Idol Chatter

Has all of the couch jumping and Suri speculation finally caught up with Tom Cruise? In a surprise announcement yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, Viacom exec Sumner Redstone claimed that Paramount–Viacom’s movie arm–is terminating its 14-year business relationship with Cruise’s film development company.

Seems Redstone believes mega pics like “Mission Impossible III” would have done much better at the box office if Cruise hadn’t scolded Matt Lauer for being glib about Scientology or chastised Brooke Shields for taking pills for her post-partum depression. “As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal,” Redstone has been widely quoted as saying. “His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”

Hollywood–not to mention the media–is all-too eager to lap up this party line. But as in all juicy Hollywood break-ups, there are two sides to the story. Cruise’s partner, Paula Wagner claims that negotiations to renew a development deal between Cruise and Paramount had stalled in recent weeks anyway, so Cruise has decided to solicit funding to head up his own independent film production company. Wagner claims Cruise has made more money for Paramount than any other movie star, and that Redstone’s comments are unprofessional and unnecessary.

We’ve all had fun watching Cruise spin out-of-control for a long time now, but I am not convinced that Paramount’s unceremonious dumping of Cruise is motivated by religion as much as it is by greed. With Cruise commanding an exorbitant salary of $20 million and other incentives per film, plus a reported $10 million a year overhead, Cruise’s Scientology craziness gave Paramount the easy “out” they needed to cut costs. The move comes on the heels of a New York Times report that major movie studios are increasingly concerned about slumping box office and “have waged war on actor salaries.”

On the other hand, Cruise might want to give Mel Gibson a call. I am sure there would be a lot for them to talk about as they are standing in the unemployment line.

Despite fellow blogger Charlotte Allen’s rather icy assessment of my recent posting in praise of Madonna’s crucixifion act and my defense of a woman’s right to image the divine on the cross, my NPR commentary on the same topic was controversial enough to catch the attention of one of the most famous gossip-columnists in America, Liz Smith. Yes, I’ve made the tabloids!

In her New York Post column on Monday, headlined “A Thorny Issue,” the queen of celebrity (and, apparently, NPR) gossip writes:

“MADONNA IS doing Christians a favor. She is performing a woman’s right to stand in Jesus’s place… as a Christian, I know that one of the most important spiritual tasks asked of me is to see the crucified Jesus in each and every person I encounter… it offends only because our imaginations are so impoverished.”

So says teacher/author Donna Freitas, about the controversy of Madonna on the cross in her latest concert. Freitas spoke on the NPR program “All Things Considered.” (As the world knows by now, while suspended on the cross, wearing a twinkly crown of thorns, Madonna sings “Live to Tell.” Images of AIDS-stricken African women and children flash on the giant screen above her.) La Ciccone has insisted, “I don’t think Jesus would be mad at me.”

Well, I don’t try to fathom what Jesus would think. But maybe being named Madonna gives you special privilege.

Like any good Jew, Shawn Green had to wander the desert for a few years before coming to the Promised Land. The All-Star outfielder, who was traded to the New York Mets yesterday after playing his last seven seasons in Los Angeles and Arizona, will become the first Jewish player in New York, the U.S. city with the highest concentration of Jews, since Dave Roberts, who pitched briefly for the Mets in 1981 (though more locals likely remember pitcher Ken Holtzman of the late ’70s Yankees).

The Green trade had been brewing for a while, and, in a time of relatively few Jewish ballplayers, Jewish New Yorkers have been relishing the possibility of a high profile player of their faith. “Mazel tov and zei gesund. I’ll gladly have him over to break bread at my Shabbos table anytime,” wrote “n8genius” on earlier this month. “He can stay for the High Holy days here in Brooklyn, and I’ll even put on Tefilin with him everday if he hits. Please, a Jew on the Mets would be a pleasure no words could express.”

After the trade, Green himself, using athletes’ practiced bland-speak, signaled similar feelings: “Had I played my whole career and never played in New York, I always would have wondered what it was like.”

Before he could be traded, Green had to go through waivers–a sort of Purgatory in which a player can be claimed by any team in the league if a trade isn’t made in three days. But Green has also cleared a higher form of waivers: Yom Kippur this year is the last day of the regular baseball season, and won’t keep Green from playing in crucial playoff games.

A full list of Jewish baseball players is available here.

Tragedy awakens the need for something to grasp, something sturdy, reliable, and familiar. We saw this need after 9/11, with congregations growing within churches and other places of worship. We see this in times of war, especially in soldiers’–and their families’–reliance on prayer. Similarly, the second half of Spike Lee’s Hurricane Katrina documentary, “When The Levees Broke,” revealed just how much many New Orleanians depended on their religious faith to get them through this particular tragedy.

As the floods rose and the needed help didn’t come, many New Orleanians were overcome with anger, the predominant emotion that lingers today. In Lee’s documentary, interview after interview shows politician-bashing, government-cursing individuals who seem as if they’ll never be whole or happy again. They curse and threaten and vent their rage. But at the end of every angry outburst, it is God’s name that lingers on their tongues, and it is God who, in the words of one individual in the film, “gets all the glory.”

It doesn’t seem to matter that the hurricane came from nature, which most religious people presumably believe is controlled by God. These people do not curse God for their misfortune. Having lived nowhere but in New Orleans, most individuals in Lee’s film accepted hurricanes as a normal part of their lives. In dealing with the grief of Katrina and its aftermath, these people were surprisingly rational. No one blamed or cursed God, no one asked “Why us?” or “How could God do this?” Instead, it was state and federal governments to whom they directed these questions, and who were on the receiving end of the wrath that so many other people might blindly throw at God.

A large part of the Acts III and IV of the four-part documentary dealt with the moving-forward stage, nearly a year after the storm. In the most poignant segments from Lee’s four-hour film, citizens gathered in the streets and gave Hurricane Katrina a “jazz funeral.” A New Orleans tradition, jazz funerals are given not to mourn loss but to celebrate life. To watch these New Orleanians marching down the street, singing, dancing, and praying, was a religious experience in itself. A coffin draped with a sign bearing the word “Katrina” symbolized the survival of scores of New Orleanians–people who survived Hurricane Katrina and continued to survive living day-to-day with the memories of their loss. It was faith to which many New Orleanians clung when it was clear their government had forsaken them.