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The buzz began instantly after Tom Cruise's intense turn on the June 24 Today show—and debates ran the gamut: Had the famously composed Cruise lost his cool? Just what is his and his Scientology religion's beef with psychiatric drugs? And did he accurately apply the word "glib" to Today coanchor Matt Lauer? Cracked the newsman a few days later, "I thought I was being smug, not glib."

But what about Cruise? Passionate, combative, unglued—any number of words were used to describe Cruise's latest media assault, in which he called psychiatry a "pseudoscience" and once again took actress Brooke Shields to task for her use of antidepressants to combat postpartum depression. Suddenly, Crazy in Love Tom, who has been demonstrating his passion for fiancée Katie Holmes with various couch-jumping gymnastics and red-carpet PDAs for the past month, had transformed into Aggressive Tom. "Cruise looked like a man possessed," the Washington Post noted of his Today appearance. "Should we address him as Dr. Tom Cruise from now on? Or will the Rev. Dr. Cruise suffice?" The New York Times, on the other hand, commended his sincerity: "There was something enjoyably bracing and bold about his outburst."

Even Cruise's old pal Rosie O'Donnell chimed in some wary words on her blog (see box), while Marie Osmond, who wrote a book in 2001 about her own struggle with postpartum depression, criticized the actor for his comments regarding Shields. "What he said is very harsh for women who live it or have lived through it," says Osmond. "He should not sit in judgment." Meanwhile, King of Queens actress Leah Remini, Cruise's friend and fellow Scientologist, defended him at the War of the Worlds premiere in L.A. on June 27, telling reporters, "Tom hasn't gone crazy. Tom is a beautiful person who does a lot of good things for good people."

Call him crazy, call him brave, but one thing seemed perfectly clear after his Today spot: Cruise wasn't kidding around. So what makes one of Hollywood's most likable, bankable stars decide to tangle so publicly with such controversial issues? "Communication is the universal solvent," Cruise told PEOPLE senior editor and Early Show contributor Jess Cagle after his Today appearance. "What I believe in is that people should be able to think for themselves and they should be able to make decisions based on information."

Cruise has made little secret of his strongly held beliefs since committing in 1990 to the controversial Church of Scientology, which was founded by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and which has long been critical of psychiatry (see box). Cruise has credited a Hubbard-founded literacy program with helping him overcome dyslexia and told PEOPLE last year that Scientology "gave me the ability to find out for myself how I can have a happier life." He has spoken out about his beliefs on psychiatric issues for several years—and more frequently in recent interviews from Access Hollywood to The Early Show—but rarely as stridently as in his Today interview. Says one former Scientologist: "What was conveyed was a lack of composure, which Scientologists are trained to maintain."

His future in-laws—Holmes's devoutly Catholic parents, who are regulars at the Christ the King Roman Catholic Church in Toledo, Ohio—also are wrestling with the issue of Cruise's hot-button faith. When asked on June 23 what they think of Scientology, Kathy replied, "Whatever somebody believes in is fine." But Holmes's father, Martin, an attorney, said adamantly "I don't believe in it."

As for "Kate," as Cruise calls her, she smiled adoringly during his interview with Lauer and has been by his side for almost every step of the long Worlds publicity march—including in L.A. on June 27, where the pair roared up to the film's premiere on Cruise's motorcycle. As the couple kick off their wedding plans (see box), their respective families have carved out some quality getting-to-know-you time. In Manhattan on June 23, future mothers-in-law Kathy Holmes and Mary Lee Mapother South stepped out for a joint Madison Avenue shopping trip. And on June 25 both families were spotted breakfasting together at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel (where Cruise's ex Nicole Kidman had bunked just a few days earlier).

In Hollywood, the question remains: What impact, if any, will Cruise's Katie-smooching, Matt-scolding escapades have on a career that has grossed $2.4 billion at the U.S. box office? In a snap poll on PEOPLE.com, nearly 80 percent of those who responded thought Cruise's Today appearance was a turn-off. Although some industry experts note that Cruise's affable public persona plays a role in his drawing power, they predict that his recent behavior is unlikely to affect a surefire blockbuster like War of the Worlds. Says one New York-based publicist: "Ultimately if the work is good and his movies are good, then all the other stuff will have a limited effect."

In any case Cruise seems unlikely to back down anytime soon. "Tom Cruise is his own man," says Bruce Wiseman, president of the Scientology-backed Citizens Commission for Human Rights. "He does what he wants to do."

Michelle Tauber and Nancy Jeffrey. Champ Clark, Tom Cunneff, Brenda Rodriguez, Frank Swertlow and Nicholas White in Los Angeles, K.C. Baker, Mark Dagostino, Tom Duffy, Courtney Hazlett, Diane Herbst and Fannie Weinstein in New York City and Melody Simmons in Baltimore

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  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Brenda Rodriguez,
  • Frank Swertlow,
  • Nicholas White,
  • K.C. Baker,
  • Mark Dagostino.