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It's the third day of the Santa Barbara Film Festival and, any minute now, He will walk down the red carpet. Last night, Helen Mirren walked down this same red carpet, but, come on, does the Queen even compare to Him? He's kind of like a god, when you think about it. Cinematically, at least. Maybe he thinks he's a god, too?

OK, that's going too far. Tom Cruise is not a god. He's more like a minor deity. Even I know that, but still — OMIGOD — I'm going to meet Tom Cruise!

"You didn't hear, bro?" a fellow journalist says, recognizing my excitement. "Tom and Katie are skipping the red carpet."

My heart sinks.

"But Will Smith and Jada are still walking it," the journalist adds, as if this is some kind of comfort. Will Smith? Pfft. He's no Tom Cruise.

Don't get me wrong. I've rarely had anything good to say about Cruise. The man strikes me as an egomaniac of the worst order and I'd rather not get started on the whole Scientology thing. Many journalists believe writing disparaging things about Scientology will earn you a file like those kept by the FBI during the Red Scare. So you won't catch me saying anything about their crazy, crazy religion.

But his crazy, crazy religion takes away nothing from what Cruise has accomplished in his career. Thespian abilities aside, that career has made the man the definition of a living legend. Risky Business, Top Gun, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire — and these are just titles from when people took him seriously.

There's the rub. Nobody takes Tom Cruise seriously anymore. Everybody cracks jokes about him like they've never been fans, and yet, the moment he releases a movie, these haters line up to pay homage and bow before his big-screen grandeur.

Back on subject: Disgruntled by the fact that I won't be able to shake Cruise's hand and perhaps even, against my will, genuflect before this Scientological messiah, I march inside. After trying to guess where the festival organizers will seat Cruise — who is here to present a Modern Master award to his good friend Smith — I take my own seat and cross my fingers that I won't be blinded by the naked effulgence of Cruise's smile.

But I'm puzzled. Nobody else seems overwhelmed by what is about to happen. An easy calm surrounds me. Then the lights dim and a door opens. A few dozen bodies near the front of the theater bound to their feet, and are suddenly joined by a multitude. Cheers drown out the applause. Cruise, not glowing (sadly), enters and waves, smiling that goofy smile of his. With him is his new bride, Katie Holmes, who, for once, looks fully cognizant.

After a moment, the Cruises take their seats and I am left to gape in awe. He actually showed up dressed to meet my expectations. While he isn't wearing white robes, his outfit makes him look rather like a pastor, another kind of man of God: a black suit, a V-neck cardigan, an iron-gray tie. I almost expect him to walk over, touch my forehead and say, "Bless you, my son."

Will Smith showed up after that. Leonard Maltin interviewed him. Blah blah blah. Jump ahead to when Cruise got up and left his little Katie behind, slipped backstage, then, amidst more applause, took the stage to present the Modern Master award. Despite what I expected, the man still did not glow. There was no halo. No angelic choirs. His voice did not boom.

Tom Cruise was just this small little man with a weirdly unattractive face. There was something asymmetrical about it. Or maybe it was too geometrical, his cheeks and every other angle far too sharp, harsh compared to what you've seen on the screen.

He spoke softly. He spoke kindly abut his good friend, with a sincerity that begged for tears. He almost cried. Unlike pastors or messiahs, he was not spontaneous. He read from a sheet of paper. He was perfectly normal, except for his smile and the way people stared at him.

Tom Cruise was just another guy. Just another guy who loved his friend so much that he drove two hours up the California coast to spend five minutes on a stage to pay honor to that friend. He was really kind of cool, when you think about it.

Which is just not cool, when you think more about it. We're supposed to make fun of Tom Cruise, and humanizing, un-deifying appearances such as this make it nigh impossible.

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