Thursday, August 27, 2015

Cruise Control Freak: On Almost 35 Years of Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, now in theatres.

Tom Cruise is the spirit of the 1980s incarnate. This is not necessarily a good thing, unless you’re the kind of person who voted for Ronald Reagan twice and would have jumped at the chance to do it a third time. The ‘70s and ’60s produced a number of movie stars who cultivated images as rebels or outsiders who, one way or another, were unable to make peace with authority and at odds with the status quo. But so did the patriotic ‘40s and the bland, gray-flannel-suit ‘50s; maybe it spoke well of the general mental health and confidence level of Americans of that time that the culture was able to accommodate Brando and Bogart and John Garfield and James Dean alongside such uncomplicated hero figures as Charlton Heston, John Wayne, and Rock Hudson. (Nowadays, Film Studies majors will happily step up to explain that the rock-ribbed all-American types were dizzyingly complicated figures themselves, from Wayne the psychotic racist hero of The Searchers to the closeted gay man Rock Hudson playing all those characters who were defined by the lust they inspired in Douglas Sirk heroines and Doris Day, but that is definitely not how either their fans or the stars themselves saw them at the time.)

In the ‘80s, a lot of Americans felt so disoriented and dispirited over the changes the country had gone through that they wanted to believe in a return to a nonexistent time when Leave It to Beaver was reality TV. The desire must have been very strong, because there are people who, ten years after Reagan’s death, still honor his memory by talking about the president who turned the national debt radioactive and sold arms to Iran as part of a secret, illegal foreign policy strategy as a straight shooter who kept the purse strings tight and never deigned to negotiate with rogue nations. It was in this cultural climate that Cruise, along with Eddie Murphy and Sylvester Stallone, became the biggest box-office draws of the decade by making movies in which they won. It didn’t matter that much what they won; the movies were pure, abstract celebrations of winning, of being top dog, pure and simple, and although the movies tried to adhere to the genre convention that winners win after overcoming great odds, Murphy, in particular, seemed very impatient with maintaining the pretense that anyone could ever stop him from winning or might even briefly keep up with him in a battle of wits. (Stallone, a wizened veteran compared to the other two, had become a star via a movie, Rocky, in which his character “won” something—self-respect, his manhood, the love of a good woman, like that—by losing a big boxing match. If Stallone was once tolerant of anything less than winning 100%, he got over it. Released late in November 1976, after Jimmy Carter was elected president but before he took office, Rocky is a transitional film; it has one foot in the ‘70s and one in the moment before the ‘80s began but after Americans had started to feel that it had had enough bitter post-imperial self-reflection to do it for awhile.)

Cruise may well have been the least talented of the big professional winners of ‘80s movies. (Besides Murphy and Stallone, the ranks include such one-shot winners as Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, Kevin Bacon in Footloose, and Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, as well as a whole second line of B-movie action lugs like Chuck Norris.) But it’s easier to see now that none of them needed so desperately to be seen as a winner. Cruise could just barely act, and despite a movement among mainstream critics like Siskel and Ebert and whoever was writing Time cover stories on movie stars circa 1990 to redefine him as a fine film actor with the talent and daring becoming to a film idol of his great popularity, watching him trying to act by overdoing the manic idiocy in The Color of Money or draping himself in surly glumness in Rain Man or adding a Salvador Dali mustache and screaming about his limp wedding tackle in Born on the Fourth of July was a terrible, embarrassing, eye-scarring experience. (The “Cruise can act!” meme may have reached its peak in a notorious screed by Village Voice critic Georgia Brown attacking Pauline Kael for her supposed malign influence on New York Film Critics Circle voters, which noted that Cruise’s Fourth of July performance had inexplicably been slighted by voters who instead choose to honor Daniel Day-Lewis’s work in My Left Foot. Although there will continue to be critics who regard Cruise as a major actor for as long as there are critics whose seminal experiences include watching Top Gun on VHS, we are probably long past that moment in history when a publication would allow one of its writers to expose herself to public ridicule by implying that, in a year in which both Daniel Day-Lewis and Tom Cruise both starred in movies in which they played guys in wheelchairs, only a great conspiracy could account for a critics’ organization deciding that Day-Lewis had given the superior performance. )

In the movies that made Cruise a star, particularly Risky Business and Top Gun, it’s his naked need to prove that he belongs in the starring role of a movie that comes through loud and clear and connects, like a lightning bolt hitting a transformer, with the character’s need to win. The winning itself is typically low-stakes stuff: in Risky Business, the teenager played by Cruise succeeds, first, at losing his virginity to a prostitute (Rebecca DeMornay), and, second, to turning his parents’ house into a pop-up bordello and pimping himself into Princeton. In Top Gun, he flew a Navy jet “recklessly” and excitingly in a lot of training exercises, and, at the end, teams up with Val Kilmer to shoot down some “real” but ill-defined jets that are up to some sort of un-American mischief. The fact that Matthew Modine famously turned down Cruise’s role because he felt the movie was “militaristic” and glorified war says a lot about the culture wars circa Reagan’s second term. Top Gun isn’t grounded enough in the real world to be pro-anything except looking cool, but it is a movie for a moment when one’s coolness was thought to be intensified if one was doing something military-related and high-tech and it was easy to work an American flag into the compositions.

Tom Cruise in Top Gun (1986).

Top Gun is Cruise’s cool-to-be-patriotic movie, just as Risky Business is his cool-to-be-making-bank movie. (In conception, before the producer David Geffen changed the original ending, Risky Business was planned by the writer-director Paul Brickman as a scabrous commentary on shallow materialistic values. In execution, it’s the movie where Cruise fucks like a teenage stallion and feathers his nest while looking cool wearing Ray-Bans and dancing in his undershorts.) It says a lot about the way that Cruise, at a stage in his career when his “technique” as an actor came down to trying to remember not to grin when his character was meant to be in a pit of despair, connected to both his roles and the audience enjoying winning vicariously through him that all his big ‘80s movies feel as if they’re mostly about charting his career. The Color of Money and Rain Man are movies about winning in the sense that they’re really about our boy reaching the stage where he gets to work with big-name “serious” directors and share the spotlight with established big stars. So is Born on the Fourth of July, which is about the moment when our boy gets a solo starring role in a serious big movie without an established big star to shoulder some of the serious acting, and gets talked about as an Oscar contender. If Cruise’s performances in these movies are short on skill and long on sincere, nakedly visible longing to be taken seriously, that’s in keeping with the pattern established by his “go for it” blockbusters, where the hero’s winning has less to do with his having mastered some difficult task and powered himself past all the other people also attempting to master it, but by his wanting it more. In Top Gun, he has to learn to fly to plane, but that looks easy enough; the real drama is in his learning to deal with the death of his father, which is the stumbling block keeping him from getting all that reckless hot-dogging under control. (In the context of the movie, any danger that Cruise’s own unearned self-regard and cockiness might look like ego-tripping arrogance was neutralized by the simple but surefire method of positioning him onscreen next to Val Kilmer, who could make Donald Trump look like Mr. Peepers.) No doubt it was felt that making Cruise’s winning appear to be a thing of the spirit would help him seem relatable to movie audiences who doubted their own ability to master difficult tasks but had no such doubts about the purity of their own wanting hearts. In the 1990 Days of Thunder, which reunited Cruise with Top Gun’s director Tony Scott and its producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, Cruise’s budding race car star goes so far as to explain to his mentor (Robert Duvall) that he doesn’t understand how cars work but that he learned to be a great driver by watching races on TV. Days of Thunder was a box-office disappointment, indicating that this speech may have taken things a little too far.

Days of Thunder inaugurated the first stage of Cruise’s ongoing effort to remain a star in a post-‘80s landscape. In the ‘90s, he jumped at the chance to try to prove he could act by impersonating a creature of the night in Interview with the Vampire (1993) and working with Stanley Kubrick on the director’s swan song, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). These are not just among his worst films, but are perhaps as bad as any movies made by directors of the first rank, and their badness is such that his own wan performances in them scarcely stand out. But his starring role in Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maquire (1996) shows that, given a role with a human scale and a director who knows how to keep him calm and hold him down, Cruise had learned how to be almost as likable as he was always said to have been. It’s not a classic movie or a great performance, but it can be rather pleasant to see him wrestling with career difficult and modest moral issues and a romantic attraction to a nice single mother (RenĂ©e Zellweger) instead of running around trying to avoid being murdered by the dark forces commanded by Wilford Brimley (in The Firm) or threatening to burst a vein in his forehead going head-to-head with Jack Nicholson (in A Few Good Men), or in any of the movies (or interviews) in which he proclaimed that what he shared with the crimson-haired snow maiden Nicole Kidman was a grand passion.

As usual with Cruise, it’s hard to say just how much the impact he makes in the role has to do with the degree to which it seems to be a (partly unconscious) commentary on the state of his career. (Just say that this aspect is always more important than any contribution made by his “acting.”) By 1996, too much ego and too many terrible movies were taking a toll on the careers of all the big swinging dicks from the ‘80s. Eddie Murphy climbed out of his particular hole by alternately wearing a fat suit and parodying his own image as an egomaniacal monster in The Nutty Professor; Stallone did himself less good by being a schlub and getting told off by Robert De Niro in Cop Land, after unsuccessful attempts to turn comedian in Oscar and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. Clearly, Jerry Maguire’s crisis of professional confidence—his need to rebuild his career after rejecting big-‘80s-style values—struck a chord in Cruise, or at least got him to thinking about ways to acknowledge that things had changed in the country since Top Gun. Certainly there were worse ways to go about that; this may just be the rambling of a man who’s watched too many Star Trek episodes, but I’m convinced that somewhere out there, there’s an alternate Earth where Cruise offered to step in and replace Kurt Cobain in Nirvana.

Tom Cruise in Magnolia (1999).

If Jerry Maguire is Cruise’s most successful attempt to be a “real” grown-up actor while retaining his boyish appeal, the most fascinating suggestion of what it might be like to be Tom Cruise remains his performance as the charismatic, hateful professional misogynist Frank T. J. Mackey in P. T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). The performance is brash and loud and not especially well-controlled, but Anderson, a genius in his handling of actors, protects Cruise by allowing him to dominate the screen without any real competition in most of his screen time and by keeping his big emotional moment at the end relatively short. (With his other actors—Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Melora Walters—Anderson delights in shoving them up against each other and in keeping them on a loose leash.) Frank has made himself a star of sorts by letting his bitter anger—at women, at his father, at anyone who’s ever made him feel like a chump—simmer to a boil and who uses his stardom to lecture guys who he must see as chumps on how to put their own rage to work for them. Cruise doesn’t know how to add any complexity or depth to this outline, but he’s as sincere as ever in his desire to give his director what he wants, and when the suppressed terror that drives Frank to keep his foot on the neck of the world and never give an inch fully surface, it feels so authentic and unadulterated that it’s both scary and strangely moving. Did Cruise feel he was giving anything away in this performance, and does he have any regrets about it? He would likely never admit it if he did, but he hasn’t done anything like it since, and except for the terrible political drama Lions for Lambs (2007)—directed by Robert Redford, with Cruise going up against Meryl Streep—Magnolia and the debacle of his reunion film with Cameron Crowe, Vanilla Sky (2001), seem to have cured him of his interest in proving his mettle in possible Oscar bait.

These days, Cruise, who’s 53, seems more interested in proving that he’s as fit and pretty as he ever was. He is, and the results have often been engaging. When he plays a role that mostly demands that he keep in motion for a capable director with a decent script—whether he’s playing a sinister hit man in Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004) or the hero of the time-tripping science fiction epic Edge of Tomorrow (2014)—he’s at least as much a star, and an actor, as he’s ever been. But it’s this summer’s fifth installment in the Mission: Impossible series, Rogue Nation, that show what he can really do, and how his career, which is still inseparable from whatever he’s pretending to embody onscreen, has taken shape. When Cruise first played the super spy Ethan Hunt in the 1996 Mission: Impossible, that movie didn’t have “franchise” written all over it. It just seemed like an enjoyable payday for the director, Brian De Palma, and for Cruise, a chance to set up some big action set pieces and allow the then-34-year-old Cruise maybe one last chance to do his own stunts. But in the last two installments, Rogue Nation and the 2011 Ghost Protocol (directed by animation specialist Brad Bird), the stunts have kept getting more and more spectacular and life-threatening, and Ethan Hunt has come to seem more and more vulnerable; he actually drowns while performing one of his impossible missions in the new movie, and has to be rescued and resurrected by the beautiful woman (Rebecca Ferguson) who is required by the demands of her job as a double agent to try to control her feelings for him.

The scenes in these movies of the inhumanly fit Cruise hanging on by his fingernails seem almost consciously designed to make you think about the hard work that Cruise puts in to stay just the way the world likes him, not to mention coming back every few years to top what he did the last time. He’s our James Bond crossed with our Doctor Who; no one who’s played James Bond can claim to look pretty much like he did twenty years since the first time he tackled the role, but Cruise keeps regenerating into… himself. It’s absolutely his best self; the Cruise of the last couple of MI movies is a tremendous improvement over the younger Cruise of the ‘80s, because the long, long campaign of keeping himself fit and his career alive has knocked all the smugness out of him. His reemergence has led to headlines like “Is It Time to Start Liking Tom Cruise Again,” which is not only an acknowledgment of his off-putting personal life—the weird, revolving-door marriages and eternal fealty to L. Ron Hubbard—but the fact that people who’ve been his fans for years, decades, think about him in more personal terms than they do, say, Gene Hackman or Denzel Washington or Reese Witherspoon or any of the actors who audiences connect with through their, well, acting. Cruise is someone a lot of people felt they knew, and who they came to realize is a lot more complicated, or at least a good deal stranger and perhaps creepier, than they once suspected, or wanted. And as long as he’s hanging from the side of a plane or weaving a motorcycle through high-speed traffic and letting the sweat show, he’s likable, or at least enjoyable, as all creation. Does Cruise have a clause in his contract requiring that the next Mission: Impossible movie be completed and released if he’s killed on-camera? And is there anything he’d rather be doing when he goes to join the space lizards?

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

1 comment:

  1. Cruise is a lesson in the fact (I'd say) that natural charm can carry an actor a long way. That and working out a lot.