The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Is Tom Cruise really one of Hollywood's top humanitarians?

April 15, 2011 |  2:59 pm

Tom_cruise When I think of showbiz humanitarians, the images that first pop into my head are Sean Penn digging through debris in Haiti (and Katrina-ravaged New Orleans before that), George Clooney exposing the refugee crisis in Darfur and Stephen Colbert entertaining the troops in Iraq. One person who doesn't immediately come to mind is Tom Cruise, who is the subject of a heated debate in L.A.'s Jewish community after the news surfaced that the Wiesenthal Center is giving Cruise its Humanitarian Award on May 5.

Cruise, of course, is a controversial choice because of his high-profile involvement in the Church of Scientology. As the Jewish Journal's Danielle Berrin puts it in her Hollywood Jew blog, even if the actor is a consummate philanthropist, "Tapping Cruise with a 'humanitarian' award still seems like an odd choice, since one authentic and indisputable aspect of his image is as public champion for the Church of Scientology--and that impenetrable behemoth is reportedly under investigation by the FBI for human trafficking." Berrin cites a number of charities Cruise has supported over the years, but asks the compelling question: "Does giving away lots of dough a humanitarian make?"

It's a good point. But is Cruise any less of a humanitarian than Will Smith or Michael Douglas or Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, who are all previous Wiesenthal honorees? Should he really be declared persona non grata simply because of his association with Scientology? Using that logic, wouldn't it be OK for some crazy Fox News-type right-wingers to attack the Wiesenthal Center if they gave next year's humanitarian award to Muhammad Ali, just because he is a Muslim? 

Berrin spoke to filmmaker Brett Ratner, who sits on the Wiesenthal board of trustees. He defended the decision, saying, "You can't say [Cruise] is the reason the religion is doing what it's doing. It's like saying, 'The Jews killed [expletive] Jesus; why am I a Jew?' " Wiesenthal Center founder Rabbi Marvin Hier argues: "We've given a medal of valor to the pope. Does that mean we agree with everything the church has done? No."

The dirty little secret about the Wiesenthal Center's decision to honor Cruise is that it has less to do with his good works than his importance in Hollywood, since most honorees are chosen for their ability to fill the room with people willing to write big checks. That's how charities raise money. The bigger or more powerful the public figure, the bigger the donation. Cruise wasn't chosen by Hier but by the members of the center's entertainment dinner committee, who include Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ron Meyer, Tom Rothman and Brad Grey. They may have held their noses, but they must have decided that Cruise would be a magnet for sizable contributions.

In the past, this has occasionally led to questionable award selections. One unintentionally hilarious low point was the 1973 Man of the Year award given by the United Jewish Appeal to the late record mogul Morris Levy. Though he was a tireless fundraiser for the charity, Levy was also a longtime frontman for the mob in the music industry who was convicted on two counts of conspiracy to commit extortion, but died before serving any time. At the end of the UJA banquet, MC Joe Smith, then a top executive at Warner Bros., thanked the audience for coming, quipping, "I just got word from two of Morris' friends on the West Coast that my wife and two children have been released."

So at least we can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that Tom Cruise is hardly the most questionable big shot ever to be honored by a charitable group. But is he a worthy humanitarian? I'd love to hear your thoughts. I believe that if you actually spend time doing good in the world, your private beliefs are your own business. After all, the Wiesenthal Center is the home of the Museum of Tolerance. Shouldn't it practice what it preaches?

--Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Tom Cruise at the premiere of the TV series "The Kennedys" in Beverly Hills. Credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters