My wife isn’t a big fan of the Brit motorhead show Top Gear. Mostly for good reasons. The three co-hosts share the arrested development of many many men, seemingly stuck at age nine, despite gray hairs and creeping paunches. Also, the car thing doesn’t fascinate her, which is acceptably common among women. I know her eyes glaze over when I start talking about internal combustion engines, etc.
But we had an exception last night. A standard Top Gear segment is “Star in an Average Priced Car,” which is exactly what it sounds like. TV and movie stars show up, receive some training from the show’s resident racing driver (“The Stig”), and then try to turn in the fastest lap they are capable of on the show’s tricky home track. The car is the constant. Everyone drives the same vehicle.
The results of their efforts are revealed to them in the Top Gear studio, where they and the most acerbic of the TG co-hosts, Jeremy Clarkson, are perched on car seats surrounded by an active studio audience. There is a permanent running record of the times recorded by all the stars, and there are a lot of stars. Whether you know it or not, this test is a rite of passage for a very large number of both British and American actors. Where action stars in particular have to prove their mettle in real life.
So. On the episode we saw last night, Jeremy Clarkson, notoriously anti-American except when he has American stars in the studio, was clearly star struck by having both Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz on hand. They were obviously promoting their movie Knight and Day, which Clarkson may have shown a clip of. Mostly, though, he was interested in Cameron Diaz, Cameron Diaz, and the Hollywood glow of the two of them together.
The man who continually asks Brit stars why they live in New York or Los Angeles when they could live in the one true kingdom went so far as to declare that Cameron and Tom looked like the genetic future of the human race, when all the defects had been eradicated from the species.
He asked Cruise about the reporting that he does most of his own stunts. True. He asked if that was hard and if it ever hurt. Cruise said yes, it often hurts; he’d broken his nose twice, most of his fingers and toes, a leg, and multiple ribs. Oh. How about Cameron? Well, not because of stunts but she’d broken her nose four times, beginning at age eleven. “Shit just has a way of finding my nose,” she said.
Talk about personal cars. Cruise rides motorcycles mostly these days. He has a 1934 Indian once owned by Steve McQueen. Cameron has a Prius. Clarkson made a face. She gave him a nasty grin.
Then to the laps they both did. There’s in car video of these laps. Cameron was obviously taking the competition seriously. While Jeremy was asking how anyone could actually look that good in a helmet, she was setting a TG record for most uses of the F-word in a Top Gear lap. Which is not easy to do. The stars are very colorful in their language while driving. She also mentioned in passing the real handicap American stars are under in the competition. Right hand drive means you do all your shifting with the left hand, not how Americans have learned to shift. “Damn English gears,” she said.
After they’d shown the video, Cameron wanted to know her time. Clarkson gave his Cheshire Cat grin and said it was time to see Tom Cruise’s video. He was also clearly committed, so much so that his line was at times on the verge of loss of control. On the final curve, he actually managed to come so close to rolling that both left hand wheels visibly left the ground. He was shaking his head at his own performance when the video ended.
Clarkson’s big moment in this segment always. He has the times and he tortures the stars, asking them how they think they did, who they’d like to beat on the long board of star times. Cameron didn’t know. She just didn’t want to be humiliatingly bad.
With painful slowness, Clarkson revealed her time. She had beaten everyone on the long board. The top star time.
Cruise immediately embraced her, laughing and cheering her accomplishment.
Clarkson fixed him with a beady stare and said, “That’s a nice show, but you’ve got to be crapping yourself right now.” Cruise smiled and leaned forward, waiting, which all the stars do, no matter how big and famous.
Cruise’s time was doled out even more slowly than Diaz’s. But the end result was worth it. Cruise bettered her by a full second. Cameron squealed, they embraced again and then both stood up and received a standing ovation from the studio audience.
“You Americans,” said Jeremy Clarkson. “You Americans.”
In case any of you needed a bright moment today.
CORRECTION: I overstated my wife’s lack of interest in cars. Lately, she was the reason we watched the Monaco Grand Prix and the Canadian Grand Prix. She was riveted. And she’s waiting for the next one. I think a fan has been born. If that’s not a rush to judgment.