Tom Cruise, the Last Movie Star? Hardly — but No Actor Could Copy His Career

A review of his 40-year career suggests deliberate, smart decisions impossible for today's stars have been key to sustaining him until now.
U.S. actor Tom Cruise waves his hand to fans at Japan premiere of 'Top Gun: Maverick' at Osanbashi Yokohama International Passenger Terminal in Kanagawa Prefecture on May 24. The movie, starring Tom Cruise  will be released from May 27th across Japan.  ( The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP Images )
Tom Cruise in Yokohama, Japan on May 24.

In keeping with the meme of cinema’s end times, it’s easy to use “Top Gun: Maverick” — and its presumed box-office dominance — as evidence that Tom Cruise Is the Last Movie Star. It’s nonsense, of course; among the current drivers of Hollywood hits are Sandra Bullock, Tom Holland, Channing Tatum, Dwayne Johnson, Michael B. Jordan, and Ryan Reynolds. Timothee Chalamet is a rising star; so is Lady Gaga.

Cruise’s long-awaited sequel to his biggest hit opened to $19.26 million in previews, and could gross $150 million across the four-day Memorial Day weekend. Cruise may not be the last star, and he certainly remains one — but his path to stardom is one that no one will be able to walk again. Unlike almost everyone — everyone — else in Hollywood, he doesn’t make TV, but he might become the first actor to shoot a film in space.

“Maverick” is his 42nd film as a lead; adjusted to 2019 ticket prices, they grossed over $10 billion domestic with 10 of his films reaching $200 million or more. In that kind of raw accounting, Harrison Ford is a “bigger” star thanks to the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises along with many standalone hits. Marvel will similarly skew the box-office numbers for stars like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson.

Not Tom Cruise. While his “Mission: Impossible” franchise created over $1.6 billion in domestic box office to date, the overwhelming majority  of his success comes from standalone films. Nor is he buoyed by awards; although regarded as a nuanced performer who’s excelled in romantic, action, comedic, and dramatic roles, he has three Oscar nominations and no awards from major critics’ groups. Tom Cruise may be the last movie star to be elevated without the muscle of franchise, in a time where moviegoing habits still made that possible.

Here are some of the notable elements that do make him stand apart from most younger current stars:

Eclectic films, avoiding franchises

Cruise made his biggest hit, “Top Gun,” 36 years ago — a period that saw an increasing embrace of sequels and franchises with titles like “Rocky,” “Rambo,” “Karate Kid,” “Romancing the Stone,” and “Star Trek.” Against those, “Top Gun” was a bigger hit than all but “Rocky.”

At this point, Cruise’s career wasn’t entirely under his control; he was an actor, not a producer. But at 23, suddenly he was a star.

Two years earlier, his leading-man debut in “Risky Business” promised a great career. He stumbled with his next film, wrestling drama “All the Right Moves” in 1983; Ridley Scott’s “Legend” also dimmed his promise.

His next film, already shot when “Top Gun” opened, was “The Color of Money.” You can argue that it was a sort-of sequel (to 1961’s “The Hustler,” more than two decades prior), but took 15 years and and 13 films, all grossing $100 million+ in today’s dollars, before he madehis first real sequel with “Mission: Impossible 2.” That trajectory is inconceivable today.

The very best filmmakers

Cruise may be known as a control freak, but he clearly isn’t afraid to collaborate with strong filmmakers. He’s worked with seven Best Director Oscar winners (including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Stanley Kubrick) as well as Paul Thomas Anderson, John Woo (the only non-white among them), Brad Bird, and the Scotts, Ridley and Tony. There’s been fewer of these in recent years, when it’s harder to create directorial reputations in a more producer-driven era.

In some cases, the Cruise films weren’t iconoclastic works; titles like “War of of the Worlds” and  “The Color of Money” were more commercial, for-hire efforts. However, Oliver Stone won with “Born on the Fourth of July” as did Barry Levinson with “Rain Man.”

Thriving with iconic stars

Cruise came up when it was more common to pair a rising actor with an established veteran. His first pairing came with Paul Newman in “The Color of Money,” followed by Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man”), Jack Nicholson (“A Few Good Men”), Gene Hackman (“The Firm”), and Meryl Streep (“Lions for Lambs”). He shared the lead in “Collateral” the same year Jamie Foxx won an Oscar for “Ray.” Cruise’s ability to hold his own against titans enhanced his reputation as someone secure in his own talent and willing to share the spotlight.

Less is more

There’s the Scientology, of course. (“It’s something that has helped me incredibly in my life,” he told ITV in 2016. “I’ve been a Scientologist for over 30 years. It’s something, you know, without it, I wouldn’t be where I am. So it’s a beautiful religion. I’m incredibly proud.”) In recent years, there’s been little press about the association — in large part because there’s so little press about him at all.

Try to imagine Cruise maintaining an Instagram profile, or posting TikToks. He avoids interviews — print, talk show, and otherwise. He has no politics. He’s the anti-Dwayne Johnson, who has over 300 million Instagram followers and likes to give his fans surprise appearances (or, in one memorable case, wedding officiant).

Cruise is a near blank. His recent MasterClass interview at Cannes, part of the marketing push for “Top Gun: Maverick,” was noted for its awesome dullness. In a time when stars are urged to make themselves seem relatable or otherwise “real,” Cruise cultivates an image that has more in common with past masters like Cary Grant and John Wayne.

At 59, Cruise is the last star of that mold. “Top Gun: Maverick” is a much different movie than the one that preceded it, which is also appears to be typical Cruise: Surprise people, be patient, expect state-of-the-art craft. It’s consistent with his career, even if the film still seems to stand somewhat outside the current kind of movie success.

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