Volume 20, Issue 10
Our culture today seems very willing to throw the label movie star towards any up-and-coming actor after only a few good films in a row, with an increasing number seemingly ascending to the divine status of membership of the ‘A-list’. A few good movies in a row are undoubtedly an achievement, but what is almost unfathomable is four decades of classic after classic. With a career entering its fifth decade, there’s a strong case that for the entirety of his career Tom Cruise has been at the very top of the A-list. This led me to the question: what about Cruise has enabled him to achieve such success over four decades and counting?
Are there more important questions to be asking in today’s world, even ones people might be more interested to read about? Probably, but let’s have an explore of Cruise anyway to try and find the answers.
The Beginning: 1981-2001
Risky Business, Top Gun, The Color of Money, Rain Man, A Few Good Men, The Firm, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia, and Eyes Wide Shut.
If Cruise were to have retired even as early as 2001, he still would have been left with one of the greatest film careers of all time. His filmography in this period is truly absurd, and what is even more astounding is that these classic films came one after another. With the change of the film industry in recent years, and the rise of streaming and actors flocking to TV, I really wonder if any actor in the future would be able to ‘achieve’ a run of hit films to this extent.
Moviemaking is really a team sport, with winning (making a good film) requiring the entire team, both players and coaches, to be of high quality. While Cruise has worked with a litany of great actors, what sticks out is the coaches that have directed his films. These directors included a list of names that are etched into the history of cinema, such as Coppola, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Stone, Scorsese, Pollock, De Palma, Robert Towne, PTA, and Kubrick. Advocates for Belichick in the Brady-Belichick debate would suggest this identifies Cruise’s success is caused by the quality of the coaching staff he has worked with. However, like with Brady, when you have had so much success, and you are in so many good films, eventually some responsibility must rest with the common denominator, Cruise.
The Tom Cruise Character
In looking at these films in the list above, several similarities appear. The characters Cruise plays are all narcissistic, self-assured, arrogant douchebags. These characteristics never reach an extent where they cross the line to being truly unwatchable, and as William Goldman suggests movie stars tend to avoid such roles. However, I would argue that many of these roles could very easily cross that line, and it is only because of Cruise’s infatuating charisma and irreverence that the audience is prevented from ever disliking his characters. Rain Man and Charlie Babbitt is a great example: Charlie is undeniably horrific and while we as the audience might be able to identify that, Cruise is so enjoyable we never want to look away. In Michael Caine’s view, Charlie's actions are so overwhelmingly hateable that Charlie should be unwatchable - Cruise’s ability to lead the audience to like Charlie could therefore be classed as a best of all-time acting performance (and one arguably better than that of co-star Dustin Hoffman, who won the Best Actor Oscar for the film).
Cruise’s off-screen life and general intensity makes it by no means difficult for one to imagine why he is so easily able to play these douchebags, often returning to these parts. Specifically, these similar characters often have an extremely similar arc, something critic Roger Ebert conceptualised in what he calls a ‘Tom Cruise Picture.’ They open with a hyper-masculine and greatly confident flog that has raw skill in a particular craft, the meeting of a mentor to help him develop these skills to defeat an enemy, and ending with the defeat of said enemy, resulting in the character transforming into a better man. In effect, a straightforward three act structure we all learnt in primary school, nothing too elaborate or unique, merely a tried and tested formula that effectively guarantees an entertaining narrative. While it is true that many classic Cruise films are simplistic, when the outlined elite directors are coupled with the specific skills of Cruise to play his archetypal character, the result is almost always a great movie that is endlessly rewatchable.
Like a true A Lister, his inability to age only furthers his legend and divinity, with Cruise looking like the youngest fifty-nine-year-old in human history. Movie stars have familiar traits and aspects to their acting they repeatedly deploy across movies. For Cruise, his intensity, facetiousness, strangely enthralling yelling, and distinctive running style are all seen time and time again. To me, Cruise is at his best when he’s either loud and dominating or when measured and taciturn.
Both can perfectly be seen in that courtroom scene in A Few Good Men. Nicholson deservedly received praise for the scene, even receiving a supporting actor Oscar nomination effectively for it alone, but to me the better actor in the scene is Cruise. Tom’s ability to suck the attention of the viewer entirely onto himself, through his engrossing magnetism and acting skill, builds the scene to a point where it almost didn’t matter what Nicholson brought to the table. So, to me, Cruise’s work in the scene is far more difficult and impressive than what Nicholson provides.
The Legend of Tom Cruise: 2001-2021
First of all, apologies, I was not expecting this to be this long, and ya boy most definitely does not have the time to edit this down, so congrats if you’re still reading. Shifting now to the next two decades of Cruise’s career: Mission impossible 2-7, The Last Samurai, Collateral, Jack Reacher 1-2, Edge of Tomorrow, Oblivion, Top Gun 2. Two decades of classic after classic gave Cruise a level of power rarely seen in Hollywood, and to me he uses it to establish and promulgate ‘The Legend of Tom Cruise.’ He transitions into becoming almost exclusively an action star, playing himself in every movie with little variation or nuance (also known as becoming a student of the Jason Bateman School of acting). Some argue the catalyst for this substantial shift in Cruise’s career was his lack of an Oscar win for Magnolia, with Cruise consequently shunning traditional dramatic acting. To continue the sports analogy, Cruise’s power build up is like Michael Jordan transitioning into becoming an NBA Franchise owner, except Cruise took it a step further by establishing himself as a player-coach-owner.
When you have such power, you obviously must let everyone know how great you are. TOM CRUISE DOES HIS OWN STUNTS. HE HUNG ON THE SIDE OF A PLANE FOR MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, DID YOU HEAR? HE BROKE HIS ANKLE DOING A STUNT! HE WANTS TO GO TO SPACE FOR A MOVIE! HE FLEW PLANES FOR TOP GUN! ALSO DID YOU HEAR HOW X PERSON TOLD HIM X STUNT WAS TOO DANGEROUS BUT HE DID IT ANYWAY? WOW! TOM CRUISE, WHAT A LEGEND. This legend creating is not only applied to acting, with many articles discussing how Tommy boy is the one calling all the shots on his films, by being a hands-on and intimately involved producer. Are we really going to believe the “leaked” audio of him ‘politely’ talking to his cast and crew, while also talking about how seemingly all of Hollywood calls him all the time just magically appeared? It could be argued that it was instead the careful cultivation of a brand - Cruise remains a beloved cultural figure, drawing eyes to screens simply for the purpose of seeing him, his schtick, and his production efforts.
Well, we’re now scarily deep into this, so it’s probably time to wrap it up. Travelling through Tom Cruise’s four-decade career has hopefully illuminated to both you and to me why he's been able to achieve this incredible career. To close, this clip of Cruise opening the 2002 Oscars is a perfect example of his skills as an actor, his magnetism, and his deeply engaging ability to tell a story. Tom Cruise: a true movie star.
Tim is a First Year Student.