Monday, April 22, 2013

GIVING OUR GREATEST MOVIE STAR HIS DUE


Is it time to forgive Tom Cruise? For jumping on Oprah’s couch like a fool in love? For arguing with Matt Lauer about the benefits of psychiatry? For being so into Scientology it’s sometimes hard to forget what a terrific movie star he’s been for over 30 years now? That’s right. Since his star turn in 1983’s RISKY BUSINESS, he’s remained at the very top of the Hollywood food chain. And it’s time he got his due.
Tom Cruise in his latest hit OBLIVION

Oh sure, he’s gotten plenty of due. Money, fame, a wide swath of critical success – he’s hardly gone undervalued. He’s been nominated for the Oscar three times and won a number of critics’ awards and Golden Globes along the way. But somehow people tend to be a bit dismissive of him, maybe because of that infamous SOUTH PARK episode. But that’s not really fair. And his exemplary resume certainly trumps any item about him in Us magazine or the incendiary gossip blogs.

Quick, name another actor who can do action, comedy, romance, horror, farce and drama equally well. The list is short if there even is one. Indeed, Tom Cruise is a pretty singular talent these days. Granted, he almost always plays a version of Tom Cruise, but that persona is utterly believable in every genre and then some. Cruise can even sing, as he proved in the otherwise forgettable ROCK OF AGES last year. 
Tom Cruise became a star in RISKY BUSINESS (1983)

Whether it's searing drama (BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY), romantic comedy (JERRY MAGUIRE), sci-fi (THE WAR OF THE WORLDS), character studies (RAIN MAN), all kinds of action (the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series), and even over-the-top farce (TROPIC THUNDER), Cruise has put together a body of work that’s as impressive as most any other actor this side of Meryl Streep. Here are the major highlights:

RISKY BUSINESS (1983)                                                            
TOP GUN (1986)                                                                       
THE COLOR OF MONEY (1986)                                   
RAIN MAN (1988)                                   
BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY (1989)           
A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)           
THE FIRM (1993)
INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)                                   
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)
JERRY MAGUIRE (1996)
EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)
MAGNOLIA (1999)           
MINORITY REPORT (2002)
COLLATERAL (2004)
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3 (2006)
TROPIC THUNDER (2008)
MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL (2011)
OBLIVION (2013)
Tom Cruise in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996)

His most recent sci-fi adventure, OBLIVION, was the # 1 film this past weekend and took in 38 million. Yep, he’s still got it. And better than his box office prowess, his acting is getting more and more interesting. And the success of OBLIVION may be due in large part to it. Cruise is now playing wizened and weary adults and it’s an exciting stage of his career. He’s seen a lot in his 50 years on this earth, been on top, and vilified too. And it’s informing his roles, even in genre pieces.

In his early days onscreen Cruise almost always played the naïf - a young man just starting to learn to be an adult. Films like RISKY BUSINESS, THE COLOR OF MONEY and A FEW GOOD MEN were all about a callow ‘youth’ who matured into a responsible adult through the course of the story. His characters thought they knew all there was to know but were soon schooled in the world of hard knocks. And Cruise’s energy and bright-eyed optimism perfectly fit such roles. Roles like that in COCKTAIL and TOP GUN came easily to him. He was able to perfectly personify the cocky, overly confident lead, perhaps because it echoed his life all too well.
Tom Cruise in A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)

Then Cruise started to mature and gravitated towards roles that fit his persona in between young man and knowing adult. The ‘man-child’ roles he played showcased men who had conquered part of their world, the business part, but had yet to master the personal side (i.e. love and relationships). This kind of role reached the zenith for Cruise when he played JERRY MAGUIRE. Jerry was a hotshot sports agent whose self-centered lifestyle may have made him a business big shot, but he knew precious little about relationships, either platonic or romantic. Only through the love of a good woman (Renee Zellweger) and the caring of an honest client/friend (Cuba Gooding Jr.) was Jerry able to see what was really important in life. He needed to be less driven by ambition and more governed by the heart.
Tom Cruise with Renee Zellweger in JERRY MAGUIRE (1996)

By now Cruise was the biggest movie star on the planet and he seemed to be succeeding in his personal life too with a successful 10-year relationship with fellow movie star Nicole Kidman. But then that relationship imploded. He divorced and became tabloid fodder. His short-lived and controversy-stricken third marriage to Katie Holmes turned a troubled private life into a talk show punchline. By the time he got around to constantly beating the drum for his Scientology faith or criticizing Brooke Shields for believing in anti-depressants, he had become unlikable to many of the movers and the shakers. And his subsequent ups and downs, whether personal or professional, soon became regular fodder for the press and the likes of TMZ.
Tom Cruise with Nicole Kidman in EYES WIDE SHUT (1999)

 It must have been tough for Cruise to see his public turn all that love and respect into so much loathing and scorn. But that, which doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger. Armed with the experience of such pain, Cruise thus entered his present, most complex stage. He’s now playing men who’ve lived and loved and lost. He’s essaying men he relates too, only this time they are those who’ve had much taken away. In OBLIVION, his character lives in the post-apocalyptic world and he mourns the loss of connection. It's a feeling he may be able to relate to all too well.

Yet to look at him, Cruise has aged with incredible grace. He looks at least a decade younger than his 50 years and he’s still amazingly fit and handsome, with a great, thick head of hair. But his eyes are  showing their age. They are not the innocent, laser beams of energy and recklessness they once were. Now, they show pain and hurt a lot more convincingly.  
Tom Cruise, under heavy makeup, with Matthew McConaughey in TROPIC THUNDER (2008)

Like Sinatra, who sang with greater emotion after Ava Gardner dumped him, the ravages of life seem to have now deepened Cruise’s artistry, even in a sci-fi role like his in OBLIVION. And with such experiences now informing his work, it’s impossible for Cruise to go back to his old ways of yesteryear. Cruise tried to in 2010’s KNIGHT AND DAY, but it flopped, probably because Cruise can’t play that ridiculously confident, slightly smarmy hero anymore. He no longer walks through life blithely unscathed so how can we buy his characters doing so?
Tom Cruise, again in OBLIVION (2013)

Cruise’s pain may be our gain. It’s made his work even more fascinating to watch. And I’d like to see him challenge himself by playing even more complex and flawed characters as the years go on. The darker places he’s exploring now are making his star wattage burn even brighter. And I can’t wait to see what he does in the next 30 years of his stellar career.

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