Saturday, January 3, 2009

Tom Cruise -- Still Top Gun

My buddy out in Hollywood has penned more insights about inside the film industry, where he has worked for more than 20 years. This time, he shares his thoughts about one of America’s leading film icons — Tom Cruise.

By Lars Beckerman


The conversation goes like this: I mention to a fellow actor or film enthusiast that I am excited to see ‘the new Tom Cruise film’ and the response is “I don’t like Tom Cruise.” “Why not,” I respond, always hoping for something tangible or at least craft-oriented, but the reasoning always lands on Tom Cruise the Scientologist couch-jumping Brooke Shields bashing pretty boy. For sure, baggage he may never check.

But rather than try to convince you of Cruise’s considerable talents and star power, I decided to assemble my top ten Tom Cruise films to illustrate my point. No small task considering I could easily come up with a top 15, and possibly a top 20! Not many Hollywood stars you can say that about. Try it.

So here goes, maybe this will assuage your confusion over his success and stop being irked by his preposterously boyish grin and whacky conversational intensity. Ironically, both qualities that make him a very compelling and marketable leading man whose box office totals over the past 25 years are staggering.

  1. A Few Good Men (1992) – Cruise at his best in a role that provided him every opportunity to announce his arrival as the number one star in film. You can almost see an invisible baton being passed from Nicholson to Cruise in their dramatic courtroom scene. There was a new sheriff in town. Cruise had just turned 29 when they made this film which was nominated for Best Picture.
  2. Rainman (1988) – Allowing himself to be unsympathetic opposite the ultra-sympathetic title character played by the great Dustin Hoffman. Again, Cruise shines opposite an all-time great, his transformation from materialistic narcissist to nurturing and sacrificing younger brother is crucial to the emotional payoff. The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Barry Levinson won Best Director, and Dustin Hoffman won Best Actor. Cruise did the heavy lifting.
  3. Minority Report (2002) – Two of Cruise’s most disappointing films for me were Far and Away (1992) and The Last Samurai (2003). I deduced that he does not work in the past. But he works brilliantly in the future. Cruise personifies the modern man extremely well. Alternately, Russell Crowe works exceptionally well in the past (Gladiator, 3:10 to Yuma, A Beautiful Mind, L.A. Confidential) but not so well in the future (Virtuosity). Cruise navigates his way through Spielberg’s sci-fi concept film brilliantly, demonstrating believable heartache over his lost son and an intense drive to outrun the very Pre-Crime law enforcement agency he made famous, not to mention plays blind and deformed with such ease, never feeling put on.
  4. Risky Business (1983) – “Just take those old records off the shelf!” When Hollywood feebly claims that their product does not inspire or motivate personal behavior (usually in a court of law when someone has done something really bad and blamed a film or a song), I always think of how inspired I was after seeing Tom Cruise in Risky Business. It was clear what I needed to do. I needed to, I was inspired to, (1) have a really huge party at our family house (2) make personal acquaintance with a lady of the evening. Let’s just say I accomplished one of the two.
  5. Born on the 4th of July (1989) – Taking risks is no problem for Tom Cruise. He relishes it because he knows the emotional well he draws from is deep. He has had the luxury of the pick of material for so long it must be hard for him to not put his energy into the monster productions that he so nimbly carries on his shoulders. But he will leave his comfort zone and his naked portrayal as Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic is brave, honest and very effective. Earned him an Oscar nomination, a trophy he seems destined to never win because he’s just so damn Tom Cruisey. But Oliver Stone won for Best Director so Cruise must have done something right.
  6. Magnolia (1999) – Another risk. This one a biggie. This film is in my top five ‘all-time favorite’ fraternity. Brilliant ensemble piece with some of the freshest screenwriting and visual imagery ever produced. To hear how Paul Thomas Anderson was able to snare Cruise to play the fired up and misogynistic Frank T.J. Mackey, Sexual Motivational Speaker, is to confirm why I admire both of these artists so much. They each wanted to work with the best. Done deal. See Magnolia if you haven’t yet. Have your mute button set appropriately if there are women and/or children present; but see it and ask yourself if you don’t believe every moment of Cruise’s anguish over his childhood and his uncompromising inability to forgive his father, played by Jason Robards, working in his final film. Cruise should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Magnolia.
  7. Valkyrie (2008) – Perfect character and perfect vehicle for Cruise at this point in time. Totally convincing as the Nazi with a conscience, Colonel Claus von Strauffenberg. This film relies completely on Cruise’s ability to maintain a focused intensity that will vault us to the grim finish line, in this case despite the fact most of the movie audience knows the ending. Much like David Fincher’s brilliant Zodiac, it is no small task for a filmmaker to hold the suspense when the cat’s already out of the bag. Zodiac was accomplished with music, editing, style and an ensemble cast to die for. Valkyrie was accomplished with above the line talent. It had Tom Cruise in the lead role.
  8. All the Right Moves (1983) – One of the most overlooked sports movies ever. So real and unapologetically gritty. So blue collar. So…un-Tom Cruise. He’s only 20 at the time of filming but on the heels of a major star arrival in Risky Business and a couple of well-received supporting roles in the influential film Taps (1981) and the harbinger film The Outsiders (1983), this was an inspired and unglamorous choice by Cruise, playing the classic archetype of fallen sports hero - a role he knocks out of the park. His locker room showdown with Craig T. Nelson is good cinema. I can’t wait to show this film to my two young boys once they are old enough.
  9. Interview with the Vampire (1994)– Again, taking a risk, playing second fiddle as ‘Lestat’ to Brad Pitt’s sympathetic and virtuous vampire. Cruise proves the critics wrong here by perfectly balancing his charismatic image with the bloodthirsty metro-sexual ‘Lestat,’ with throngs of Ann Rice-loving fanatics waiting for him to disappoint.
  10. The Color of Money (1986) – I mainly listed this in a slot that could have been taken by The Firm (’93) or Mission Impossible (’96), to round out the list with Cruise once more going head to head with a living legend, this time the late great Paul Newman. Cruise more than holds his own. Again, it is Cruise’s transition to humility that makes the film work. Just watch the restaurant scene in the beginning of the film when Newman’s ‘Fast Eddie Filson’ is sizing up Cruise’s young ‘Vincent.’ First he says “You are beautiful.” Vince glows. Then. “But I’ll tell ya something, kid, you couldn’t find big time if you had a road map.” Cruise doesn’t miss a beat in that scene, insuring that the story works. Newman won the Oscar. Cruise deserved half of it.

    You’ve probably noticed I left out two of his most defining roles, the iconic ‘Maverick’ in Top Gun (’86) and Jerry Maguire (’96 - Cuba Gooding Jr. wins the Oscar). These roles were practically written for him and capitalized successfully on his star magnitude, but they were not necessarily challenging for Tom Cruise the actor, and consequently not two of my favorite Cruise films. He has also been very good recently in two cutting edge anti-hero roles; one in the late Stanley Kubrick’s sexual thriller Eyes Wide Shut (‘99) and more recently in Michael Mann’s hit man flick Collateral (‘04). And while you might not recognize him in the whacky war parody Tropic Thunder (‘08), it’s another example of Cruise taking a risk and delivering something out of his comfort zone.

    And if the resume isn’t enough, consider Talladegha Nights (‘06) when Ricky Bobby runs wildly around the track in his Fruit of the Loom briefs yelling “Help me Tom Cruise!” Of course he wants Tom Cruise to rescue him from danger. We all do.

    I came to the conclusion years ago when Woody Allen made headlines by dating and then marrying his stepdaughter, that you have no choice but to separate the art from the artist or you’ll have precious few to enjoy. We all have the chance to enjoy Tom Cruise for another 20 years.


Anonymous said...

Great observations about Cruise. He quietly but efficiently allows other actors to shine, and Cruise's characters always go through a maturing phase as particularly true in "Rain Man" and "A Few Good Men." Cruise holds his own in all his pictures yet allows the other actors to shine. Not an easy feat, especially in a business where scene chewing is a first-course meal. What a person does in their personal life should not affect the way we see them on the screen. I might not like Susan Sarandon's politics, but I like her movies. Tom Hanks is one of the few actors who blends a relatively normal homelife with a normal screen life, but even if he was a oddball in a city of oddballs, his professional career is outstanding. In Hollywood, unfortunately mystery is in short demand these days, and it the mystery that has often drawn us to the silver screen. Denise

Anonymous said...

I agree about his ACTING ability. I do however, having just seen Valkyrie, that Liam Neeson would have been a better choice for that part. But that is just me. Will give you that Cruise IS a talent machine. Mike

Ken Martin said...

Cruise's role in Valkyrie suffers from a lack of character development, so when he dies it's like you never got to know him and don't much care. That's the fault of the script and director, not Cruise the actor.

I am a bit surprised that none of the Mission Impossible films made the list. I think the first was the worst of the three in the series (so far) and each has gotten measurably better, and that MI 3 is the best of the bunch. (I was put off in MI 2 when in the otherwise thrilling scene in which Cruise, riding a motorcycle is being chased by bad guys, including the main bad guy, also a motorcycle, and suddenly when the bikes get on a beach they suddenly go from road tires to knobbies, mid-chase, without a pit stop. We bikers tend to notice such details.

Anonymous said...

Darn. I do like to loathe Tom.

Anonymous said...

Jeannette, you have no idea how often I hear that. Not sure I get it, but I sure hear it.

I think Liam Neeson will always be Oscar Schindler when it comes to WWII, not to mention he's a little old to play Von Strauffenberg, and then throw in the fact that Cruise resembles the man somewhat and he's the biggest star in the world and the choice was simple. I do love Tom Hanks, and he's actually another actor that I could easily rattle off 10-15 quality performances, but definitely not a conventional leading man.

It really is all so subjective, isn't it? I far and away (no pun intended) prefered the first Mission Impossible to the action heavy sequels. I thought the first captured some of the clever double crossing made famous in the tv show and the story was tighter that then two that followed.

I left out Vanilla Sky, which I revisited with my wife recently. Another solid Cruise performance in a decent film. The Spanish original, Open Your Eyes is superior though. I also did not mention War of the Worlds which, aside from a clunker performance from Tim Robbins at a pivotal moment in the film, was very entertaining. Cruise again holding up his end of the energy bargain.

Great feedback all. Thanks for chiming in. This is fun.


Jeff Hebert said...

The guy's talented. I'm just tired of seeing him. For a super-star actor, it's not just about the movies he or she is in, for better or worse -- there's the whole media machine surrounding them. And Tom Cruise made a strategic error a number of years ago when he fired his press agent and hired his sister, I think it was, instead.

Soon thereafter you had the well-chronicled series of missteps that derailed the public's, and the media's, willingness to adulate him.

In stand-up comedy, the comedian's first and most important task is to get the audience on his side, to get them willing to laugh at him. The same is true for actors once they reach a certain level of celebrity. Rightly or wrongly, during that stretch Cruise switched from the "he's one of us and we love him" category where everything they do is beloved, to the "he's one of Them and we hate him" category where everything he does is loathed.

It's not very fair, but that's the way the modern American celebrity scene works. He had the good side of it for many, many years, and now he's on its bad side.

I think I'm the one at Christmas who responded negatively when you brought up Cruise. Bottom line is, I'm just tired of watching him. I've lost the ability to forget who and what he is as either a person or an actor (he's been in an awful lot of big movies over the years) and so I find myself unable to suspend my disbelief enough to lose the actor into the part where he's concerned.

Frankly I wish he'd just go away and disappear for a few years so I can get over all that and see him just as whatever part he's playing instead of "Tom Cruise as" whoever.

Max Fischer said...

Great stuff, Lars! Great to hear your take on Cruise. MAGNOLIA is my all time tops film and you're right, Cruise was hosed by Oscar for his performance. In classic "less is more" Cruise splendor, the scene where he finally confronts his father (Robards) is chilling.

On a lighter note, TROPIC THUNDER shows how Cruise can still boogy. Dude's got moves.

Anonymous said...

not to mention that he has just gotten better looking as he is aging......not fair!

Anonymous said...

I do love when Mr. Phenix let's you post on his blog. I am not a big fan of Mr. Cruise, but after watching his unbelievable performance in TROPIC THUNDER, I got down on all fours and kneeled. All Hail Tom Cruise! I laughed so much in his scenes it was utterly ridiculous. Lars, you are right, this was off the radar or GPS of his comfort zone. He took a major risk and gamble and it completely paid off.


Jeff Hebert said...

As the designated grumpus on this subject (and all others, let's be honest), I have to say that for me, having Tom Cruise in that role took it from being funny just as a character and made it funny because it was Tom Cruise. That's part of what I mean when I say I can't get away from seeing the actor through the makeup. I can't lose sight of who Tom Cruise Meta Media Star is in the role of what is written.

It worked in their favor in this case, because Tom Cruise as that guy is funny. And the movie itself is pretty "meta" so it works. But it's kind of like watching Uncle Leon goofing around at Christmas, pretending to be a drunk Santa or something (or actually BEING a drunk Santa) -- you don't ever believe the part, you just have fun watching someone you know pretending to be someone else.

Anonymous said...

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