It’s Time to Start Liking Tom Cruise Again

Photo: Illustration: Maya Robinson

Looks like Tom Cruise finally has another hit on his hands. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation has gotten good reviews and just delivered the actor's biggest opening weekend in some years. That should come as welcome news to Cruise, whose last few films have been financially disappointing, at least in the U.S. (He's still pretty big overseas.) Of course, movie stars often have to deal with fallow periods. Will Smith is kind of in one right now; so is Jim Carrey. And Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock had to endure their own respective ruts for a few years, before their current resurgence.

The question of why so many movie stars have recently had a hard time of it is a complicated one, as much about Hollywood’s drift away from star-driven movies as it is about individual actors’ drawing power. But Cruise’s case is somewhat different. The reason a lot of people aren’t going to see Tom Cruise movies appears to be … Tom Cruise himself. Somewhere along the way Cruise went from being the biggest star on the planet to his own films’ worst enemy.

Many have opined about what exactly happened and whether it was justified. Perhaps the best piece you’ll read on the melting away of Cruise’s public image is Amy Nicholson’s 2014 L.A. Weekly story “How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star,” which takes a close look at how one seemingly innocuous 2005 media appearance — now forever known as the Oprah Couch-Jumping Incident — got blown out of proportion and went viral, helping to solidify the Tom Cruise, Crazy (and Possibly Evil) Person narrative. Nicholson argues that the Oprah incident and its aftermath came at a toxically precipitous time — right as YouTube, TMZ, and gossip blogs were taking off, and also not long after Cruise had replaced his Über-powerful publicist Pat Kingsley with his own sister.

Along the way, Cruise’s wild-eyed defense of the cuckoo Scientology cult hasn’t helped. (Of course, his desire to defend his religion seems to be the reason why he replaced Kingsley in the first place, so bad move, Tom Cruise.) Nor have his occasional public flare-ups — his ugly tiff with Brooke Shields over medication and postpartum depression, for example, or the trickle of disturbing news about his failed marriage to Katie Holmes. More recently, the revelations in Going Clear — both Lawrence Wright’s book and Alex Gibney’s documentary — have done Cruise few favors, not just with their exposé of Scientology’s practices but also the picture they paint of Cruise as a willing pawn in the cult’s attempt to cozy up to the celebrity culture of Hollywood.

I’m not here, however, to adjudicate Cruise’s religious views or mental health or even, really, his public image, which seems to be a complicated one. I’m here to say: It’s time to start liking Tom Cruise, movie star and actor, again.

Last year, I had to do one of those evil-but-fun ranked lists for another outlet. It was my idea. For months, I watched, re-watched, and finally wrote up and ranked every film Tom Cruise had ever been in. And I was genuinely shocked at what I saw. Like many viewers around my age, I had grown up watching these movies, but watching them all together, back to back, I was surprised at how well they held up — and how riveting Cruise was in them. (Even some of the roles that seemed like a joke at the time, like his turn as the Vampire Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (1994), assumed a strange kind of beauty and intelligence.) Here was an actor who had given his all, and then some, and had made sure, to the best of his ability, to tackle interesting, challenging work — even when it seemed at first like he was phoning it in.

When Cruise was first rising to prominence, American cinema and culture were undergoing a shift, away from the paranoia and disillusionment of the '70s toward the more driven, can-do, simplistic ethos of the 1980s. As the critic Carrie Rickey said at the time, “Where achieving a goal is concerned, a Cruise character knows no bounds. More than any other trait he embodies, this makes Cruise the Reagan era’s male ingénue of choice.” Of course, Reaganite entertainment often expressed itself through the macho fantasies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. But Cruise wasn’t one of those guys, not quite. Top Gun (1986) shared some of that jingoistic spirit, but his character Maverick wasn’t exactly a beefy macho man. He was cute, and cocky, but also vulnerable. There’s a telling passage in a 1986 Rolling Stone profile of him (back when stars allowed this kind of access) about the development of Top Gun and his character:

“The chief worry was the asshole factor – how could Maverick be ultracompetitive and still be likable? Toward that end, Cruise and company created scenes in which Maverick reveals his self-doubts to his flying buddy. And a subtext for Maverick's actions was established – his need to prove himself and to discover something about his father, lost mysteriously on a mission over Southeast Asia in the Sixties."

Cruise’s characters, especially in these early years, often have daddy issues. In a way, this makes metaphoric sense, too. In the '80s, Schwarzenegger and Stallone were avenging fathers, re-fighting (and winning) the wars of the past. But Tom Cruise, he was sort of like the audience’s adopted son. He was the future.

As evidenced in that bit from the development of Top Gun, the young actor complicated that role right from the beginning. He took it further in ensuing years. Rain Man (1988) showed him playing an opportunist who wound up learning something from his autistic brother. The film won Best Picture and became known as a Dustin Hoffman tour de force, but it was Cruise who provided the film’s character arc; Hoffman’s technical mastery was one thing, but his young co-star did the heavy emotional lifting. The following year, Born on the Fourth of July’s narrative of Vietnam-era disillusionment resonated well into our own time: The pious, war-loving, win-at-all-costs high-school wrestler Cruise plays in the film’s earlier scenes could just as easily have been any American kid in the '80s. (Heck, it could have been Tom Cruise himself.) Yes, his physical transformation is impressive; his character Ron Kovic becomes paralyzed and goes from clean-cut suburban kid to long-haired, scraggly counter-culture figure. But more important is his moral and spiritual transformation — from alpha go-getter to wild-eyed crusader for justice and peace. The film may be set in the '60s and '70s, but in Born on the Fourth of July, Oliver Stone faces down the toxic militarism of present-day America and foresees its unraveling.

Cruise was a contender for the Best Actor Oscar that year, but lost to an unknown named Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot. No matter: Tom Cruise the Serious Actor was here to stay, his career progressing intertwined with Tom Cruise the Movie Star. But there was another character who entered our lives around this time: Tom Cruise, the Guy Who’s Got It a Little Too Good. I loved Cruise in Born on the Fourth, but I remember giving a yelp of glee when Day-Lewis upset him. Over the ensuing years, Cruise gave his share of terrific performances and had a huge string of hits, but occasionally, there’d be another disappointment, or even outright flop, and I’d get that same feeling of Schadenfreude. And I liked Tom Cruise! I was so excited for Far and Away that I paid extra to see it at an early sneak-preview screening. (Fine, it was an extra $10, but that’s not an insubstantial amount when you’re a kid.) But when the film turned out to be a dud, I was suddenly kind of excited in a totally different way. (What was that they said about “the asshole factor”?)

And I wasn’t the only person I knew who felt this way. In fact, I bet most people did. There was something about Tom Cruise’s … well, Tom Cruise-ness that felt like it needed to be brought down a peg. It’s a combination of that aforementioned confidence, that eager-beaver quality, but also a kind of insincerity. It’s a weird mix: Here’s a guy who’s giving 150 percent, and yet you’re not sure if he means any of it. He’s a true believer, but he’s a very deliberate, calculating one. Unlike, say, Matthew McConaughey, who if anything can sometimes seem too sincere, too un-self-aware, Cruise always sounds as if he’s sticking to an inner script.

That should make him a bad actor, but for some reason it doesn’t. A great actor uses his tools. A movie star uses his limitations. Tom Cruise uses both. He understands the effect his presence provokes. In his best films, he indulges the complicated mix of emotions of being Tom Cruise. He’s handsome, expert, cocksure … and really just a little too much. Jerry Maguire (1996) kicks off with that idea, letting Cruise be brought low right near the beginning, then finding a way to keep us constantly on the knife’s edge, unsure of the character’s authenticity. Stanley Kubrick used that quality to great effect in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), by letting Cruise play a smug, successful doctor so secure in his world that he can’t even stomach the notion that his wife might have had an unfaithful thought or two. (The best way to watch that movie is to imagine Cruise’s character walking around the whole film with a “Kick Me” sign on his back.)

Sometimes, Cruise modulates our empathy in surprising ways. In what might be his greatest role, as Frank “T.J.” Mackey in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), he sits down for a literal interrogation, and although he’s portraying a Neanderthal macho self-help guru whose catchphrase is “Respect the Cock!” it’s clear that he’s also playing a variation on our vision of Tom Cruise — and knows it. He knows we’re watching this guy and thinking, I knew it! I knew he was a jerk all along! (Is it any wonder that not only was the part written for Cruise, but that he had an enormous amount of input during production?) And when Mackey breaks down late in the film — in the presence of his dying, estranged father, a scene eerily reminiscent of Cruise’s own story — it feels as if we’ve experienced the breaking of a cosmic fourth wall.

Cruise’s fall from grace happened slowly. War of the Worlds (2005) was a hit. Mission: Impossible III (2006) was a hit. Ghost Protocol (2011) was a hit. Everybody loved his cameo in Tropic Thunder (2008) — so much so that there was talk of breaking him out into his own film. But it became increasingly clear that audiences didn’t really want to see Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise anymore. Even some of his great past films suffered. I’ve talked to a shocking number of people who’ve decided they no longer like (the great) Minority Report (2002) anymore. When I ask them why, the answer is usually some variation of “Ugh. Tom Cruise.” Along the way, his audience changed. Once upon a time, female viewers were a reliable demographic for Cruise’s films. After the Oprah stuff, the Scientology stuff, the Katie Holmes stuff, they turned away in droves. Viacom chief Sumner Redstone, who had a public tiff with Cruise nearly a decade ago, saw the writing on the wall when he noted that “women everywhere had come to hate him.”

That might also be one reason why Cruise has stuck mostly to genre/action-movie stuff nowadays, which means his films get judged by the standards of blockbusters and almost always come up short: Oblivion (2013), Jack Reacher (2013), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014), whatever their qualities or failures as movies, are all underperformers if you try to compare them to their tentpole competitions. Gone, at least for now, seems to be Tom Cruise the Serious Actor, the guy who worked with Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone and Michael Mann and Paul Thomas Anderson. Occasionally, he takes a more obviously self-aware role, but it’s often in the wrong movies. He was fantastic as the drugged-out, sexed-up rock god Stacee Jaxx in the otherwise loathsome Rock of Ages (2012). He did solid work in Robert Redford’s wan drama Lions for Lambs (2007), playing a hawkish Republican senator opposite Meryl Streep. He’s actually quite good poking fun at his own action-star image in the bombastic and shrill Knight & Day (2010).

But look at it another way and Cruise still seems to be an actor who takes risks with ambitious projects. Jack Reacher is a genre flick, but it is nobody’s idea of a slam-dunk box-office hit. It’s slow, somber, deeply weird, and has a deadpan sense of humor. (This is a movie where Werner Herzog plays the villain.) Oblivion may look like a dystopian sci-fi action flick, but it’s more a moodily existential and spare romance in which the sci-fi elements are more melancholy than badass. It’s also a film in which Cruise’s persona as driven, unquestioning hero is thoroughly exploded when he learns that he is a clone, a member of an indestructible army sent by aliens to exterminate all life on Earth — which, by the way, sounds like a joke someone might have made about Tom Cruise back in 1990. In the awesome Edge of Tomorrow, his smiling, gung ho golden-boy persona is revealed early on to be a marketing ploy; his character is in fact an inexperienced coward who sells war to the people, but is incapable of doing any fighting himself. Both Oblivion and Edge of Tomorrow, in fact, seem to be knowing winks to all his haters; the latter in particular is a perfect movie for anyone who’s wanted to watch Tom Cruise die a million horrible deaths.

And, perhaps more significant, that twinge of insincerity that haunted so much of his work — in ways both good and bad — seems to have vanished off the screen. Watch Edge of Tomorrow, and it’s amazing how effectively Cruise goes from slick PR shark to desperate coward to bewildered foot soldier to tormented action hero. The film looks like a mindless sci-fi flick, and it’s certainly loads of fun, but the range it asks of Tom Cruise the actor is actually kind of staggering.

If Tom Cruise’s career were a Tom Cruise movie, we would probably be somewhere near the third act break, with the character laid low by his own hubris and suffering, finally, from self-doubt. But there would also be a glimmer of hope that he’d overcome his limitations, recognize his weaknesses, and emerge triumphant. And maybe that is, indeed, what’s happening. This past week saw its share of Tom Cruise appreciations, think pieces, lists, etc. The very words you’re reading fit easily into that narrative. Maybe we’re all ready to like Tom Cruise again. But it remains to be seen whether life can imitate art like that. Or to put it another way: Do they even make Tom Cruise movies anymore?