Cruise Control: 40 years of Tom Cruise
Since Tom Cruise first announced himself as Hollywood’s next big thing 40 years ago, many other next big things have come and gone. Eddie Murphy, the biggest breakout SNL star of the ‘80s, faded away to dumb comedies before making the occasional comeback; Michael J. Fox’s career succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease at his peak; Charlie Sheen and Mickey Rourke squandered their talent; Patrick Swayze made it into the ‘90s as a big box office draw but then it all went wrong.
Through it all, Cruise has endured as one of the most consistent superstars of the past four decades. He has made his fair share of bad movies, but none has been so disastrous that it has threatened to ruin or divert his career. Neither have cringe moments (jumping on Oprah’s couch), clashes with interviewers, or high-profile cheerleading for Scientology diminished his popularity with the ticket-buying public. Just one flash of that Cruiser smile and all is well.
I guess a big part of it is Cruise’s absolute commitment. Even in a substandard movie, he never comes close to half-assing it. Just about everyone who has ever worked with him paints a picture of the ultimate professional, always willing to go to the danger zone and take everyone else with him in pursuit of a great movie. And when he really hits his groove, there might not be a better modern actor at selling a line than Cruise - just take the potentially corny “You complete me” scene in Jerry Maguire.
It is corny and you can’t possibly mistake it for regular human behaviour, but Cruise acts the hell out of it, providing a moment to rank alongside “Here’s looking at you, kid” as one of Hollywood’s greatest romantic scenes. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at Cruise’s glittering career so far…
The 80s: This Kid’s Got A Future
Tom Cruise made his debut in 1981’s Endless Love but it was in Risky Business (1983), playing an enterprising high school student who gets involved with Rebecca De Mornay’s classy call girl, that he sprang fully formed into the public eye as a hot young star. From the moment he slid into the frame wearing socks, underpants, and a shirt dancing to “Old Time Rock and Roll,” it was obvious that this kid had something special.
His next two movies, All the Right Moves and Legend, didn’t quite cash in on his youthful energy quite so successfully, but then came Top Gun in 1986. Tony Scott’s gung-ho fighter jet drama was a perfect vehicle for Cruise’s charisma, playing cocksure Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. He’s upstaged by Val Kilmer in every scene they share, but there was something so irresistibly slick about Cruise’s performance that it meshed perfectly with the glossy blockbuster package, helping it become one of the most iconic films of the ‘80s.
If anyone had any doubts about his acting ability, they didn’t have to wait long to see that Cruise was the real deal. In the same year, he comfortably held his own next to six-time Oscar nominee Paul Newman in The Color of Money.
Martin Scorsese’s belated sequel to The Hustler saw the Hollywood legend reprise his role as “Fast” Eddie Felson, an ageing pool shark who has grown older but not wiser. Cruise plays Vincent, the naive hustler that Eddie takes under his wing for one last shot at making some serious money. Together, they formed a prickly chemistry that lit up the screen, even when the movie itself was kicking its heels at times. The Color of Money was the film that finally broke Newman’s Oscar duck, and he arguably couldn’t have done it without such stellar support from his young co-star.
After racking up another popcorn hit with Cocktail, Cruise continued his Oscar apprenticeship by co-starring with Dustin Hoffman in Barry Levinson’s Rain Man. Hoffman had already received five Oscar nominations, winning once for Kramer vs. Kramer, before taking on the role of autistic Raymond Babbitt. Raymond inherits the vast bulk of his father’s fortune, much to the annoyance of his hot-headed brother Charlie, played by an intense Cruise.
Hoffman spent a year preparing for the role which earned him his second Oscar for Best Actor. He’s terrific, but Tom Cruise does most of the narrative’s emotional heavy-lifting. Due to the nature of his condition, Raymond doesn’t have much of an arc while Charlie goes on the real journey of self-discovery. Cruise is fantastic and an Oscar nod would have been richly deserved.
His chance came along the following year when he teamed up with Oliver Stone for Born on the Fourth of July. Stone was on a mission to thoroughly examine the futility, horror, and trauma of the Vietnam war in the ‘80s, winning Best Picture and Director at the Academy Awards a few years earlier with Platoon. This time around, he focused on the plight of veterans, giving Cruise a powerful lead role as Ron Kovic, the the outspoken anti-war activist who was left paralysed from the waist down after he was shot during active duty in Vietnam.
Any possible lingering notions that Cruise was just a pretty boy were dispelled as he immersed himself in the character. Perhaps taking a cue from Hoffman’s method preparations for Rain Man, he spent 12 months researching for the film, visiting veteran hospitals and practising using a wheelchair.
It was an intensely committed performance from Cruise which didn’t always sit well with critics - Desson Howe of the Washington Post found him “whiny” - but it earned him his first Oscar nomination. Perhaps the biggest praise came from Kovic himself, who gave the actor his Bronze Star Medal to honour his commitment to the role.
The 90s: Hollywood Superstar
With an Oscar nomination and a string of commercial and critical successes to his name, Tom Cruise spent the ‘90s consolidating his position as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. On top of that, he formed a glamorous power couple with his marriage to Nicole Kidman, the Aussie actor he met on the set of Days of Thunder (1990).
They starred together again in Ron Howard’s epic romantic western Far and Away, and closed out the decade as a high-profile real husband-and-wife team in Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kidman was Cruise’s second marriage (after Mimi Rogers) and they divorced in 2001, paving the way for Brangelina and Bennifer to take over as Hollywood’s most glitziest star couples.
Cruise was rarely off our screens in the ‘90s, starring in a string of solid box office hits. He went toe-to-toe with a grandstanding Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men and stayed with the law theme in The Firm, a smash based on the John Grisham novel. Both he and Brad Pitt were weirdly miscast in Interview with the Vampire, although Cruise clearly enjoyed playing a villainous role as the dandy bloodsucker Lestat.
1996 was another landmark year for Cruise. As a fan of the cult ‘60s TV show Mission Impossible, he embarked on his career as a producer, convincing Paramount to stump up the cash for his company to make a big-screen version. Brian De Palma took the helm for a suspenseful espionage action adventure while Cruise played the lead role, and the rest, as they say, is history. The movie was a box office hit and now the franchise is still a regular fixture of the summer cinema calendar.
If the focus of Mission Impossible was nail-biting action, Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire was a movie that fully showcased Cruise’s acting ability once again. It’s hard to imagine the film without him in the role now, but several major names were considered first, including Tom Hanks, for whom Cameron Crowe originally wrote the screenplay.
Cruise totally smashed it, forming a winning triumvirate with Rene Zellwegger and Cuba Gooding Jr, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his lively turn as the title character’s excitable sole client. Cruise also received another Best Actor nomination and it’s his star power that anchors the film, which became an instant pop classic that spawned several well-known quotes.
Cruise rounded out the ‘90s in fine style, working with Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut and chalking up his most recent Oscar nomination to date for his strutting turn as a toxic men’s self-help guru in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. It was an eye-catching performance that really stood out amid a superb ensemble, and showed Cruise’s talent for playing intense, not necessarily likeable characters.
The 2000s: Further Success
The turn of the century was an interesting period in Cruise’s personal life. Having followed Scientology since the ‘80s after he was introduced to the religion by his first wife Mimi Rogers, he stepped away from the church while filming Eyes Wide Shut in London. Reluctant to lose their star student, they dispatched someone to bring him back into the fold. Within a few years, he had become one of Scientology’s most devoted members.
Onscreen, Cruise continued with much the same success. He was now firmly established as Hollywood’s biggest star and a powerful player behind the scenes. As with his screen roles, everything he touched in his producer capacity had a tendency to turn to gold as well. So it proved at the beginning of the new century with Mission Impossible 2 making another killing at the box office, and re-teaming with Cameron Crowe for Vanilla Sky.
The film was an ambitious remake of Alejandro Amenabar's existential mind-bender Open Your Eyes. It was met with mixed reactions from critics, but Cruise deserved kudos for trying to bring European art house into the Hollywood framework - it was certainly a lot better than City of Angels, the sappy remake of Wim Wenders’ classic Wings of Desire.
Needless to say, Vanilla Sky was a box office success, and Cruise also got a new girlfriend out of it. The film was released in December 2001, the same year he and Nicole Kidman divorced. Not long after they split, Cruise started dating his co-star Penelope Cruz.
The following year, Cruise began another lucrative creative partnership. He had worked with many top directors previously, but he hadn’t joined forces with Steven Spielberg up until this point. Hollywood’s biggest superstar with Hollywood’s highest-grossing director had to happen sometime, and when the moment came, it didn’t disappoint.
Spielberg was going through a sombre phase in his career - since winning his first Oscar for Schindler’s List, only The Lost World: Jurassic Park broke his run of more serious films. Minority Report, while offering plenty of blockbuster thrills along the way, is preoccupied with a pessimistic vision of the future with an over-reliance on tech, erosion of free will, pervasive surveillance, and intrusive high-tech marketing. As a future crimes cop who falls foul of the state’s precognitive murder detector, Cruise was perfectly cast for both the running-and-jumping action elements and portraying the character’s tortured back story.
A few years later, they teamed up again for a sobering update of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, which homed in on elements of genocide in the classic alien invasion tale. I saw the film when it opened in Sarajevo, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, and members of the audience were visibly moved by imagery that evoked the atrocities. While the special effects were impressive, Cruise upstaged the aliens with another strong performance as a father trying to protect his family in dire circumstances.
In between those two collaborations, Cruise continued exploring darker roles, most notably playing his most chilling villain to date in Michael Mann’s Collateral, as a nihilistic assassin who forces Jamie Foxx’s LA cabbie to take him from hit to hit. It wasn’t all grim, though - Cruise also showed he had a sense of humour by making a cameo appearance in Austin Powers in Goldmember.
After a third Mission Impossible adventure, Cruise revealed his funny side again when he donned a fat suit to play Les Grossman, the monstrous mogul in Ben Stiller’s controversial Tropic Thunder. Even amid the film’s much-talked about use of the R-word and Robert Downey Jr in blackface, Cruise’s character generated plenty of publicity. The role was supposed to be an uncredited secret, but certain entertainment outlets spoiled the surprise by leaking images of Cruise in costume and makeup.
Also in 2008, Cruise played Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie, one of the real-life plotters behind an attempt to assassinate Hitler during World War II. The casting choice was contentious, as Germany has a dim view of Scientology. Cruise dons the eye-patch and looks rather fetching in uniform, but he doesn’t bother with a German accent (which could be a blessing) and seems rather miscast in Bryan Singer’s solid and sometimes suspenseful movie. German critics were generally positive about the film, although they also had issues with Cruise’s performance regardless of his religion.
2010 Onwards: There’s No Stopping The Guy
It is probably fair to say that there haven’t been many classic Tom Cruise performances over the past 13 years, but he has kept himself busier than ever. In 2010, he teamed up with Vanilla Sky co-star Cameron Diaz again for Knight and Day, and the following year played Ethan Hunt once more in Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Action was always a key aspect of the franchise, but the fourth instalment marked the point when each movie would be heavily marketed around one incredible stunt. In this case, daredevil Cruise scaled the Burj Khalifa in Dubai with only a single safety rope as a precaution.
Not content with one blockbusting action franchise, Cruise started another with the first instalment of the Jack Reacher series in 2012. He turned 50 that year and, at an age when most actors tend to slow down a little, Cruise seemed intent on upping the action ante even more. Indeed, every movie he has made over the past 10 years has fallen into the action category, whether in the sci-fi genre (Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow), comedy (American Made), or horror. The latter was responsible for a rare Cruise stinker - The Mummy was intended to kickstart Universal’s Dark Universe but the movie was slammed by critics and performed poorly at the box office, killing that idea.
Then came Top Gun: Maverick. Seriously, who ever thought this belated sequel would be any good beyond providing a blast of ‘80s nostalgia? A follow-up to Tony Scott’s hit was mooted as far back as 2010, but surely even the most optimistic studio executive could have expected it to become such a massive global success, or an unlikely candidate for Best Picture at the Oscars.
With Cruise reprising his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, the movie strikes the right balance between retro callbacks to the original and younger characters for a modern audience. Val Kilmer also delivers a moving performance after suffering from throat cancer, returning as Maverick’s former nemesis Iceman. The movie racked up $1.5 million at the box office and, perhaps inevitably, lost out to Everything Everywhere All at Once for the big Academy award.
While Barbie and Oppenheimer have been hogging all the headlines this summer, Mission Impossible Dead Reckoning - Part One has quietly racked up half a billion in ticket sales in the background. The decision to split the latest adventure into two parts has received some criticism, but it seems that Cruise is committed to action for the next few years at least, even as he enters his sixties. Looking further forward, I’d bet the house on the Academy making up for past oversights by giving him an Oscar. They always do.
So there you have it, a brief rundown of Tom Cruise’s incredible career to date. What is your favourite Cruise movie? How do you rate him as an actor? Let us know!