[This is an updated version of a post I wrote and published in August, 2010 on a truly fascinating actor who I’ve come to admire and appreciate more and more every year]
Stating that a rising star is the next…whoever…isn’t something new in Hollywood. They’re always looking for the next big thing because like it or not, the stars we grow up with eventually get old, lose their spark, their charisma, their audience. Over the past few years, one of the biggest names in Hollywood, Tom Cruise, has seen somewhat of a dimming of his once bright star. His latest film, Edge of Tomorrow (which looks terrific), is set to open this week and at 51 years old, it will be a telling sign of whether Mr. Cruise still has the box-office clout he possessed over the past two decades. A very telling sign.
But rumors of Cruise’s death as Hollywood’s #1 leading man have been greatly exaggerated. His star had begun to fade after 2008’s Valkyrie and 2010’s highly entertaining Knight and Day were box office disappointments. Cruise silenced his naysayers with 2011’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol which raked in over $600 million worldwide, making it his second highest grossing film worldwide after 2005’s War of the Worlds. Oh, and he did it the way he always has – by never cheating the audience he works so hard to please. In this particular case, by dangling himself outside the world’s tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, with a single cable the thickness of a piano wire. Cruise has never been afraid to take risks.
Hollywood (and the celebrity tabloids) had again begun their search for “the next Tom Cruise” after tepid domestic box office returns from 2012’s Jack Reacher and 2013’s Oblivion. Zac Efron? Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Robert Pattinson? Ryan Gosling? Perhaps. But it’s gonna take far more than a winning smile and some acting talent (even great acting talent) to fill Mr. Cruise’s massive shoes. Cruise has had an impressive run as Hollywood’s mightiest star and, despite three Academy Award nominations, he’s still one of its most under-appreciated actors. But Cruise’s success has not been solely dependent on his toothy smile and killer hair. Cruise is also an actor who has taken some of the biggest risks of any other actor in history…and they’ve paid off. Big time.
To understand the progression of Tom Cruise as an actor, one must go back to his earliest appearances in films. After making his film debut with a small part in 1981’s Endless Love, he landed the role of hot-headed cadet David Shawn in Taps (1981). The film, which also featured fellow up and coming actors Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton, received favorable reviews as did its young cast. It was Hutton and Penn, however, who were billed the next great actors of their generation (they went on to star together in The Falcon and the Snowman in 1985). And Cruise? Like a young Zac Efron – handsome, promising, marketable.
Cruise’s next film, 1983’s The Outsiders (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) would put him alongside another cast of future stars: C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, and Ralph Macchio. They were called the new “Brat Pack” and they were poised to take over Hollywood. This was more of a fit for a young Tom Cruise, no? Let Penn, Hutton, and subsequently Matt Dillon go after Oscar nominations. This new ‘Brat Pack’ can sell tickets, which is infinitely more important to Hollywood.
After starring in the ill-fated Losin’ it with Shelly Long, Cruise was given top-billing in his next film All The Right Moves, a coming-of-age story about a high school footballer (Cruise) whose ticket out of his small Pennsylvania mill town is a scholarship to a big school. The film put Cruise on the map and he then went on to hit superstar status playing an affluent sex-starved suburban teenager in the hit movie Risky Business (1983). Mr. Cruise had finally arrived.
After being horribly miscast in Ridley Scott’s enjoyable (well, at least to me it was) and visually stunning film Legend (1985), Cruise flexed serious box-office muscle in Tony Scott’s Top Gun (1986). The film grossed over $300 million world-wide and made Tom Cruise an international superstar. Still not a darling of the critics, however, but so what? Selling tickets at the box-office and having your Teen Magazine poster hung in every 15-year-old girl’s bedroom is every young actor’s dream, right Mr. Efron? Perhaps not for young Tom Cruise.
THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
Well, here’s where I believe Tom Cruise decided to take the road less traveled by his fellow ‘Brat Packers’. For his next film, Cruise took a huge risk to star alongside Paul Newman in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money (1986). In the film, Cruise plays Vincent, a smiling, cocky, but hopelessly insecure and naïve character while Newman reprises his role as “Fast Eddie” Felson from the 1961 classic The Hustler. Surely, Cruise would be rendered obsolete sharing the screen with the great Paul Newman (who would go on to win his first Academy Award for Best Actor). This type of role was best left to the likes of Hutton or Dillon. . .no?
In a surprising turn, Cruise received the best reviews of his career so far. Richard Schickel of Time proclaimed: “There is a ferocity in Cruise’s flakiness that he has not previously had a chance to tap…and it carries him beyond the bounds of image, the movie beyond the bounds of genre.” Cruise’s gamble had paid off. He took his career as just a pretty-boy actor in another direction. He took a risk…and it worked.
Mr. Cruise went on to take an even bigger risk when he co-starred with Dustin Hoffman in 1988’s Rain Man. Now, any actor knows that when you star alongside an actor of Mr. Hoffman’s stature AND said actor is playing a character who is handicapped (or gay), you’ve got to work really hard to get noticed. Why would Cruise, still one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, want to now duke it out on screen with the likes of Hoffman?
As it turned out, the film was a critical and box-office success. Reviews of Cruise’s performance, however, were mixed. Desson Howe of the Washington Post wrote: “Hoffman blows costar Cruise right off the screen. Likable as he is, Cruise confuses spunk for performance.” While Vincent Camby of the NY Times stated: “The film’s true central character, though he’s not the center of attention, is the confused, economically and emotionally desperate Charlie, beautifully played by Mr. Cruise, even when he is put into the position of acting as straight-man to his co-star.”
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS: TOM CRUISE AND OLIVER STONE
Cruise then took still his biggest career risk to date playing paralyzed Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Tom Cruise and Oliver Stone? Surely this was going to end badly. The film, however, garnered rave reviews and earned Cruise his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Roger Ebert echoed my own sentiments after seeing the movie: “Nothing Cruise has done will prepare you for what he does in Born on the Fourth of July.”
But by now we shouldn’t be surprised when Cruise challenges himself, challenges us. He has taken career risks that no other actor of his generation has dared do. In 1992, Cruise went up against one of the greatest actors of all time, Jack Nicholson, in the courtroom drama A Few Good Men. You’re really asking for it when you want to go “macho for macho” with Nicholson (who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the film) playing a cigar-chomping, crusty Marine commander in a role Richard Schickel of Time Magazine claimed was, “not so much played as demonized.” Yikes! In his review of the film for the Los Angeles Times, however, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Watching Nicholson and Cruise chew on each other and gnaw on the scenery is quite a treat”. It’s only when we go up against the best that we learn how good we truly are, yes?
Fast forward to 1996’s Mission: Impossible. Cruise is cast for the first time as a lead in an action movie, a genre that can exploit even the most skilled of actors (just ask Nicolas Cage, Val Kilmer or Brad Pitt). But, again, Cruise was up to the task, as Stephen Holden of the NY Times put it: “Tom Cruise has found the perfect superhero character on which to graft his breathlessly gung-ho screen personality.” The film (and it’s sequel in 2000) go on to gross almost a billion dollars worldwide making Cruise Hollywood’s biggest star.
Let’s fast forward again to 1999’s Magnolia a film by an “actor’s director” Paul Thomas Anderson. In the film, Cruise (who would go on to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor) plays Frank T.J. Mackey, a charismatic guru of a cultish self-help seminar for would-be macho lady-killers that teaches them how to “Seduce and Destroy”. Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle calls Cruise’s performance, “the most amazing performance of many here.” Oh, and if you haven’t seen the film, this is a cast that included the likes of John C. Reilly, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, & William H. Macy. Nuff said?
And in 2004, Cruise took yet another huge risk playing a villain for the first time in his career in Michael Mann’s gritty crime thriller Collateral. In the film, Cruise plays the cold-blooded hitman Vincent who’s in town for the night to rub out five targets. Cruise underwent extensive firearms training with former SAS (British Special Air Service) operator Mick Gould and former LAPD SWAT Chic Daniel in order to reflect the Special Forces training that his character possesses. Cruise never cheats his audience. The film was a critical success and Cruise’s convincing performance as Vincent was praised by critics and silenced his critics.
Andrew Sarris of the New York Observer put it best in his comparison of Cruise to two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks: “As for Mr. Cruise, he’s taken something of a career risk here – almost but not quite the same risk that Tom Hanks took with his roles as the gay lawyer in Philadelphia (1993) and the mobster in Road to Perdition (2002). For one thing, Mr. Hanks has been overrated as a supposedly subtle character actor just as much as Mr. Cruise has been underrated. For another, Mr. Hanks has never played a role as unabashedly monstrous and menacing as Mr. Cruise’s Vincent.”
So, how many of us ever dare measure ourselves up to our competition? How many aspiring filmmakers fail to enter film competitions because they’re afraid of their film being rejected? Professional speakers who shy away from sharing the same stage with other speakers for fear they might be outshined? Actors who fail to even audition for a role because they fear they might not be talented enough to land it? How many of us fail to go after a promotion at our work because, despite confidence in our abilities, we don’t want to find out that we just don’t measure up?
Think Tom Cruise got success handed to him on a platter? Think again. This is an actor who came from a broken home (his mother left his father when Cruise was twelve, taking him and his three sisters with her). An actor who would say of his estranged father, “He was a bully and a coward.” An actor who spent his childhood on the move and by the time he was 14 had attended 15 different schools in the US and Canada. An actor who at one time aspired to become a Catholic priest. An actor who dropped out of High School and headed to New York in pursuit of an acting career despite suffering from dyslexia.
“People can create their own lives” Cruise once said in an interview with Parade Magazine. “I saw how my mother created hers and made it possible for us to survive”. Despite his many challenges, Tom Cruise created his own life…why shouldn’t we?
As for Cruise’s apparently equally talented “Brat Packers” C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Rob Lowe and Emilio Estévez? Their careers have long-since fizzled out. Their filmographies suggests they decided to take the easier roles, the ones they were comfortable playing. They rarely, if ever took the types of risks with their careers that Cruise had taken. And as for the careers of those “clearly” more talented than Cruise, Timothy Hutton (who actually won an Academy Award in 1981) and Matt Dillon? Their careers never reached their once promising potential. Perhaps they didn’t work as hard as Cruise did because they started to believe all the hype. Or maybe Cruise was simply the better actor all along. Only Sean Penn has remained relevant, now considered one of his generation’s finest actors. Major box-office success, however, has eluded Penn throughout his career.
The German-American theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “He who risks and fails can be forgiven. He who never risks and never fails is a failure in his whole being.” But Tom Cruise did more than just take risks, he put himself in as good a position to succeed as possible by working with the types of directors that have a history of getting the best from their actors: Scorsese, Levinson, Stone, Pollack, De Palma, Kubrick, Spielberg, Mann. How often do we gravitate to those people who can bring out our best? That can help us get to the next level?
Cruise himself has said: “When I work, I work very hard. So I look to work with people who have that level of dedication. And I depend on that from everyone. From the director to my crews that I work with.” Now take a look at the supporting cast around YOU – are they working as hard as you are to succeed? Are they as dedicated? “Working with Tom is one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given by this business”, said Steven Spielberg. I’m gonna rest my case on that.
“The next Tom Cruise” has got his work cut out for him. The path that leads Hollywood’s next up-and-coming young stud to stardom is wide and welcoming – but it’s a short path. Eventually, in Hollywood as in life, we have to figure out for ourselves how to proceed. That decision is usually one that determines our fate in whatever profession we find ourselves in. Tom Cruise took the road that was not as wide nor welcoming. The road that only those who are not afraid to fail dare to travel. And is failing in pursuing our dreams really failing? I’d suggest that failing to explore how good we can really be at that which we love is the real failure. Especially when you consider the overwhelming majority of people who don’t ever dare. Tom Cruise dared. His peers? Not so much.
How about you?
Here’s the trailer for “Edge of Tomorrow”, opening nationwide this weekend: