Movie publicists manipulate fickle audiences

I’m something of a Hollywood junkie. In addition to loving movies, I like to know what goes on behind the scenes: who is dating whom, which actor just got arrested for drug possession, and what movie my favorite stars will be working on next. But lately, even I have had enough. This weekend I saw “America’s Sweethearts,” and while not quite as funny as I expected, I found its cynical look at Hollywood entertaining and true to life.

For people who haven’t seen or read any of the movie’s endless promotions, I’ll fill you in. Big-time movie stars Eddie (John Cusack) and Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have recently split. Their last movie together is about to be released but is expected to flop as a result of the star couple’s separation. Gwen’s sister and assistant Kiki (Julia Roberts) and film company publicist Lee (Billy Crystal) spend the entire time trying to make it appear as if the couple has gotten back together, in order to boost movie attendance. In the meantime, Kiki and Eddie fall in love – but that’s a side note.

Throughout “America’s Sweethearts,” publicist Lee takes every opportunity to get photos of Eddie and Gwen together: tricking Gwen into having dinner with Eddie, photographing the pair in a car where they appear affectionate while actually discussing their breakup, and during a fistfight between Eddie and Gwen’s new boy-toy. Lee herds members of the media through five-minute interviews with the stars at the press junket and does everything possible to play on the diehard romantics in the press and public.

But that’s not even the low point. Lee explains to a younger publicity employee that even if his own mother died during the movie’s press junket, Lee would go in front of the cameras, shed a tear, and tell them how much his mother would have loved this film. Sell, sell, sell. There are instances of this mentality and behavior throughout Hollywood today.

Take the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman split as an example. Most people looking at this breakup point the finger of blame at Cruise: He was the one to file for divorce, he has already started dating again, and he is trying to fast-track their divorce. But the public does not truly know the reasons behind the breakup. Most of the public would blame Cruise because Kidman’s publicist has simply done a fantastic job.

Kidman has remained poised yet vulnerable and hurt by the breakup of her marriage. Kidman’s “close friends” have been quoted in magazines, saying she has no idea why Cruise filed for divorce (which you know was arranged through the publicist), while Kidman herself has told interviewers such as Oprah that she hopes to have true love in her life at some point. I mean, how can you not feel sorry for her? She spends a week in Fiji with her two children and just days after she leaves, Cruise shows up on the same island with his new girlfriend. Not knowing anything about the real situation, fans have assumed Kidman’s side. Cruise has refused to talk about the divorce, except to say cryptic things like, “Nic knows exactly why we’re getting a divorce.” And although Cruise is spending much of August with his children, most of the recent publicity shows them with Kidman.

Lastly, Cruise’s representative confirmed last week that he is dating movie co-star Penelope Cruz. The pair had a date at the restaurant Spago recently, after which they smiled and waved for the cameras (another publicity stunt) and exchanged kisses on the cheek. The photos were all over entertainment magazines within days. But Kidman’s publicist even knew how to put the spin on that one. As Cruise confirmed rumors about his relationship, People magazine quoted another of Kidman’s close friends as saying, “Nicole was just totally in shock. All this time she’s been wondering why the marriage ended, and this could be it.” A damn good publicity move if you ask me.

Other recent breakups mirror these tactics. Since Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid split, Ryan’s box office numbers and fan support have diminished. The cute, perky-girl-next-door fade wore off when she left Quaid for Aussie bad boy Russell Crowe. But when Ryan and Crowe split, she was on the cover of at least one entertainment magazine to say she was the breaker and not the breakee. Attempting an appearance of strength, maybe? According to recent magazine articles, fans still have not come back around to Ryan. But she has not had any recent movies to test the waters.

But whether Meg Ryan is dating Dennis Quaid or Russell Crowe, and whether Tom Cruise is still with Nicole Kidman or dating Penelope Cruz, who they are currently dating does not affect their acting skills. If audiences loved them before, why should that change when a personal relationship ends? But the reality is that it does matter to some audiences, and it is the publicist’s job to counter the public’s reaction with whatever means necessary to ensure success. That is what they’re paid for. True entertainment would come if “America’s Sweethearts” was reality – I won’t spoil the ending for anyone, but those of you who have seen it know what I mean.

Erin Ghere’s column appears weekly. She welcomes comments at [email protected]. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]