. This is the part of him that wants to shout out, Hey I worked with Stanley Kubrick, man, and it was weird but it was damn great." Which is one of the great things about writing celebrity profiles: If the quotes are lousy, you can simply make up what the celeb "wants" to say.

None of these articles even suggests the possibility that the studio might be keeping the movie hidden from the media because the movie just might be lousy.

But expecting magazines to be honest about Hollywood is like expecting Al Gore to tell you what he really knows about Bill Clinton--it would be nice, but it's not going to happen. The bottom line is: Magazines with celebrities on the cover sell more copies than magazines without celebrities on the cover. As the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have reported, mass-market magazines are frequently willing to grant celebs concessions they'd never give to, say, politicians--veto power over writers and photographers, for instance, or the right to pick the photographs that illustrate the story. In one famous example, Madonna demanded in a contract with Rolling Stone that she choose which pictures they used and hold the copyright on them.

Sometimes the relationship is even cozier. In its Kidman-Cruise cover package, Time reveals that (a) it is owned by the company, Time Warner, that produced the movie and (b) that the movie's director, Kubrick, used Time movie writer Jay Cocks as a shill to cheaply acquire the rights to the book the movie is based on.

All of this makes you wonder: Do movies exist to sell magazines or do magazines exist to sell movies? Actually, it's a symbiotic relationship--sort of like the relationship between hippos and those little birds that eat the bugs off their backs.

And make no mistake about it--Hollywood is the hippo; magazines are the birds. Bon appetit.

Brill-iant Move

In its current issue, Brill's Content, the media watchdog magazine, includes the Magazine Reader column in its feature called "Stuff We Like"--describing yours truly as a "Newsstand Sherpa" who "probes the dark recesses of the magazine rack."

Well, on behalf of the entire staff of the Magazine Reader, I'd like to say that we are tickled pink over this honor. We're hoping that this becomes a trend and other magazines start sucking up to us in the hopes of gaining favorable reviews.

It won't work, of course. We are absolutely uncorruptible and no amount of public genuflecting can ensure words of praise from us, not even for Brill's Content, which is, obviously, the most perceptive, perspicacious and genuinely wise magazine in human history--despite that ludicrous cover picture of Monica's blue dress with bullet holes in it.

Cover Line of the Month

McCall's: " 'My boy built a bomb!' Trouble signs no mom should miss."

CAPTION: Bare market: "Eyes Wide Shut" stars Tom Cruise and wife Nicole Kidman, the subjects of many an uncover story.