June 2022

Arts & Letters

Sixty business: Tom Cruise

By Shane Danielsen

Circa 1980. © Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ hits screens as its ruthlessly career-oriented star turns 60

Even by the abbreviated standards of the form, the bio on Tom Cruise’s Twitter account is remarkably succinct. Just seven words: “Actor. Producer. Running in movies since 1981.” 

That might raise a smile. It’s true: he does run a lot. But it’s that date that might get the bigger reaction: it feels like he’s always been around. And at his peak, between big-budget action blockbusters (the Mission: Impossible franchise), Very Serious Dramas (A Few Good MenBorn on the Fourth of July) and commercial triumphs (Rain ManJerry Maguire), he seemed for a while capable of being all things to all audiences – the complete movie star.

How long has Tom Cruise been famous? Consider that the first time any of us ever saw Naomi Watts she was in a TV commercial, knocking him back for a date in favour of her mum’s lamb roast. That was 1990, though it feels today like a transmission from the late Cretaceous period. And even then, Cruise had been the biggest thing in Hollywood for at least half a decade, his very name a kind of shorthand for global celebrity.

But in July of this year, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV will turn 60, an occasion that presents him, and us, with an almost existential dilemma. What does an old Tom Cruise look like? And where exactly does he fit today in a film industry almost unrecognisable from the one he originally conquered? What kind of movies does he make in future, and for whom?

The most obvious answer – a dignified retreat into more “intimate” storytelling, small-scale dramas about sorrowful older men trying to put their affairs in order, or right some longstanding wrong – is also the most unlikely. Mellow reflection? The autumnal register? Not his thing. And anyway, Kevin Costner – who never seemed young – already has that hustle locked down. It’s impossible to imagine Cruise in something as elegiac as Open Range or as despairing as Let Him Go. That weary resignation, the wistful acceptance of time’s passing and the body’s decline… it just isn’t in him. The guy’s a runner.

Likewise, I’d be surprised if he ever buckled and joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe – for the simple reason that he’s engaged in the long-term bet that his brand is stronger than Marvel’s. Cruise is his own superhero, valiantly striving to bend the laws of physics to his will; like Kang the Conqueror, he wants to triumph over time. And to prove it, we now have Top Gun: Maverick, a much-belated, almost certainly superfluous sequel to the movie that consecrated his stardom, 36 years ago. Directed this time by Joseph Kosinski, and made once again in loving lockstep with the United States armed forces (which happily offered facilities and materiel to the cause), it marks a very deliberate call-back to an era of excess and bombast, and a time when living, breathing movie stars, not comic-book characters, were the stuff of dreams.

As such, it has rather a lot to prove. Not only must it live up to its predecessor, one of the best-loved films of the past few decades, but it also has to succeed in its own right, in a theatrical market still finding its feet after the advent of the COVID-19 epidemic. (“We’re trying to hit a bullet with a bullet,” Cruise admitted to co-star Miles Teller.) For the film to underperform would deal a serious blow to his prestige, his unerring ability to draw an audience. But early word of mouth is strong – the flight scenes, at least, look as thrilling as the original’s – and its international premiere at Cannes, accompanied by a career tribute to its star, looks set to anchor a robust foreign rollout. We’ll see.

One thing, however, is certain: the day his international press duties end, Cruise will return home and pour himself a drink and then settle down to work again, toiling away at the task of his life, the business of maintaining his place in a world that may yet outgrow him.

Born in upstate New York in 1962, Cruise reportedly decided to give acting a shot not long after he turned 18. It worked out pretty well. Within a year he’d signed with Creative Artists Agency and scored a bit part (“Billy”) in Endless Love, the now-forgotten Brooke Shields weepie. Just five years after that he was filming Top Gun, with another six credits already under his belt, including performances for Francis Ford Coppola, Curtis Hanson and Ridley Scott. 

This, too, is a kind of running – the kind of headlong sprint into the spotlight that most actors can only dream of. In retrospect, it’s clear why he prospered. It was the ’80s, a decade of abundance. He was young and white and handsome, and supremely confident. He held the screen effortlessly, whether dancing to Bob Seger in an unbuttoned shirt and underpants, or shooting pool alongside Paul Newman (the latter, in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, the kind of intergenerational benediction that is, again, little more than a pipedream for most aspiring hunks). 

Above all, he communicated something uniquely appealing at that particular time, a potency that was partly his own – he seemed, in films such as Risky Business and Cocktail, to be pure id, equal parts instinct and appetite – and partly a projection of the values and self-image of Reagan-era America. Not strength, mind you: the 1980s was also the heyday of a particular kind of muscle-bound action hero, men who, in Clive James’s immortal formulation, resembled condoms stuffed with walnuts, and Cruise was never that. He always looked human, even boyish, and this accounted for a good deal of his charm. But he radiated a can-do sort of resolve, a determination before which every obstacle simply crumbled. Compared to the meathead machismo of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, his was a particularly seductive brand of soft power, his grin – that head-turning, gravity-inverting, million-dollar smile – proving hardly less effective than a mortar.

In fact, considering how easily fame found him, perhaps the single most remarkable thing about Tom Cruise is not that he never seemed to take it for granted, but that he appeared to believe it demanded of him constant and unrelenting attention. Speak to anyone who’s worked with him (I don’t say “anyone who knows him”, because I suspect no one really does), and you’ll hear the same things: Nice guy. Bit intense. Really does the work. No Vin Diesel candy-assing it, here: he does immense amounts of prep, turns up each morning on time and off-book, and expects the same level of commitment from his co-stars and crew. Some people enjoy this discipline. Others don’t. Thandiwe Newton called working with him on Mission: Impossible 2 “a nightmare”. (“I think he has this sense that only he can do everything as best as it can be done.”) Like most control freaks, he views himself as the indispensable element, the fulcrum upon which an entire, fragile structure rests.

At this point, of course, we must acknowledge his curious faith and the outsized role it plays in his life. Scientology blossomed in LA for a reason, but its appeal for Cruise is particularly easy to deduce. A self-help course in the guise of a religion, Dianetics is essentially a series of puzzles to be solved – puzzles of you: why you are the way you are and why you do the things you do. You work each one out in order to move up to the next level, with sartori-like enlightenment – I’m sorry, “clarity” – promised at the end, after many thousands of hours (and dollars) have been expended. This process is catnip to a particular kind of person, and especially for someone like Tom Cruise, who appears to have viewed his entire life as a kind of quadratic equation.

Ironically, this is why he’s so good in 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, a weirdly underrated sci-fi film whose chief selling point is that it’s a kind of meta-text about its leading man: both his real-life willingness to withstand physical punishment (he’s like a live-action Wile E. Coyote in it), and his underlying belief that success is essentially a series of dance steps to be learnt and rehearsed and perfected. Any desired outcome can be achieved, eventually. You just have to put in the work.

But his affiliation with Scientology also highlights a paradox. For a man determined to be ubiquitous, Cruise has, at times, made it a lot harder than it should be to enjoy his movies. This manifests in ways both negative (bouncing on Oprah’s couch like a lunatic, dismissing psychiatry as a pseudoscience) and positive: good as they frequently are, it’s all but impossible to watch the recent Mission: Impossible films without having 20 per cent of your brain remind you that he’s doing all his own stunts. That’s really him up there, clinging to the side of that plane as it takes off, or scaling the Burj Khalifa. That’s the jump where he broke his ankle! (Look carefully, and you’ll see him wince.) We know he survived these moments, but even so, the knowledge can’t help but take us out of the story. There’s a critical theory that every film is actually a documentary of its own making, and that notion is not without merit. But it works a little differently for a Glauber Rocha docu-fiction, I think, than for a $200-million action blockbuster starring one of the most famous human beings on the planet.

Again and again, real life – and the full-time, oxygen-sucking business of simply being Tom Cruise – intrudes on the narrative. It was clear early on that some roles would be beyond him: for all its pretty set designs, 1994’s Anne Rice adaptation Interview with the Vampire exposed a star swimming out beyond his depth. (Though to be fair, one could say the same of his co-star Brad Pitt.) Likewise, his cod Oirish routine in Far and Away two years earlier – a slice of bullshit blarney that might be the single worst entry in his filmography. Even then, Cruise’s wattage was too bright, his public persona too colossal and distracting, to allow him to fully disappear into a role so far outside the here and now.

But even when a part cleaved closely to real life, his very presence could destabilise it, as was seen all too clearly in 1999, with the making of Eyes Wide Shut. On paper, you could see the project’s appeal. Living in luxury in London for a year. Working at Pinewood opposite your wife and for Stanley Kubrick, at the time just about the biggest fish an actor could hope to hook. Alas, the film was not enhanced by Cruise and Kidman’s relationship, as Kubrick presumably intended, but derailed by it. Their scenes together revealed neither empathy nor sizzle, which may have been the point, story-wise (the jury is still very much out on this), but led to all sorts of speculation about their marriage, their private selves… all of which, in turn, further overshadowed the release. And Kubrick’s unexpected death, just six days after showing a first cut to the couple and some Warner Bros. execs, made Eyes Wide Shut an unresolved object, forever debated and conjectural. Whatever it would finally have become, after its famously obsessive director’s tinkering, it’s likely not quite what we saw. Nevertheless, it is what we’re left with, for better and for worse.

The experience (or the result, perhaps) seemed to sour Cruise a little on working with auteurs. Another star in his position – his soon-to-be-ex-wife, for example – would have drawn up a list of Important Filmmakers I Want To Work With and methodically worked their way down it. But aside from Hong Kong veteran John Woo (whose secondment to the Mission: Impossible franchise proved an unhappy one), two dalliances with Spielberg (Minority Report in 2002 and War of the Worlds in 2005), and one-and-done turns for Michael Mann (Collateral  ) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia), he’s mostly relied since on second-stringers and B-listers, journeymen directors he can trust not to muddy his vision. Sometime around 2010 he seemed to realise that, when it came to his career, he was the auteur, as megawatt star and lead producer. So why bother introducing another voice into the mix? What point could it possibly serve, except to cause trouble?

There are some Cruise performances I haven’t seen. Rock of Ages, for example – a film, like Mamma Mia!, that I simply can’t watch because I’m too mortified with embarrassment for all involved. (“Nothing can scare me now,” Colin Firth told me once. “I was in Mamma Mia!, you see.”) Valkyrie looked like an extended Mitchell and Webb sketch; Lions for Lambs just felt like homework.

But others endure, and not always the expected roles. Take Collateral, a film I liked well enough when it came out, but adored when I revisited it a few years ago. Cruise is utterly magnetic throughout, in part because he gives so little. As a hitman charged with taking out five targets in the course of a single LA night, he’s a study in glacial proficiency, so aloof from ordinary human life as to be almost a different species. Like Alain Delon’s assassin in Melville’s Le Samouraï (an obvious influence here), he regards the world with forensic dispassion, dividing it reflexively into predators and prey. He wears a beautiful dove-grey suit. Single-buttoned, no belt or pocket flaps, nothing whatsoever to detract from the pared-down minimalism of the silhouette. He has fantastic salt-and-pepper hair. He’s rarely looked hotter, and I think it’s because he’s never been so indifferent to his own appeal. There’s nothing needy in this performance; he doesn’t meet the viewer halfway, or indeed at all. You come to him. Because you’re fascinated by the cold, hard, uniquely capable thing he is. 

Cruise has two final Mission: Impossible films slated for release in 2023 and 2024, and right now is reportedly playing a high-stakes game of brinksmanship with Paramount Studios, refusing to hand over the first of them until they agree to his terms for the second. As The Hollywood Reporter put it, this is Cruise “exercising the power he’s accrued from bringing in $3.6bn in box office starring as Ethan Hunt over three decades”. 

What he does after that is anyone’s guess. I can’t imagine him ever doing television, prestige or otherwise. It’s not that he would think it beneath him (though who knows, maybe he would). It’s just not what he signed up for – the single, improbable, glorious thing he set out to be. He is, goddamn it, a movie star in the old-fashioned, red-carpet, Hollywood-glamour sense of that term. He might even be the last of them. He demands to be seen in a cinema, on as big a screen as possible, and so requires that you get off your couch and get in your car and go meet him there. He wants you, in short, to make the effort – because Christ knows, he has. That’s what his whole career is about, and his entire life. Day in, day out, he’s doing the work, even as the film industry – and maybe the world – collapses around him. He won’t stop running because he can’t.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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