From tiny, acne-ridden, squeaky-voiced acorns, massive oaks of megastardom can grow. Not literally, of course, in Tom Cruise‘s case (obligatory height reference), but in every figurative way possible, he is an enormous presence in Hollywood, as a producer, as a celebrity and most importantly as a greenlight-giving, budget-busting, bona fide movie star. For better or worse, we’ve few enough left of those. For anyone who grew up watching movies any time in the eighties, nineties or even noughties, Tom Cruise is simply a fact of life: an immovable object; a mathematical constant like Pi, that we’ll never quite get to the end of defining. His movies succeed, his movies fail (all judged on the warped power-of-n matrix of the tentpole), but Tom Cruise TM endures, and will be jumping out of a building on a movie screen near you very soon, if he isn’t doing just that, right now.
But the ubiquity of his brand has its downside. Familiarity can breed contempt, and in between films, the rumor mill that surrounds Cruise — his family life, his Scientology, his dating practices, the fact that there was a guy wheeling a heater along the red carpet behind him at a recent Dublin premiere — gets on our nerves as much as anybody’s. But a funny thing happens: as much as we may be irritated by Cruise’s persona outside his films, between that Cruise/Wagner logo flashing up and the end credits rolling, for maybe just that 120 minutes, he almost always manages to remind us once again just why he’s the biggest star in the world. Almost always.
A little in contrast to our fairly positive review, for this writer’s money, this weekend’s “Oblivion” is not the best showcase of Cruise’s tentpole talents (we’re excluding things like his highly atypical but totally brilliant turn in “Magnolia” for the purposes of this conversation). Even in poor films like “Knight and Day” we’ve found ourselves liking and rooting for the Cruise character because as self-serious and self-absorbed as he may seem to be in real life, Cruise can deliver charm onscreen like no one else. And aside from being a star, he’s actually a good actor, so if he’s given a character who’s a gruff, sarcastic but noble loner (“Jack Reacher“) or a serious but dedicated master-of-disguise superspy (“Mission: Impossible“), and a director engaged enough, that’s exactly what you get. But in “Oblivion” he’s given very little character, and what quirks he’s allowed fall rather flat under Kosinski’s direction (it’s not so much that he has a directorial tin ear for these things as he seems simply uninterested — he’s more likely off with the production designer arguing over which white swatch is whiter).
Which is all our long way of saying that, noticing how “Oblivion” didn’t work that Cruise juju on us, we started to think about the films that did, and about where it all started. So to mark the release of this $120 million sci-fi spectacular (that would never have gone ahead were it not for the star’s heft behind it), here’s our rundown of the paltry five films that Tom Cruise, seemingly destined like a rocket for the stars, made when he was a nobody.
“Endless Love” (1981)
Cruise has one scene in this mindblowingly mawkish, and actually super skeezy teen melodrama from Franco Zeffirelli, and it’s notable for him already being shirtless (and otherwise only wearing sports shorts) and for his speaking, or should we say squeaking, voice. Complete with goofy high-pitched giggle, it is a voice that, while recognizably his, you can literally never imagine delivering “I want the TRUTH!” or “I feel the need…” or “You’ve never seen me very upset,” let alone “Respect the cock. Tame the cunt” for anything but comic effect. Over the course of his next movies, he’s clearly training his voice never to do this again and he totally retires that snicker, so we’re glad this scene still exists, if only to provide hope for awkward adolescents everywhere. The film, oy vey, stars an unbelievably gorgeous, angel-faced Brooke Shields (her first role after “Blue Lagoon” which seriously rewired the prepubescent hormones of an entire generation) and Martin Hewitt (nope, no idea) as a sexually active 15- and 17-year old couple who are just super duper in love. So much so that when nooky is suspended due to parental interference he just can’t take it and resolves to impress his way back into her bed by saving the family home from a fire that he himself has set. This is an idea he gets from a story told by the Tom Cruise character, incidentally. This foolproof plan goes wrong and he goes to prison for arson. When he gets out he is still super duper in love with Shields, but unfortunately kind of a little bit sorta also causes the death of her father and gets sent down again. News was it was going to be remade with Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde. Yay.
The same year as his “Endless Love” cameo, Cruise got a much more substantial role, and the first of many, many uniforms, in “Taps,” a Harold Becker movie (“Sea of Love,” “Malice“) that’s stood the test of time quite well. It makes a great study of the randomness of nascent stardom too, as Cruise is actually the second or third lead to equally early-days Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn, with Giancarlo Esposito in support. The story is rather ploddingly told, but it’s a compelling tale of young men being taught militaristic ideals without having the wisdom to apply them properly, with tragic consequences. When their Academy is threatened with closure, and their Commanding Officer (George C Scott) hospital-bound after a shooting accident brings on a heart attack, the cadets, led by their newly-promoted Cadet Major (Hutton) decide to resist the authorities trying to shut them down, eventually taking up arms. Cruise’s character is the hothead, while Penn’s is the more thoughtful, but the film is really Hutton’s, and watching it, then crawling under a rock for 30 years, you’d be sure that he would be the one with the bigger career right now. But if Hutton is subtle, delivering a very mature portrayal of misplaced honor and thwarted loyalty, Cruise is impressive even if his character is more one-note. And he does get to go briefly berserk at the climax, reminding us of those performances of his later career in which bloodlust or outright insanity lurk just below the surface. It’s a “Lord of the Flies“-style allegory, so it’s not exactly believable, and it takes too long to get where it’s going, but in “Taps,” we get the first glimpse of the Cruise of the future. And it’s only his second film.
“The Outsiders” (1983)
If “Taps” gave Cruise a taste of what it would be like to be part of a generation of upcoming actors, he hit the motherload by getting cast in Francis Ford Coppola‘s “The Outsiders,” alongside Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Diane Lane. Based on S.E. Hinton‘s novel of the same name, the film is certainly beautiful to look at, and wants to be epic in scope and sweep, but somehow the story doesn’t quite have the grand heft and thematic resonance it really needs. But does it really matter when the cast is this pretty? Again, Cruise takes a less central role than those actors he would soon and forever eclipse in terms of star power, but it is notable from his point of view, because here, despite some spitty, snarly play-acting, greasy hair and snaggly teeth, we discern for the first time Cruise’s heartthrob potential, even in amongst so many heartthrobs. They play a gang of underprivileged kids who are involved in a rivalry with a wealthier gang that spirals out of control when one of the richer kids is killed in a brawl, and as such this also marks a rare time that Cruise would play a true outcast, a reject (as opposed to a principled loner) — future roles may have given him a blue-collar background, but defining Cruise characters are almost always successful in adapting to, and ultimately winning within whatever social circle they aspire to. But while Cruise may be overshadowed in terms of screen time and performance this time out by the likes of Macchio and Howell, especially, according to Lowe, already back then, he was displaying the “traits that would make him famous. He’s zeroed in like a laser.” Lowe also recounts how even this early on, his agent and future production partner Paula Wagner was a hugely important figure in Cruise’s life. Retrospectively it’s tempting to ascribe a good deal of the efficient upward trajectory of his early career to her guiding intelligence — sheer luck and raw talent can’t wholly account for zero-to-hero in just five films, after all.
“Losin’ It” (1983)
But if with ‘Outsiders‘ and “Taps” Cruise might have been in danger of being pigeonholed into the “volatile friend” supporting role, his next two films would be in one of the defining genres of the era — the teen sex comedy — and would put paid to any such notions. “Risky Business” would of course be his breakout, before “Top Gun” three years later would rocket, or fighter jet him to superstardom, but prior to that came “Losin’ It,” the justly overlooked “one crazy night”-style story of a bunch of high school kids heading to Tijuana for an evening of debauchery. No prizes for guessing what the “it” is that these boys are hoping to lose. Really, in tracing the evolution of Cruise into the star we know today, “Losin It” is most notable for being the first time he really had the lead role, even if that doesn’t clearly emerge until a little later in the film. So of the three friends who go on the trip, Dave (Jackie Earle Haley — apparently born looking about 35) is the wildcard motormouth who can’t keep it in his pants, Spider (John Stockwell) is the goodlooking jock who gets into fights and tries to bribe policemen while Woody (Cruise) is the sweet, slightly nebbish friend who chickens out of losing his virginity to a prostitute and is instead deflowered in a much more romantic manner by the young housewife (Shelley Long) to whom they gave a lift to TJ for a quickie divorce. So it’s a romantic lead of sorts, inasmuch as this sort of film ever provided one of those, but it’s Haley’s wired, twitchy, OTT performance that steals what little there is to take here. A sort of interesting moment happens at the end when Long’s husband reappears, but it’s way too little too late in what is otherwise a tiresome palaver of a film, featuring a neat line in casual racism and a pretty revolting sexist streak that may have been par for the course at the time, but dates the film badly now. The real surprise here is that Curtis Hanson is the director. So it’s not only an early low point for Cruise, then.
“Risky Business” (1983)
And so we come to the end of our journey, with a little film you may have heard of: “Risky Business” — only the third of four films that Cruise would release in 1983 (the last being “All The Right Moves“). The story of a privileged, Princeton-bound teen who gets into trouble while his parents are away and, with the help of the call girl he falls for (Rebecca de Mornay) hits on the wizard scheme of running a one-night brothel to pay off his various debts, on paper it’s not the most promising of star-making vehicles. But Cruise really goes for it, and somewhere around the time he slides into the living room sporting nothing but socks, a pink shirt and a candlestick/microphone, it appears the world woke up to Tom Cruise TM. It helps that the film, though it roughly shares a genre with the same year’s vastly inferior “Losin’ It,” is an altogether sharper, tighter, better-written affair (writer/director Paul Brickman seldom gets enough props for that), so that it comes across more as satire than slapstick, spicing it’s caper-ish antics with some fairly pointed commentary. And Cruise is really very good in it, navigating the trickier aspects of his character’s moral ambivalence with ease, and turning in a confident performance that would set up the cocksure but charming persona he would default to time and again in the coming years, most notably with “Top Gun.” In fact, it’s the first evidence we really have of the central conundrum of Cruise’s star image: in anyone else, that air of smugness — the expectation that the world will give him what he wants because it owes him — would be totally off-putting. But maybe Cruise’s greatest talent is knowing just when to pull back from the brink of all-out arrogance and show us something real, or goofy, or awkward underneath the bravado. It’s those moments, which catch the light like the flaws in a diamond, that stop us from despising his character here and in future incarnations. And that’s maybe as close as we’re going to get to explaining his long-lasting appeal: Cruise can behave like an asshole, he can win the way assholes win, but he gives us just bare-minimum-enough of a glimpse inside to let us believe he’s not, in fact, an asshole. Cue Moms wanting to rescue him; cue teenage girls sighing over the tenderness they spy within; cue teenage boys furiously taking notes. Cue stardom.
The rest is, of course, movie history. Next up, in 2014, Cruise will be jumping out of buildings in 3D in service of yet another sci-fi epic in Doug Liman‘s “All You Need Is Kill,” which sounds kinda like “Groundhog Day” with warring aliens (proper synopsis here), potentially to be followed by Rupert Sanders‘ “Van Helsing,” and/or Guy Ritchie‘s “The Man From UNCLE” before the probably Christopher McQuarrie-directed “Mission Impossible 5“ arrives in 2015. Nope, Cruise ain’t going nowhere. Except maybe out the window of that skyscraper one more time.