By the time I was pop culturally aware, Tom Cruise was already taken for granted as a movie star. He was always there, grinning and waving on red carpets, on the cover of all the tabloids and more legitimate magazines, every movie he was in an Event (and a hit that warranted the event status).
It was later that Cruise’s legacy became more complicated, with Scientology and couch-jumping overtaking the narrative for about a decade, until the industry changed so much that we all just became grateful that we still had a larger-than-life, untouchable movie star hanging off actual planes and stuff in the era where CGI is the star and celebrities are all too accessible on Twitter, Instagram, and Cameo.
Like I said in the podcast, Tom Cruise is probably the closest thing we’ve got to Batman in real life. He’s rich, handsome, athletic, always dating someone glamorous, and can frequently be scene performing some death-defying stunt. He might also be insane. He’s so much a movie star that he’s almost a parody of a movie star, in an era when real movie stars barely exist anymore.
I didn’t see films like A Few Good Men, Interview With The Vampire, or The Firm until much later, but I was certainly aware of them when they opened. Everybody was, back then. Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire were released right about the time I was coming into my own as a pop culture enthusiast, devouring details about new films in Entertainment Weekly and Premiere magazine. I didn’t see them in theaters, but I heard Rosie O’Donnell gush over them and caught them on video some time after.
So naturally, 90s Cruise became my Tom Cruise, arguably at the height of his powers. (Though he had a pretty long run at the top of the world, so any moment between Top Gun and top-of-couch could be considered his peak.) He ended the decade with two of his most potent performances for a couple of all-time great auteurs — in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia — and then headlined a couple pretty great Spielberg spectacles. It was only recently that I went back to the 80s and really dove into Tom Cruise’s origin story.
What’s striking about looking at Cruise’s career holistically is how focused and confident he was early on. He was always Tom Cruise, even before that name was synonymous with stardom. After only a couple missteps early in his career, he navigated his way to superstardom almost flawlessly and stayed there for a couple of decades before he fell out of the public eye’s good graces. (Media changed in the 2000s. Cruise knew how to work the old system, but the age of gossip blogs and social media snark threw him for a loop.) After being typecast as the psycho-villain type (what?), he only accepted leading man roles. He did one dumb teen flick, and played sidekick to Ridley Scott’s gorgeous visuals in 1985’s Legend, which flopped without an accessible storyline to match the impeccable production design and special effects. Tom Cruise never played second fiddle to special effects ever again. Instead, he became something of a special effect himself, constantly one-upping himself on stunts. Even in the sci-fi films he did later, in which CGI could conceivably have dwarfed him, he made sure he worked with solid scripts (in Minority Report, War Of The Worlds, and The Edge Of Tomorrow) where he had a real character to play in a story that was compelling aside from the visual effects.
It was particularly fun to revisit two specific years in Cruise’s career for the podcast, given how many culturally relevant hits he starred in during these decades. 1986 saw the U.S. release of Legend, followed by his breakout blockbuster Top Gun and then Scorsese’s Oscar-winning Hustler sequel The Color Of Money — showing Cruise doubly focused on conquering the box office and earning respectability as an actor who works with the best of the best. Cruise isn’t the lead in The Color Of Money, but if you’re going to be second banana, you might as well play it opposite Paul Newman in a reprisal of an iconic role as “Fast” Eddie Felson. (The second time was the charm. Newman finally won his Oscar.) In the text of the movie, Cruise’s character is the next generation’s Fast Eddie; in the public consciousness, Cruise was smartly positioning himself as the next Paul Newman. It’s an apt model for his own stardom, a balancing act between hunky leading man and awards-friendly thespian.
Cruise is mainly thought of as a Hollywood star, not a serious actor, despite a number of very good dramatic performances in films like Rain Man and Born On The Fourth Of July — films that won other people Oscars, but not Tom Cruise. Not all of Cruise’s films of the later 80s and 90s were critical and commercial smash hits, but looking back at them now, there are surprisingly few films in the vein of Top Gun amongst them. Only Days Of Thunder can be described as big and dumb, and even then it’s more of a character drama than a spectacle. Instead, Cruise leaned into romantic dramas with films like Cocktail and Far And Away, and legal dramas in The Firm and A Few Good Men; he made the interesting choice to play a sexy vampire in an Anne Rice adaptation. These are surprisingly respectable career movies, none of them a cash grab or a mere vanity project. He’s working opposite great actors like Jack Nicholson and Robert Duvall; he’s working with interesting filmmakers like Oliver Stone, Neil Jordan, and Sydney Pollack. They’re commercial films, but they’re mostly very good ones.
It was in 1996 that Cruise’s career started going in a different direction, as he finally became a producer in name (after acting much like a producer as far back as Top Gun, where he had a startling amount of control over his image despite having just a handful of screen credits). Cruise produced and starred in Mission: Impossible, playing IMF agent Ethan Hunt — a role he’s been continuously playing ever since. There’s very little continuity between the Mission: Impossible movies. Ethan Hunt isn’t much of a character, he’s a Tom Cruise avatar, his look and attitude reflecting whatever Tom Cruise wants them to at the time the latest movie is made. Mission: Impossible was a hit and a pop culture phenomenon, with just enough neo-noirish flair from director Brian De Palma that critics didn’t revile it. It made Tom Cruise a bona fide action star, and possibly ruined his chances of becoming anything else.
As in 1986, 1996 balanced Cruise’s summer blockbuster with an awards-friendly release in the fall. December saw him starring in the title role of Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, a romantic drama (for the ladies!) about a sports agent (for the dudes!) with a snappy script full of wit, lovey-dovey goop, cute kiddie one-liners, and angst surrounding a successful white male’s midlife crisis (for the Academy!). 1996 was the year when Tom Cruise finally became the star he wanted to be, the man who both produced and starred in one of the year’s biggest global hits and got an Academy Award nomination in a film that was also nominated for Best Picture. (Unfortunately, as in 1986, it was Cruise’s co-star who actually won the Oscar.) Tom Cruise was successful. Tom Cruise was in control. Tom Cruise was respected. Tom Cruise was loved.
From here, Cruise went on to make some of his most interesting career decisions in films by Kubrick and P.T. Anderson, but the uncertainty of the arthouse didn’t really agree with him. Tom Cruise needs more validation than critics and cinephiles alone can offer him. He gradually stopped taking creative risks and, now, is finally starring in a sequel to Top Gun — something he famously turned down decades ago in order to avoid becoming a bland leading man who follows the money instead of his own instincts.
You can’t really blame Cruise now, though. He’s still making Mission: Impossible movies, and the movies are pretty good. Eventually, he’ll probably have to give up on the death-defying stunts, but until then we’ll watch them as long as we’re able to — they’re a palate-cleanser after our steady diet of computer-generated nonsense that will never become as iconic as the 1996 Mission: Impossible‘s wire-hanging scene did, because it’s not even remotely real. I’m not sure I need another Top Gun movie, but if I have to have one, I’m glad it’s in Cruise’s hands, because that gives it a fighting chance of being tactile and character-driven in this age of vapid, soulless nostalgia-driven resurrections. In Cruise we trust.
But more than that, I hope to see Cruise return as a dramatic actor someday, a role that challenges him again and forces him to take some creative risks again. Maybe he’ll finally get that Oscar. I think he has it in him, and after studying his career trajectory so carefully for this episode of the podcast, I know he still wants it. You can bet that the Academy hasn’t heard the last of Tom Cruise. Sooner or later, he’s coming for that Oscar.