Tom Cruise is a troublesome individual in real life. After reading Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief," I could say more, but anything personally provocative would be contradicting the more important point of this piece: he's a great actor, and he's wasting his time.
First, let's all agree the veteran thespian ascended past movie stardom to the legions of excellence with his performances listed below (in the easy-access language of today, a list). He is a not a good actor, but a great actor. As outlined in the superb piece by LA Weekly's Chief Film Critic Amy Nicholson in last week's #LongForms article, Cruise was destined for further greatness before the internet wrapped him in scandal and cast him as a box office failure, though he clearly wasn't (look no further than "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" or "War of the Worlds" for proof). Yet poor, beleaguered Tom believed all the bad press and kept signing up for the one genre he thought would assure him success: action.
Wrong move, Mr. Cruise. We loved you more in "Tropic Thunder" as an out-of-the-box, in character version of Hollywood's worst executive. Why? Cruise is best when he's daring. He's most fascinating when he pushes the boundaries of what he's "allowed" to do as a movie star. Yes, most of us love when he's physically daring, too, lowering his head a foot from the pavement while traveling at 80 mph for "M:I 3" or climbing the world's tallest building in "Ghost Protocol."
Yet playing generic isn't the answer. "Knight and Day" is completely safe and utterly forgettable. "Oblivion," while featuring a unique twist, is also pretty canned. "Jack Reacher" sports a lower budget and an intriguing villain in Werner Herzog, but nothing stands out. It's standard Cruise, or more accurately, the Cruise we're used to seeing. He's charming. He's funny. He's tough (despite his stature, a big complaint from fans of the books). But we've seen all that before. Audiences want something new from a man who used to give us just that on a regular basis.
Remember when he followed up "Top Gun," his breakout as a movie star, with "The Color of Money," "Rain Man," and "Born on the Fourth of July"? While arrogance is a key factor in all of the characters, each film was distinct and featured layered, varying performances from Cruise. While "A Few Good Men" and "Jerry Maguire" marked big moments in his career (as well as "Mission: Impossible," which was more of an arthouse action flick, as Nicholson pointed out), Cruise hit his creative stride, shortly before his so-called "demise," with indies, or at least, with the spirit of the independent film movement.
"The spirit" is key to remember when reading the list below. Some are funded and distributed by studios, but all mark efforts of unique visionaries who helped Cruise create memorable and vital characters. He bought into their ideas wholly, rather than trust the news, internet, or executive mindset to craft a "star vehicle" for him. Though "Edge of Tomorrow" is earning almost across-the-board raves, Cruise's next step shouldn't be "Van Helsing" (please no) or the oft-rumored "Top Gun" sequel, but instead a commitment of mind and body, not just the latter.
Now then. On to the list:
1) "Eyes Wide Shut"
When Tom Cruise signed on to shoot what would end up being Stanley Kubrick's final film, he had just released back-to-back films topping $150 million domestically. "Jerry Maguire" earned him his second Academy Award nomination, while "Mission: Impossible" ended up providing him his only franchise to date. He and Nicole Kidman signed open-ended contracts for "Eyes Wide Shut," agreements that ended up costing them more than two years of their lives (the film holds the Guiness World Record for "Longest Constant Movie Shoot" at 400 days, a figure not including publicity or pre-production). The three-year gap on Cruise's resume between "Jerry Maguire" and "Eyes Wide Shut" is the longest draught of his career for a film that many consider his most disappointing.
Whether or not you buy into Kubrick's sexual dream world or not is beside the point. Cruise's choice was perfect. His character, Dr. Bill Harford, was unlike anyone he had ever played in an environment completely alien to the megastar. He shot in England on a closed set crafted to look like New York for an extensive period of time under a director who demanded endless takes. The results are astounding. Study Cruise's movements in the film. Early in his career, he was a jittery mess — constantly chewing gum, avoiding eye contact, or tapping his feet or fingers. Then Kubrick asked him to be still. To move slowly. To control his actions and be in command of his muscles. Ever since, Cruise has been a calculated physical performer without comparison. Even his action films feature more focused motion. Add to that a layer of depth and a vivid depiction of his character's sexually mystified mental state, and "Eyes Wide Shut" is arguably Cruise's best role to date.
The only real challenger for "Best Tom Cruise Performance" — a different list than this, I know — is his provocative turn in Paul Thomas Anderson's epic exercise in melancholy, "Magnolia." It's certainly a more passionate character than Dr. Bill, though both deal with sexual problems stemming from personal trauma (or vice versa). Frank T.J. Mackey has speeches, cries, screams, and exercises in his underwear. It's a showy performance and a rich character, and both are right up Cruise's alley. He delivers big time, crafting a catch phrase for anyone in a post-break up funk or feeling particularly ballsy on a Friday night out (who else drops obscure quotes in public hoping someone new might speak up for your shared interest?), but more importantly he went truly gonzo in a time when he still could without facing public ridicule.
The Tom Cruise of today would certainly earn similar levels of respect if "Magnolia" was released now (just about anything breaking from the norm would). He seems so far removed from it, though, after turning in safety performance after safety performance, it's honestly hard to tell how the public would react. Critics shouldn't judge Cruise for anything outside the film (though many certainly do), but fans can't be asked to adhere to the same standards. Should they? Of course. Must they? No, but "Magnolia" reamins a daring choice from Cruise, and the last to truly pay off (sorry, but "Vanilla Sky" doesn't compare).
3) "The Color of Money"
Cruise has only made two sequels in his career, and one of them didn't feature him at all in the original film. While "Mission: Impossible" is looking like it could hit six films before its star signs off, Cruise made the wiser choice saying no to a sequel in 1986 than saying yes in 2000. Even action fans agree "M:I 2" was awful, and most film buffs would say the sequel to "The Hustler" is up there with the best follow-ups ever — certainly better, at least, than a rushed version of "Top Gun 2." Nicholson's piece claims he was offered a massive payday to return as Maverick, but he instead chose to work with a prestigious actor and director duo.
Paul Newman was a man Cruise wanted to emulate, and, for a while, he was right on track. He was beloved. He was respected. He was on the verge of an Oscar. Then he dipped into an action hole he hasn't climbed back out of — yet. What do you think he passed on to make "Mission: Impossible 2?" The first film at least had credibility behind it, with Brian de Palma literally behind the camera. Cruise knew what he was going after in the second: money. John Woo was an action director who made blockbusters, and Cruise was ready to be an action star. He "needed" a hit after years out of the public eye making "Eyes Wide Shut" and releasing "Magnolia" to little fanfare despite the Oscar nod. The choices may have paid off (again, speaking literally), but both of his indie films were so much more rewarding for his ardent fans as well as his public persona than anything he could make with explosions.
4) "Born on the Fourth of July"
The last three on this list are unquestionably studio films while still adhering to the aforementioned "spirit" of indie filmmaking. Though "Born on the Fourth of July" was released by Universal, the Oliver Stone anti-Vietnam saga is very much the filmmaker's vision. It appears to be unaltered by executive interference, and Cruise's role in particular is volatile and troubling (in a good way). Like most of Stone's work, there's nothing easy about the film. It holds fast to the true story that inspired the book, and creates a stark contrast between earnest intent and stark reality in the two chapters of Ron Kovic's life.
5) "Risky Business"
There's a reason many artists "return to their roots" after a long time away. Cruise could certainly benefit from doing so about now. Imagine the man as a boy, sporting Ray-bans and having sex on a train. It's hard, right? Sure, the visuals of "Risky Business" come easily to mind, but really believing it's the same guy who hasn't stopped running since 2005 is more difficult. If Cruise had the courage to break from his trusted genre — like he did with such success in "Tropic Thunder," not only by returning to comedy but accepting a supporting role that was practically a cameo — he would win back his audience much sooner than by repeating the same ol' same ol', year after year. Modern audiences demand variety from their stars just as much as from their movies in general.
6) "Rain Man"
When "Rain Man" was released in 1988, Dustin Hoffman was a bigger star than Tom Cruise. Cruise knew it, and took on an unforgiving supporting role anyway, accepting his part as the harsh brother who takes some time warming up to his mentally handicapped sibling. Yes, it was a calculated business decision to help build his clout off of Hoffman as well as the awards attention the film was destined to garner, but it's still a humble choice for a man who was still being offered franchise role after franchise role. It was the '80s. Sequels were the name of the game, but Cruise wanted more than fame. He wanted respect. If only he still followed that compass.