Hollywood’s former golden boy proves he can still carry a blockbuster with his Top Gun sequel, but once upon a time, there was more to him than that
In 1990, when Tom Cruise was nominated for an Oscar for Born on the Fourth of July, he seemed on the verge of becoming a serious actor, perhaps one of the finest of his generation. Oliver Stone’s heavyweight drama was based on the true story of Ron Kovic, a US soldier and Vietnam veteran who becomes an anti-war activist after being confined to a wheelchair: apart from its physical challenges, the part required Cruise to convincingly portray the emotional journey from crew-cut patriot to hippie.
He did so very well and, in another year, might have bagged the Best Actor award. But unfortunately for him, 1990 was the year of My Left Foot and Daniel Day Lewis pipped him to the post. Would Cruise’s career have turned out differently if he had won?
In 2022, Cruise is not so much an actor as an action figure. In the past decade, he has almost entirely avoided serious roles, concentrating on action projects such as the Mission: Impossible films, which he stars in, produces and tightly controls. Vast sets, big budgets and hair-raising stunts seem to be his comfort zone, and he is at it again in Top Gun: Maverick, released here next week.
Thirty-six years might seem a long time between a movie and a sequel, but Cruise, whom The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane called “the Dorian Grey of action movies”, has hardly aged a day, and reprises the role of ace pilot Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell with aplomb. A plot of admirable simplicity puts Maverick back in the air for a Dambusters-style suicide mission on an enemy’s nuclear enrichment factory. It’s pretty good and not half so dim as the original.
At almost 60, Cruise can still cut it as an action figure, but draws the line at serious acting. So why has he moved away from roles that challenge him? The answer, like the man, is complicated.
Cruise might look like an all-American success story, but his upbringing was far from rosy. Born Thomas Cruise Mapother on July 3, 1962, he grew up in near poverty and struggled in school (in all, he attended 15 of them). He had a dreadful relationship with his father, whom he later described as a “coward” and a “bully”.
Acting provided some respite and he performed in improvised plays at high school. But for a time it seemed like God was calling him: raised Catholic, he attended a seminary and hoped to become a Franciscan priest. When he got thrown out for drinking beer, he moved to New York, then Los Angeles, to try to break into acting. He made his mark pretty fast.
He was just 21 when he scored a breakthrough with the relationship comedy Risky Business (1983), playing a Chicago rich kid who falls in love with a prostitute. Five foot seven might be a bit short for a leading man, but Cruise had real screen charisma. Risky Business was a hit and the beginning of a golden streak that would last until the mid-90s.
Top Gun might seem more like a very long pop video than a film at this remove, but in 1986, it caught the tailwinds of that decade’s trashy zeitgeist. He worked with Paul Newman in The Colour of Money, with Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, and earned his first Oscar nomination with Born on the Fourth of July. Cruise was box-office gold and even his bad films (Cocktail, Days of Thunder, the execrable Far & Away) made money.
But he was no hack: in Jerry Maguire (1996), he revealed an impressive flair for comedy and, in 1999, was positively mesmerising as a misogynist guru in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). Both those performances earned him Oscar nominations, but by then a dark cloud was hovering above Cruise’s public image. That cloud was called Scientology.
It was his first wife Mimi Rogers who introduced him to the American belief system dreamt up by L Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. One could argue that all religions sound a bit silly when described objectively, but here we go with Scientology. Its adherents believe that humans are immortal spiritual beings that have forgotten their true extraterrestrial natures; not only do aliens exist, but they have regularly meddled in human affairs, all of which will become clear through therapeutic confessional procedures known as ‘auditing’. Psychiatrists, anti-psychotic drugs and a good deal of modern medicine are viewed by the faith with deep suspicion, and members stick so closely together that Scientology has often been described as a cult.
All of which might sound a bit batty to you, but Cruise became an ardent believer, has credited the religion with curing his dyslexia and giving him a purpose in life, and has become a powerful proselytiser on its behalf. But his beliefs have also been the main reason behind a sustained media backlash.
When Cruise and Rogers divorced in 1990, she blamed the influence of Scientology’s leader David Miscavige for the break-up. After he married Nicole Kidman in 1990, she was expected to join, and there have been suggestions that the religion was a divisive influence on their marriage. Penelope Cruz was given her marching orders, we are told, when it became clear she was not a true believer and commentators, including the writer Andrew Morton, have implied that Mrs Cruise number three, Katie Holmes, was chosen following auditions for the role. These rumours have been strenuously denied.
Far more damaging was that infamous moment in May 2005, when Cruise jumped on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa live on television to noisily profess his love for Holmes, whom he had only known for a month. It was odd behaviour, no question, and fed into a general sense of unease about his manner.
Christian Bale, when explaining his preparations for American Psycho, said that his portrayal of Patrick Bateman had been inspired by seeing Cruise being interviewed by David Letterman, and noticing the “intense friendliness with nothing behind the eyes”.
Rightly or wrongly, all of this bad publicity informed a growing tone of snarkiness in media references to Cruise and reviews of his films. Whenever he tried something different, he was leapt on, which might explain his increasing reluctance to experiment or properly act.
Instead, over time, he has come to play essentially the same character no matter what the film. Whether he’s Jack Reacher, Ethan Hunt or even Hitler’s would-be assassin Claus von Stauffenberg, Cruise is always Cruise: a moody, asexual loner who might be egotistical but ultimately does the right thing. He’s good at it and the Mission: Impossible films have become the jewel in his crown.
He tends not to share top-billing with anyone: he’s simply too big a star. When director Brian De Palma was discussing the making of the first Mission: Impossible film, he described how the original TV show was “about a team, but now it’s a Tom Cruise movie — the first thing you gotta do is kill off the whole team”.
In fairness, no other star could have carried that amiably daft franchise (six films and two more in the works) quite so effectively as Cruise: they have made the bones of $4bn and vastly increased his personal wealth.
And yet there have been hints here and there of what we might have been missing: in Tropic Thunder (2008), he gave a hilarious turn as a foul-mouthed movie producer and was even funnier as a massively conceited rock god in Rock of Ages (2012). He has a sense of humour, and can make fun of himself, but may feel that these forays beyond his comfort zone have not always been warmly received. Better to stick to projects that play to your strengths and to sets you can control.
While much was made of a video leaked from the set of Mission: Impossible 7 showing him chewing lumps out of his crew for breaking social distancing rules, Cruise certainly had a point. He was a man under intense pressure, tearing around the world with director Christopher McQuarrie, trying to complete their film while outrunning Covid. Not surprisingly, its budget ended up ballooning to more than $200m.
But Cruise is a man who loves the cinematic experience, as he showed in that stirring video he made defending its charms during lockdown.
And I must admit, it’s heartwarming in a strange sort of way to see him back on the big screen in Top Gun: Maverick.
It’s a nostalgic movie, a kind of love letter to those big hammy action movies Cruise and others made back in the 1980s. It’s a big film, loud and bold, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else having the sheer star power and charisma to hold it all together.
Cruise does — and he may be the last real movie star of them all.