For at least some of the last 20 years, he’s been among the biggest movie stars on the planet. Think of the term ‘movie star’ and all it entails and you’ll probably get an image of Brad Pitt, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Tom Cruise.
Until 1986, he was little more than a support act, just another teen heart-throb on the coattails of careers belonging to Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon and the rest of the young alpha male A list. His movies were at times great (Legend, Taps), classic (The Outsiders), teenage pap (Losin’ It), and thoughtful teenage pap (Risky Business), but none of them lit the world on fire.
Then one day in the mid eighties, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer — the producers with the teenaged Generation X in their back pockets — read an article about a flight combat school in California, and after turning it into Top Gun, they cemented Cruise’s status as the modern definition of the term ‘movie star’.
Subsequent roles cashed in on the same idea, character and basic plot. Days of Thunder and Cocktail were similar films which applied the yardsticks of what was cool if you were a boy and made you swoon if you were a girl. But he shocked and surprised us all in 1988 appearing opposite Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man ‘ the kid could act, and he was good!
His next few roles expanded his repertoire if not his characterisations. Cruise bought into the ‘guy we love to love’ thing a little too much, and most of his roles were of himself in various guises or historical periods or using different accents (Far and Away).
He was always the hero, he was always going to overcome adversity, he was always going to get the girl. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him, and he became the embodiment of all our fantasies in his films. That’s why — even when some of his films have ranged from lacklustre to terrible — we still lap up his movies.
He surprised us again — very pleasantly — by taking the role of an aristocratic, long haired dandy and villain, the vampire Lestat in Interview With the Vampire, sinking his teeth into the role with as much zealous enjoyment as he did his victims and giving us his best role in years.
It was a trick he’d repeat years later as misogynist motivational speaker T J Mackey in P T Anderson’s Magnolia. For going so strongly against type and still making the characters so real (the job of any actor and the one aspect of the work so many fail at), they’re his best roles to date.
He nearly reached the same lofty heights last year with Collateral, Michael Mann’s masterful crime thriller where a video-shot LA night was as much a character as Cruise was playing hitman Vincent.
But Tom’s old demons plague him — the demons of wanting to be liked. For every Magnolia, Collateral or Interview with the Vampire, he gives us two more Top Guns. Whether he’s a deadbeat dad (War of the Worlds) or a hotshot sports agent (Jerry McGuire), he comes through with the fighting spirit that made American great, overcoming adversity and battling the odds to prove himself to his family, his girl, his country or the whole planet and ride off into the sunset victorious.
Now, it’s true Cruise isn’t alone in Hollywood’s obsession for happy endings. But in a guy so seemingly perfect, being the nice guy or the hero doesn’t feel like enough of a stretch for an actor of his talents. It was most galling in Vanilla Sky, which featured him as an irresponsible millionaire playboy and which many attribute to the film’s limp box office performance.
Sure, the story shows him paying for it dearly, but it’s Tom Cruise! He’s good looking, successful, talented and loved by billions. Portraying him as a rich brat as well just seemed too much of a kick in the teeth to the rest of us mortals.
His last three big films; The Last Samurai, War of the Worlds and Mission: Impossible 3 all portray him as the can-do-anything type you just know is going to come through. In them, Cruise relies on everything surrounding him, be it special effects (MI:3) or a great idea by a visionary director (War of the Worlds) and settles for playing the same old Tom Cruise — all that changes is the costume. Each film was crafted around the leading man, designed in every frame to make him suffer appropriately for what he loves, fight for it and make us love him for it.
What’s worse, his performance in all three films were all based on the same character set. How long has it been before we saw electricity or passion in his work like we did in A Few Good Men or Born on the Fourth of July? In fact, it’s always there. The paradox of Cruise being such a good actor is that he can make a pat action thriller seem more real than most. We have a much easier time believing in him as a man whose wife has a gun to her head than a soldier leading an attack on an enemy stronghold (MI:3).
Part of the problem might be his expanding power. Along with former agent Paula Wagner, Cruise is the driving creative force behind many of his projects. As formidable a producing force in Hollywood as Simpson and Bruckheimer ever were before Simpson’s drug-fuelled demise in 1996, Cruise calls the shots on many of his movies.
Directors from Edward Zwick (Samurai) to J J Abrams (MI:3) have all gushed about how much creative freedom Cruise has granted them, but let’s be honest; when the guy in front of the camera also pays for the whole thing — including your salary — and is now among the most powerful men in Hollywood, what else are you going to say?
Maybe it’s the crushing need to be loved. Maybe there’s a feeling of failure in his off-screen life — he’s now on his third marriage and he’s had a terrible year at the hands of everyone from stand-up comics to Scary Movie 4 parodying his notorious furniture gymnastics on Oprah. Plus he keeps piping up about how bad psychiatry is, telling everyone instead how Thetans from outer space postulated by a dead science fiction writer can change your life and make sex spectacular.
What Cruise needs to do now is something really dangerous. Footing the bill for the considerable cost of shooting a movie is fine, although if he can’t resist the temptation to turn his character into another Tom the Hero maybe it’s better he passed on the producer credit. He needs to play a character we’ve never seen before — if only one we’ve never seen from Cruise himself before — such as Lestat (Interview with the Vampire), Vincent (Collateral) or Charlie (Rain Man). He needs a director who can do ‘people’, not just thrills. He needs a movie where he can’t just read the lines and fall back on the same old Cruisey personality (see what we did there?).
Then finally we’ll have the great Tom Cruise film we know he has in him, and he’ll be an actor as great as his star status.