Tom Cruise's nose (and other objects of culture)

Peter Watson

February 17, 1993|By Peter Watson

IT IS time to consider the cultural significance of Tom Cruise's nose. This, we can all agree, is a rare enough object -- but important? Although the question was to be answered today with the announcement of this year's Oscar nominations, its genesis needs some explanation.

It started when the back-room crowd at Walt Disney, emboldened by the astonishing success of "Aladdin," made their pitch for glory. Their chief animator, Glen Keane, told Premiere magazine that he would "love to see an animated character nominated for Best Actor." Lesley Unger, a spokesman for the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, conceded that an actor whose voice was used could win an vTC award, but the characters themselves could not.

Sooner or later all popular culture tries to be taken seriously. Indeed, there is an academic discipline, cultural materialism, which is dedicated to proving that, say, a TV advertisement featuring talking telephones has all the relevance of a Shakespeare play or a Whitman poem.

Even against this background, Disney's claim that cartoons should be eligible for Oscars is breathtaking in its audacity. In interviews, the animators have, in the manner of art historians, drawn attention to the detail of their craft, as if the iconography of cartoons is on a par with higher art forms -- Pinocchio a match for Pontormo. Four examples show the range of Disney ambition and crassness.

* The importance of being Tom Cruise's nose. The illustrators would have us believe that the shape of Aladdin's nose has been mightily relevant in the movie's success. The first sketches for the lad apparently looked too much like Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future," and this was an enormous psychological blunder. "hunk Aladdin up," the directors had his shirt taken off and his age changed from mid-teens to late teens. Then the animators studied Tom Cruise's movies. "There's confidence in all of [Mr. Cruise's] attitudes and poses," said Mr. Keane. Moreover, they hung photographs of Mr. Cruise's "straight-off-the-forehead nose" on their bulletin boards for months as they developed Aladdin. Was this entirely healthy?

* The need for a coquettish heroine. Disney illustrators claim that they have made heroines gradually more sexy, from "The Little Mermaid" through "Beauty and the Beast." In "Aladdin" this " 'toon sexuality" has been taken further, says Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of Disney Studios. "Jasmine turns on this playful, false come-on to Aladdin and to (the villain), something we've never shown."

* The dilemma of the overacting carpet. Even the magic carpet gets to act in "Aladdin." Its designer, Randy Cartwright, said it has an "eager-to-please, pantomime personality." Mr. Katzenberg confessed to one reporter that the hardest decisions on "Aladdin" concerned whether to let the carpet speak.

* The daring advance to a postmodern genie. Initially, Disney couldn't get the genie right. The animators inspected Victorian paintings of genies and Persian miniatures. The breakthrough came with the arrival of Eric Goldberg, an animator from London. He told the Disney people that the genie should not be a "Mr. Clean type," but more like a puff of smoke. "It was a great leap of imagination," Mr. Goldberg said.

What are we to make of all this eyewash? Well, so far even the adults have fallen for it. Magazine after magazine has reported reverentially on the creative process behind the movie. An article in Newsday's Fanfare magazine referred to the illustrators as "actors with pencils."

"Aladdin" is charming. It has an eager-to-please pantomime character. That is all. Unless adults realize this, this crowd of pushy puppeteers will soon be comparing Disneyland to Rome. After all, by their lights the two locations show all-important parallels:

Neither was built in a day and both sell pizza.

Peter Watson is author of "From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market."

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