Tom Cruise: the man, the star and the brand

Tom Cruise in Rock Of Ages
Tom Cruise in Rock Of Ages
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As Tom Cruise’s latest film hits the big screen, Film Critic Tony Earnshaw asks if the world’s most popular movie star is still capable of delivering world-class acting.

In less than three weeks Tom Cruise, officially The World’s Most Popular Movie Star, will be 50.

Hard to believe? Well, not so much given Cruise has been making films for 31 years, beginning his career aged 19. In the three decades since he has strived to be the ultimate movie star: dedicated, disciplined, ambitious and controlled.

He is remarkably well preserved as a glimpse at his latest offering, Rock of Ages, shows. As jaded rock god Stacee Jaxx, Cruise spends much of the film sans shirt. For a middle-aged man his physique is impressive. He’s worked at it, just as he’s worked at being the sort of star the whole world wants.

Cruise’s career has been very carefully constructed. He can boast collaborations with an enviable list of A-list directors from Franco Zeffirelli and Francis Ford Coppola in the early days through to Steven Spielberg, Cameron Crowe, Michael Mann, John Woo, Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick.

Oddly he’s rarely worked with any of them more than once – just Tony Scott (on Top Gun and Days of Thunder), Spielberg (on Minority Report and War of the Worlds) and Crowe (on Jerry Maguire and Vanilla Sky).

Yet the films hold up as examples of a star totally comfortable with his on-screen appeal and persona, a star willing to experiment, explore and exploit his appeal without ever going too far. Alienating audiences is not a good thing when one is a living, breathing brand.

It is worth dwelling on Cruise’s self-created persona. A dyslexic blue-collar kid from New Jersey, he was briefly a trainee priest before discovering acting. His application to the work was evident – and somewhat unsettling – to fellow cast members on his early pictures. They spoke with a mixture of awe and unease of Cruise’s intensity – his need to be better than anyone else.

That intensity shines in films like 1983’s Taps, only his second picture, playing a psychotic army cadet. And it’s become a constant in Cruise’s approach: to choices, to research, to his relationships with fellow actors, producers and directors, to stunt work, to remaining Number One.

Cruise has become an expert manipulator. But that manipulation – four-hour sessions signing autographs for die-hard fans in the rain in Leicester Square at innumerable premieres – has, inevitably, become part of the façade. And what a façade.

Many actors leave themselves behind when they make the leap to stardom. Names are changed, masks are worn, friends are cast aside. Tom Cruise has endured – or embraced – that world for his entire adult life.

For 20 years he enjoyed a mystique: the world’s biggest star was also its most inscrutable. He let the films and the roles speak for him. Robert de Niro, not the most articulate of men, did the same. De Niro rarely gives interviews and when he does the reason becomes clear: he’s a shy man, a mumbler, an actor for whom scripts present opportunities for eloquence that real life does not.

Cruise falls into the same category. And when the veneer of inscrutability was stripped away – as it was during his notorious bouncing-on-the-sofa meltdown on Oprah Winfrey’s show in May 2005 when he declared his love for Katie Holmes – the reality of the man becomes apparent. Instantaneously mystique vanished in a puff of orchestrated spontaneity.

Industry observers noticed that Cruise’s new-found willingness to reveal the real man beneath the actor’s skin coincided with the exit in 2004 of his long-term PR mastermind, Pat Kingsley. The watching billions scratched their heads in bafflement. Almost overnight Tom Cruise went from guarded star to open buffoon.

An accident? Not likely. But it hinted at a new direction for Cruise under the management of his sister, Lee Anne. And in a wink it destroyed much of what he had built in the preceding years.

New media management often leads to a fresh direction. But Cruise continued to choose carefully. There is no doubt that his presence in a film adds to its lustre. Most of his choices have raked in in excess of $100 million – enough to justify his standard $25m pay day.

And as he grows older he is content to play support to other actors in ensemble pieces. Some don’t work, such as his foul-mouthed studio boss in Tropic Thunder. Cruise played him under layers of prosthetics – a po-faced performance geared at making audiences laugh at his willingness to poke fun at himself. He was better when lampooning his own 24-carat appeal in Goldmember, playing a Hollywoodised version of Mike Myers’ goofy ’60s spy. It was trademark stuff: a twinkle of the eye, a look to the camera and that semi-paternal smile. That’s what audiences want: film star fallacy, not awkward truth.

Yet in amongst the slew of summer blockbusters, the Mission: Impossible franchise and reported remakes of classic such as The Magnificent Seven (with Cruise stepping into Yul Brynner’s boots as cowboy leader Chris) is some genuinely fine work.

Like many mega stars Cruise needs a director of authority to steer him to greatness. Cue Oliver Stone with Born on the Fourth of July, Barry Levinson on Rain Man, Cameron Crowe on Jerry Maguire and Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut.

Cruise doesn’t often take risks though he may as he edges into his 50s. Magnolia (egotistical self-help guru), Vanilla Sky (lonely billionaire in convoluted sci-fi drama) and Collateral (nihilistic hitman) all offered possibilities that he was quick to recognise. Yet as vehicles for the Cruise brand they sometimes crashed, like Vanilla Sky.

After 30 years as Hollywood’s über star, Tom Cruise is King Midas and the golden goose combined – a billion dollar man whose legacy is assured. Still, he has yet to make the one defining movie of his career – the Casablanca, Bullitt, Raging Bull or High Noon that will cement and forever solidify his name and reputation as one of the all-time greats. Being a movie star is not enough; Cruise needs to act his way to glory.

They say 50 is the new 40. Time is still on his side.

Cruise control: a movie career

Cruise made his film debut in Endless Love in 1981. Two years later he was paid $75,000 to star in Risky Business, his breakthrough movie. He currently earns around $25m per film.

He has been married three times: to actresses Mimi Rogers, Nicole Kidman and Katie Holmes.

He was considered for the leads in Crimson Tide and The Matrix and was the original choice to play Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley.

He has been nominated three times for an Academy Award: for Born on the Fourth of July (1989, best actor), Jerry Maguire (1996, best actor) and Magnolia (1999, best supporting actor) but has yet to win.