Cruise-ing into blandness
“Of course, I’d rather be known as a great actress than a movie star,” Naomi Watts confides in Mulholland Drive, as aspiring screen ingenue Betty. “But, you know, sometimes people end up being both.”
At that time, right around the turn of the century, Tom Cruise was both. He was a celebrity of monumental fame and an actor of incontestable talent. He made big, spectacular action pictures, hundred-million-dollar blockbusters that cast his face on screens across the planet. He made difficult art films for directors intent to draw out his talent. (He produced movies too — small projects of distinction, like Shattered Glass.)
There was a stubborn strain of determination in Cruise in those years, inseparable from his stardom. It was as if he couldn’t help but seize any opportunity to flaunt his range. In 1999 alone, he starred in Eyes Wide Shut for Stanley Kubrick and appeared in
Magnolia for Paul Thomas Anderson — Magnolia securing him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
How did he follow this acclaimed display of artistry? He reprised his role as secret agent Ethan Hunt, in 2000’s $125-million sequel Mission: Impossible II.
These days, Cruise doesn’t do much flaunting. The only thing he seems determined to prove anymore is that he is in pretty good shape for a man in his mid-50s, and even that is getting harder to put across with much conviction.
He consents, exclusively, to star in movies that feel engineered to make him look attractive and virile, and often produces these pictures himself, the better to control his public image.
He no longer works with selfstyled auteurs; he’d rather be directed by deferential unknowns without clout or leverage, so that when push comes to shove he can tell them what to do. The closest he’s come to a creative risk lately is his latest, American Made, which cost $80 million and will vanish from memory when its theatrical run ends.
Hooting wildly in button-downs as an everyman charmer, wearing a grin that betrays either mania or despair, Cruise is a performer whose streak of virtuosity is over. The man is now pitifully mundane.
In Oblivion, he skulks on postapocalyptic ground absent a modicum of charisma, a shockingly bland presence. In Jack Reacher and its sequel, he struts and preens ridiculously, as every passing character must remark on his machismo. These movies are feature-length efforts to insist Cruise is still cool.
Even the Mission: Impossible franchise has stagnated at the actor’s behest. They used to hire distinctive, individualistic filmmakers to tackle each new instalment. Now they just keep using the nondescript but (crucially) obedient Christopher McQuarrie, who has done as much to flatter Cruise for audiences as has his publicist.
Cruise was disgraced in the public eye in the mid-2000s. (His in- famous episode on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, committed while promoting War of the Worlds in the summer of 2005, was, depending on who you ask, either the beginning of the end or his professional nadir.
This may explain a lot about the trajectory of his career thereafter. Mission: Impossible 3 in 2006 was a gentle reminder: Tom was still Tom, same as ever. His cameo in Ben Stiller’s Tropic Thunder (replete with bald cap and chain, dancing to Flo Rida), meanwhile seemed calculated to endear people to Cruise anew — or at least to persuade those making fun of him that he had a sense of humour about himself, too.
His watchword since has been “safety.” He doesn’t have the strength of reputation necessary to fritter away his stock on volatile auteurs. He doesn’t have the popular affection needed to risk being philandering Bill Harford or misogynistic Frank T.J. Mackey. So now he simply aspires, at best, to be likeable. To be the glamorous hero who does the right thing and saves the day. I mean, who could object to a guy like Jack Reacher?
Did that failure confirm for Cruise that he shouldn’t bother to try? It’s hard to imagine, in 2017, the sort of peculiar, intriguing role that might rouse him into his old determination, that could galvanize him to take a chance and gamble.
It might be too late, given the system, for Cruise to reclaim his title as bona fide movie star. There’s still hope he could become once more a great actor.
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Tom Cruise as Barry Seal in a scene from American Made.