By Andrea Mandell, USA TODAY
One of the kings of Hollywood is about to embark on a royal regrouping.
On the verge of his 50th birthday, it seems the bad news keeps coming for Tom Cruise, whose hair-metal musical Rock of Ages has been a flop at the box office since opening two weeks ago. Then on Thursday, Katie Holmes filed for divorce, going so far as to demand sole custody of their daughter, Suri, 6 (both released statements on Friday, with Cruise's rep noting that the split left him "deeply saddened").
Six months ago the outlook for Cruise was far sunnier: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol dominated the holiday box office, and his star was rising again. But the clues were there: USA TODAY reported that Holmes darted down the film premiere's red carpet a full two hours before her husband, although Cruise spoke lovingly of her.
"Whatever my wife wants me to wear, I wear," Cruise told reporters at the event. "She has exquisite taste."
With a public divorce looming, what's next for Cruise?
"The celebrity blogosphere is about to go wild with rumors," says Celebuzz spokeswoman Gillian Sheldon. "Unfair? Yes. But it's the nature of this business these days."
"He's gone from jumping on a couch to sleeping on a couch," cracked Hollywood PR veteran Michael Levine, referring to Cruise's famed 2005 couch-jumping proclamation of love for Holmes on Oprah. Levine predicted the topic would be ripe for comics, but it was the Twitterverse that took the sharpest aim.
"On the plus side the name TomKat can revert back to the animal," tweeted Albert Brooks.
"I guess renegotiations fell apart. Shame. I would've liked another couple seasons of "TomKat" tweeted Jason Biggs.
"I am shocked to hear Katie Holmes is divorcing Tom Cruise, said no one ever," tweteed user @KateBennett_DC.
Such barbs are the nature of mega-stardom, particularly for a secretive celebrity like Cruise.
"I think people take some glee from watching him have trouble," says IMDB managing editor Keith Simanton. "Which I think is almost a reaction to that hyperkinetic, super-activated aspect of his personality."
But how will the divorce bombshell affect his career - and equally importantly, his image? Entertainment insiders point to the importance of how Cruise handles the legal proceedings with Holmes.
"This cannot turn into an ugly divorce battle," stresses HollywoodLife.com editor-in-chief Bonnie Fuller, advising that Cruise pay Holmes "whatever it takes" to keep the proceedings quiet. "And there should be no public fight over Suri. If people perceive that he's not being generous with Katie or Suri or he's trying to take Suri away from Katie, I think that would be the greatest harm he can do for his public image."
It's surely a frustrating situation for Cruise, whose image was finally evolving past a series of missteps which began with the Oprah show appearance and culminated in his public scorn over Brooke Shields' use of prescription drugs to treat post-partum depression (he later apologized).
Recently, Cruise noticeably went back to the playbook.
"I think he did learn his lesson after War of the Worlds and the whole couch thing," says Simanton. "He was purely on-message with Mission Impossible 4," which went on to gross over $209 million. "It's a corporate approach."
For a riskier project like Rock of Ages, in which he played a tattooed, booze-slugging rocker Stacee Jaxx, Cruise dialed it down to a whisper. He barely participated in junket interviews, and walked the red carpet in jeans and a bomber jacket, with a pair of aviators hiding his eyes (Holmes did not attend).
"I think one thing you can't level against Cruise is that he doesn't take risks," says Simanton. "He could say 'I'm not going to do anything until Mission Impossible 5.' He could do that, and he doesn't."
Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office at Hollywood.com, says Cruise has "really built back his street cred." He compares Cruise to a disciplined athlete, working on a diet of great directors, strong action films, and the occasional odd character role, like the pot-bellied executive Les Grossman in 2008's Tropic Thunder.
No one would call Cruise, who earned critical raves in films such as Magnolia and Jerry Maguire a one trick pony, but all know his sweet spot. "His future is in interesting roles and action movies," predicts Janice Min, editor-in-chief of Hollywood Reporter. "He's on the heels of a Harrison Ford. He can fill that void."
Next, Cruise is placing his bets on Jack Reacher, a thriller that reunites him with his Valkyrie director Christopher McQuarrie, and two sci-fi films, Oblivion (shooting now in Iceland) and All You Need is Kill with Emily Blunt.
How bankable is he? With every solid franchise release in the last five years, he's also had disappointments, from 2008's Valkyrie, which opened in 4th place with $21 million to 2010's Knight and Day (3rd place with $20 mil).
Dergarabedian insists that the star is "as bankable as they come," aside from the occasional misstep like Rock of Ages (which opened to a career low of $15 million), which was "out of his wheelhouse."
But Simanton puts it more succinctly: "Anything that doesn't have 'MI' in it hasn't performed that well."
Hollywood continues to bet on the star, who is known for his intense work ethic. "I don't think there's any celeb that's been a big box office draw that's had a 100 percent winning streak," says Fuller, predicting success ahead. "People have been ready to say that Tom Cruise's career is over multiple times."
Min speculates the divorce will impact Holmes more than Cruise. "She was trying to find her way in Hollywood before she married Tom and she's still in the same place."
Cruise, of course, probably knows all of this.
"He is keenly aware of his precarious public image," says Sheldon, "and knows selling movie tickets to his latest film is inherently tied to this."
Which is why his next relationship will be as hotly watched as it is crucial.
Audiences will accept Cruise stepping out with a new woman if the divorce goes smoothly, says Fuller. "He needs to find somebody who's already a Scientologist," she adds, after failed marriages with non-devotees Nicole Kidman and Holmes. "Because that's important to him, and he's not being successful converting anybody."
Contributing: Donna Freydkin, Maria Puente, Olivia Barker
Copyright 2012 USA TODAY