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10 Moments That Prove Jerry Maguire Is Tom Cruise’s Best Performance

Tom Cruise's incredible career has spanned more than 35 years and 45 roles, but only one of those parts captures every part of his essence.

“Jerry Maguire”

The idea of “movie stars” has been on life support since the turn of the 21st Century — we live in a world where brands and intellectual property have become more important than people — but Hollywood as we know it will continue to hang on by a thread for as long as one man keeps running for its life. Tom Cruise isn’t just one of the greatest movie stars in the history of the medium, he might just be the last (depending on how Leonardo DiCaprio wants to play middle age). His face is known all over the world. His name is synonymous with big-screen entertainment. His incredible career has spanned more than 35 years, 45 roles, and hundreds upon hundreds of wild tabloid headlines. He’s been a Vietnam vet, a super-spy, a misogynistic self-help guru, a different super-spy, a samurai, a contract killer, another super-spy, a handsy bartender, a horny Chicago teenager, a New York City doctor on a sexual vision quest, whatever the hell he was supposed to be in “Rock of Ages,” and more. He’ll probably be a fourth super-spy before he’s ready to retire and spend the rest of his days sailing with Sea Org.

READ MORE: Watch Tom Cruise Spin Through The Air While Shooting A Zero Gravity Stunt In “The Mummy”

But of all those roles, none lingers in the mind (or in the recesses of cable television) quite like Jerry Maguire. It’s not Cruise’s most dangerous part, or his most athletic. There are no special effects, and no death-defying stunts. For all of the vulnerability and candor of his work, it’s not even the rawest thing he would do that decade. But, however unassuming it may be, his 1996 performance as an emotionally disoriented sports agent doubles as a comprehensive one-stop shop for everything that makes Cruise a unique force of nature. This week, as the man formerly known as Mapother unwraps “The Mummy” and accepts the most impossible mission of his career by trying to compete with the legendary charisma of Brendan Fraser, IndieWire looks back at 10 moments from the one movie that always reminds us why he’s the best in the business.

10. Cush-lash

At the height of his career, just months after the first “Mission: Impossible” film had cemented his status as the world’s leading action star (and netted him a cool $70 million paycheck after profit participation), Tom Cruise decided to downshift by playing the title role in a plucky Cameron Crowe drama about a sports agent who experiences a sudden crisis of conscience. Of course, for a sports agent in a cynical world of tough competitors, having a conscience is just about the greatest crisis there is. And so it goes for fast-talking, floppy-haired Jerry Maguire, who finds his career in ruins after he loses his “ability to bullshit” (and his job along with it). It’s a hard world out there for people who care about people, especially when they care about people more than they do endorsement deals; when they care about the love of the game more than they do about the length of a contract. Capitalism isn’t really the most accommodating environment for compassion.

Watching the highest-paid actor on the planet try to sell us on the human angle should have been a noxious exercise in hypocrisy, but Cruise’s performance is anything but. Bending his usual intensity towards saving himself rather than saving the world, Cruise’s turn as Jerry Maguire is an incredible high-wire act of moral desperation. The first scene where we get to see how hard it’s going to be for Jerry to sustain his awakening is utterly savage stuff, as he learns that his number one client — top NFL draft pick Matt Cushman (Jerry O’Connell) — has betrayed him and signed with Jerry’s devious former protégé, Bob Sugar (Jay Mohr). The frozen smile on Cruise’s face as he privately learns the news, the way he slips on that “Team Cushman” hat like he still has a chance, the unblinking stare he wears when he realizes how he’s the only person in that hotel suite with any scruples whatsoever… it’s heartbreaking. “This is business, not friendship” Sugar says. But, in that moment, you can tell that Jerry Maguire is never going to choose between the two again.

9. Dorothy Boyd Wants a Divorce 

When Jerry leaves his job, there’s only one person who’s willing to come with him: a 26-year-old single mom named Dorothy Boyd (Renée Zellweger). They eventually get married, both of them trying to will their best lives into existence. He wants to be a people person, she wants to meet the man of her dreams, someone who will be as good a partner to her as he will be a father to her young son, Ray (Jonathan Lipnicki). But change isn’t easy, and sometimes wanting something doesn’t mean a thing if you’re not willing to work for it; for most of the movie, this is the only kind of work that Jerry isn’t willing to do.

The scene where he and Dorothy realize that their unattended marriage is falling apart — or, rather, the scene where Dorothy realizes that for the both of them — is one of those moments that earned Cruise his second Oscar nomination (and earned Zellweger her first Oscar snub). “What do you want, my soul or something?” he asks. “Why not?” she replies. “I deserve that.” Cruise plays the beat super casual, but that’s part of its power. This is such a powerful break-up scene because it’s so gentle, because it wouldn’t be happening if Jerry had earned the happiness that’s sitting right in front of him.

8. Jerry Tells Ray That The Zoo Is Closed 

“The fucking zoo’s closed, Ray.”

Weaponizing the sheer adorableness of Tom Cruise drunkenly spilling his guts to a giant-headed kid, Jerry Maguire’s first heart-to-heart with his future step-son is such a memorable touchpoint because of how much pain (and blunt character detail) it manages to disguise in a whirlwind of cuteness. Jerry Maguire, always vulnerable but finally transparent, opens up about the fact that his predatory existence has made him kind of a non-entity. He’s a facilitator, not a person. “My whole life I’ve been trying to talk — I mean, really talk — but no one wants to listen to me.” Meanwhile, Ray just wants to go the fucking zoo.

The genius of the scene (and the point beyond its central curse word) is in Cruise’s unwillingness to adjust for his audience. Jerry Maguire is a guy who’s success depends on being able to read a room, and here he’s tipsy, flushed, and talking to some kid like he’s the therapist he would never admit he needs. Ray’s purity makes him the perfect foil for Jerry, he’s completely void of the bullshit that has come to define Jerry’s existence, and the fun that Cruise has with letting his character get pleasantly lost in that exchange makes for some great cinema. Cruise has done that half-crazed smile in just about every movie he’s ever made, but seldom has it felt so real.

7. Bottom-feeders

Tom Cruise doesn’t get enough credit for being one of cinema’s great non-verbal actors. Sure, no one questions the physicality of his screen presence — all that running and climbing and clenching — but the man is an artist even when he’s standing still. For proof, look no further than the scene in which Cruise’s eponymous sports agent wakes up the morning after a romantic encounter with his only employee and eavesdrops on her telling her sister that she loves him. That she loves him for the man he wants to be and she loves him for the man he almost is. All the while, Cruise is posing silently in a hallway just on the other side of the wall, and you can see the wheels turning behind his face. A flash of the eyes and a little dip of his head is all he needs to let you inside Jerry’s head, to feel him wrestling with what he wants and trying to make sense of what’s available to him. Then the charm takes over, and Cruise — like only Cruise could do — ends the scene with the best kiss of his career. And it’s not even on the lips.

6. The Bro-Hug Of Dreams 

“Jerry Maguire” is probably the most romantic film of Tom Cruise’s career (depending on what you make of “Eyes Wide Shut,” that is), so much so that its sense of romance is woven into every one of its plot threads. Cameron Crowe’s humanistic masterpiece might be remembered for its tear-jerking love scenes between Tom Cruise and Renée Zellwegger, but the heart and soul of the story is the bromance between Jerry Maguire and Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr, in his Oscar-winning role as the brash football star who Jerry manages to salvage from his rolodex). Jerry is more than Rod’s “ambassador of Quan,” he’s also his double, his measuring stick, his greatest test. Both men are fighting their way through the same thing, they’re both trying to sort out their priorities and see if it’s possible to strike a profitable balance between  doing what they love, and loving what they do.

It’s a volatile relationship, but then they’re little company has a very big night. A very big night. And Rod emerges from a euphoric post-game media scrum to see his agent standing there by himself, sporting the greatest “I’m not gonna cry” face of all time. Of ALL TIME. After that — and the stiff finger-point that Cruise does along with it — the massive bro hug is just icing on the cake. This moment is the culmination of two long, wayward paths simultaneously arriving at the same truth about what really matters in this sick sad world. The truth is too sweet for Bob Sugar to enjoy.

The list continues on the next page.

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