Tom Cruise: Cruising for a Bruising
A Tory peer once told me how he'd spent an evening talking to a young American in the House of Commons about politics and this and that, and after a while had thought to ask him what it was that he did.
The man had given him a strange look and told him he made movies. 'Oh,' said the peer. 'And what is that you do in the movies?' Another bemused look: 'I'm an actor,' the man said.
'It turned out to be… uhm…' At this point the right honourable gentleman lost his punchline. He turned to his secretary. 'What was the name of that actor I met?' he asked her. 'Tom Cruise', she said. 'Tom Cruise,' he echoed. 'He's quite well known, apparently.'
It's hard to know where to start with Tom Cruise. It's not that he's such a complex personality or a deep and probing artist. But there is a massive disconnect between his status as the biggest star in Hollywood - a position he's held on to for over a decade now - and the wider public perception of him as something of an embarrassment. As a movie star it seems we can't get enough of him. As a celebrity, the guy hovers between a standing joke and the sinister puppet of a deeply dodgy cult - 'just one spoke behind Michael Jackson on the freak wheel', as the Village Voice put it.
His Lordship notwithstanding, he's one of the most famous men on the planet - possibly other planets too, if Lafayette Ron Hubbard knew what he was talking about. But what do we really know about Cruise? That he doesn't smoke, drink or do drugs - especially anti-depressants. Even if he does act a little crazy sometimes.
As far as the gossip goes, the smoke gets pretty thick - but I wonder if part of it might not be a subconscious desire to make the clean living Mr Cruise less boring than he actually seems? If you go to the forums on www.tomcruisehq.com you'll find 34 topics and 143 posts within the general discussion thread, 'the Man, the Myth, the Legend'; 41 topics and 139 posts on 'Scientology'; and only four topics and 13 posts on the thread 'Tom's movies' - which hardly seems the mark of a healthy career.
Nor is www.tomcruiseisnuts.com for that matter - which offers a handy primer on what he's been up to lately, in case you've been cryogenically frozen for the last 12 months and missed his bizarre public courtship of Ms Katie Holmes.
But does it matter if he's nutty as a fruitcake? That infamous Oprah freak out didn't hurt the box office for War of the Worlds last summer, and we can be confident that Mission: Impossible 3 will be the biggest moneymaker of the year to date? According to Box Office Mojo, Cruise pictures average a $100 million in the US alone - and that statistic includes the $1 million grossed by Losin' It back in 1983.
In fact it's hard to think of a movie star with a higher batting average. The only times Cruise has really fallen below expectation at the box office are when he's gotten mixed up with artistic directors like Ridley Scott (Legend); Martin Scorsese (The Color of Money); Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia).
Of course these were aberrations - Cruise has almost always played it safe. His movies are high concept and big budget, and they're invariably built around Cruise as a kind of supercharged Everyman.
In the 80s this persona seemed to embody the decade, which was all about hedonism, get-rich-quick, and the need for speed. Cocky and determined, Cruise personified all this in amoral boy-toy movies like Risky Business, Top Gun and Cocktail. He always seemed to be having the time of his life, and audiences got a kick out of watching him get his kicks. It put him right ahead of the pack - remember he started well down the cast list in The Outsiders and T.A.P.S, behind the likes of Matt Dillon, Sean Penn, Timothy Hutton, Emilio Estevez, Patrick Swayze, C Thomas Howell and Rob Lowe.
In the 90s Cruise was still playing the winner, but now he was exhibiting at least some misgivings about excess success (in Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, The Firm, and Jerry Maguire). The grin was beginning to fade. Again, he was right in synch with the times. In the Clinton era we knew we'd been selfish and short-sighted in our twenties - we just weren't prepared to do anything about it.
Still, I think this is where Cruise began to lose his footing - not so much for what he did - which was mostly bland and safe - but what he didn't. Take your pick from the films that made Brad Pitt and George Clooney who they are today, and know that Cruise could have done any of them at the asking.
But how does he fit into the scheme of things today? The trouble is he doesn't. All those Impossibilities in his CV are beginning to take their toll. It's no longer easy to accept him as an Everyman - not in an everyday setting anyway. Judging by his recent behaviour, he seems incapable of playing Tom Cruise sincerely, let alone anybody else.
No matter that he keeps trying to pull off that mask (in Vanilla Sky and Mission: Impossible 2) he can't get away from those famous features. If we count the Mission: Impossible films as fantasy (and I think we do) so far this decade he's done five fantasy films, one period piece (in The Last Samurai he played an exotic anachronism) with two more in the works, apparently, and just one contemporary drama. Modestly disguised with dapper grey hair in Collateral, Cruise made a perfectly convincing professional assassin - but then, that's essentially what he's become: a cold and calculating one-man hit factory.
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