"OK, HERE's what I learned from Tom Cruise. You have a day, a bad day. The dog gets off its leash, the wife is on your back and won't stop calling, you've lost your keys, the dry cleaner has lost your best suit, you're stressed to the max, your pulse is racing. What do you do? You hum the theme from 'Mission Impossible.' It works!!"
That was Alec Baldwin at the big Friars Gala honoring Tom, the biggest male movie star in the universe.
Alec -- sporting a darker shade of hair -- served as the evening's master of ceremonies. He did it very well, even though just before the show started he was seen confabbing with a Friar: "How long is this gonna take?" he asked. I don't know what answer Alec received but I can tell you -- it took a long time. (It probably would have taken longer had not another honoree, Jerry Lewis, fallen ill.)
Still, the Friars, who are often described as "a band of earthly angels" put on one heck of a show! If you paid for a table in the fabled grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria, you got your money's worth. (The invite said black tie and 99 percent of the men obliged. I saw one open collar, and a few smart business suits. Otherwise it was a swarm of wealthy penguins.)
Alec, who confessed that the hem of his pant leg had come out and was being held up with a safety pin, also remarked on Tom the actor. Comparing Cruise in terms of artistry and commitment to former co-stars, such as Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Julie Harris, Baldwin said that Tom has "never stopped challenging himself, and that he 'lit the bonfire" of creativity and energy in their coming film, "Rock of Ages."
OTHERS WHO spoke glowingly about Cruise were Kevin Pollack, who appeared with him in "A Few Good Men," Mia Michaels, the choreographer of "Rock of Ages," Cuba Gooding Jr. of "Jerry Maguire" (yet another co-star who won an Oscar in a Tom Cruise film, while his own shelf remains bare of that honor), Bill Hader, who appeared in "Tropic Thunder" and Elie Wiesel.
Everybody had something amusing to say. Pollack's tale of "The Pen," which he admits he's been telling for 20 years, was probably the highlight. It's too long to repeat here, but it is "so Tom." (Supremely driven, even in his generosity, Bill Hader also told a story that showcased Tom's unique thoughtfulness, as well his need to always get the job at hand done.)
Mia Michaels admitted she is "one of these people who is forever taking notes on how things can improve. Well, the first day I saw Tom perform on the set, not only was I speechless with admiration, I realized I hadn't jotted down one note. And then Tom came over to me and said, 'How can we improve it?'" She added he was "fearless, insatiable, relentless."
Elie Wiesel praised Tom's charitable efforts, and even offered a joke -- "some Jewish humor." He began by saying, "To laugh at others is bad; to laugh at yourself -- not so bad. Real humor doesn't hurt or offend." Then he told his joke. "A son says to his father: 'Papa, please close the door; it's cold outside.' The father replies, 'if I close it, will it be warmer outside?'" After the laughter died down, Baldwin appeared: "As an Irish Catholic I just want you to know I have a fine appreciation of Jewish humor."
Marc Elliot received The Friar of the Year Award (He was the evening's one open collar) and Buzzy Geduld, along with the absent Jerry Lewis, took the Applause Award.
But, come on! Everybody was there to see Tom. He was given the Entertainment Icon Award, following in the footsteps of Douglas Fairbanks, Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra. (There were giant screens on both sides of the ballroom. Tom, seated with his son Connor, and the always elegantly turned out Suri, laughed and flashed those legendary choppers throughout the evening. He really seemed to be enjoying himself.) Other stellar types on hand included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Matt Lauer, Laura Bell Bundy, Henrik Lundqvist and Jonathan Lipnicki. (Remember Jonathan as the funny-looking kid in "Jerry Maguire"? Well, he's all grown up and not at all funny-looking. In fact, he's hot.)
Tom took the stage swiftly and made a gracious, crisp acceptance speech that consisted mostly of praising Jerry Lewis! He explained that wife Katie was working in China, and daughter Isabella was also working someplace. "See, the women in my life work," he said. "They don't need to see me get an award!" Then out rolled a big birthday cake, anticipating Tom's birthday next month, and everybody sang "Happy Birthday." Cruise will be 50, though you'd never know it. The star retains a vital, boyish appeal, though he is clearly a man in command of himself.
NOW, I would be totally remiss not to mention what -- aside from the presence of Mr. Cruise -- made this evening, if not fly by, then at least not lead anybody to wish the giant ballroom chandelier would drop, a la "Phantom of the Opera." It was the music. From Gavin Creed's stirring "God Bless America" (he was actually dressed in red white and blue) through Loston Harris and his trio, giving their all during dinner, when people don't care too much, to sultry Bebel Gilberto, jazzy Corinne Bailey Rae, steaming, red-hot Robin Thicke (wearing the tightest pants of the night), the raucous Broadway cast of "Rock of Ages." ("Here I Go Again" had the whole room on its feet. There were lots of metal heads lurking under those tuxes and designer gowns!)
But I've saved the best for last. When funk/soul goddess Sharon Jones and her Dap-Kings took the stage, she tore the ballroom up and put it back together only to demolish it again. I've rarely seen such a riveting, intense performance. Certainly not at a benefit -- a Friars benefit, to boot! Ms. Jones sang like she'd been told her vocal cords were being removed in the morning. And the camera kept cutting to Tom who was head-bobbing, grinning and clearly getting his own groove on. Sharon Jones -- she's on my radar now!
ONE LAST thing -- a terrific compilation of Tom's films really fired up the crowd. They screamed and shouted out all his famous movie lines. Hey, they even screamed for "Cocktail." (And all he did in that one was juggle beer bottles and look handsome.) Tom is a great actor and a great movie star. And apparently he's a pretty nice guy, too.
He deserved his night at the Friars in New York. He deserves a lot more from Hollywood. His movies have grossed, conservatively more than $6 billion dollars. I'm putting him in with Doris Day as somebody who deserves an Oscar. Tom's done enough to receive an honorary Academy Award, if they can't bring themselves to recognize his performances.
In a cultural landscape littered with the trash of reality "stars" or real actors with little in the way of professional compass or commitment, Tom Cruise is the real thing, the genuine article. And boy, do we need him now.
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)