The rock star up on the movie screen is a wreck: greasy hair, skeletal frame, eyes a thousand miles away. Tattoos of pistols adorn his stomach and point down into his pants, but, really, he’s been out of bullets for a long time. The film is “Rock of Ages,” the character is Stacee Jaxx, and the actor used to be the epitome of clean-cut movie heroism.
Remember when we thought we knew who Tom Cruise was?
Our mistake. With his new film, one of the most celebrated and mocked movie stars of all time continues down his wayward path, as eerily focused as ever but without a hint as to his larger game. Where Cruise could once be relied upon to deliver fundamental star pleasures — the killer smile, the charm of total confidence — he now alternates onscreen heroism with eccentricity. Both entertain in radically different ways, but only the latter lets Cruise play at being the actor he knows we don’t want him to be.
He turns 50 in a few weeks, an interesting place for an icon. (Well, a male icon; what happens to female stars after 40 is another article entirely.) Cruise’s popular history — the story of his celebrity rather than his movie career — can be neatly divided into two periods: Before Couch and After Couch. Everything prior to the 2005 Oprah show, in which Cruise’s cartoonish declaration of love for future wife Katie Holmes shattered his Teflon image, was an essay in rigorous control. Everything A.C. has been . . . weird. And perhaps more welcome than he’d admit. Once you’ve become the world’s viral laughingstock, you’re free to be anyone you want. Even Stacee Jaxx.
It’s worth noting that Cruise has always yearned to be taken seriously — to be seen as an actor. We just don’t remember that because he’s so good at being a star, dazzling without being especially interesting, exuding maximum charisma with minimum depth. You can adore him or ridicule him, it’s all the same. Cruise’s performance in “Top Gun,” the 1986 megahit that positioned him as the Reagan era’s onscreen archetype, is as thin as the movie’s poster and exactly what is called for, since weighty dramatics would have dragged the thing down. The Tom Cruise hero wanted the world and he took it, and because he took it, he deserved it. No questions, and no bummer ending like in films of the ’70s. Not much below the surface, though — no enduring mystery, but it seemed a fair trade at the time.
And it was willed. In a decision that may be unique in the history of ambitious young movie stars, Cruise chose to give no interviews during the three most concentrated years of his ascent to fame, from 1983’s “Risky Business” to “Top Gun.” That hints at a need for privacy, and certainly since becoming a global superstar who, since the late 1980s, has practiced a controversial religion that places a premium on secrecy, Cruise has kept his “real self” behind a wall. But there’s also the sense that Cruise’s “real self” isn’t all that important even to him and that, really, the telling of who he was in the past has nothing to do with who he is at the moment. Analysis and introspection are foreign to the Cruise persona. He’s the star who exists most completely in the frame-by-frame Now of filmed presence.
In the years that followed “Top Gun,” Cruise repeated his Maverick performance to substantial box office and diminishing critical returns. You didn’t really need to see “Cocktail” (1988) or “Days of Thunder” (1990) to have seen them. At the same time, he also set out to prove he was a Great Actor, allying himself with top-rank directors and the acting titans of preceding generations. “The Color of Money” (1986) was a “Hustler” sequel costarring Paul Newman and directed by Martin Scorsese. “Rain Man” (1988) was directed by Barry Levinson and put Cruise up against Dustin Hoffman as his autistic savant half brother. On what planet do Cruise and Dustin Hoffman even share the same gene pool? But the younger man wanted awards and the respect that comes with them, and he wanted the challenge and the mentorship of working with the greats. He wanted to win.
Despite his giving excellent performances in both movies, Cruise’s older costars won Oscars while he went un-nominated. In 1989, he dispensed with mentors and played the real-life paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July,” about as far from the recruitment-poster fantasies of “Top Gun” as you can get in three short years. He got nominated, at least. Stone won the directing Oscar that year, but Cruise lost to Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” — two fit, gorgeous movie stars battling to see who could most realistically portray the greater infirmity. You’ve lost the use of your legs? Ha — I can only move my toes. Of course Day-Lewis won; he was British so therefore he was perceived as the better actor. And of course Cruise lost, since he wasn’t an actor at all but a huge global superstar.
He’ll never win, despite rich and strange performances in subsequent films like “Interview With the Vampire” (1994), “Magnolia” (1999), and “Collateral” (2004). They’ll give Cruise a plaque at the end of his career like they did with Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, two other stars who were judged, wrongly, as locked into performing hapless variations on themselves. I’m not saying Cruise is on a par with Grant, but I am saying that both men impersonated the person they each wanted to be with a diligence and craft and shifting nuance that doesn’t get the credit it might.
Anyway, why struggle to reframe Cruise as a master thespian when he’s more entertaining as a persona, especially after he seemed to undergo a complete meltdown in the new century? In 2004, the actor took the radical — and, in retrospect, foolish — step of firing his longtime publicist Pat Kingsley and replacing her with his sister. Kingsley and her approach to celebrity image-maintenance is the reason Tom Cruise was, in the words of a 2004 Slate article, “the world’s most famous movie star and the one about whom the least is known or understood.” Which meant that when Cruise fired her, he suddenly had to redefine himself in the public sphere or have us do it for him.
Both happened, and it wasn’t pretty. The infamous “couch-jumping” incident saw the actor proclaiming his love for Holmes in the most hyperactive manner imaginable. He was trying to reconnect with his audience by being human, emotional, “real,” but in the process he forgot what we actually want from a traditional movie star, which is the cultivated poise of Olympian distance. Tom Cruise no longer understood what “Tom Cruise” meant, and if he didn’t know, why on earth should we tell him?
If the couch-jumping incident had happened before the advent of YouTube, Cruise would have been the butt of a week of late-night talk show jokes and the culture would have moved on. Because the video immediately went up on the Web, it became the instant property of the Internet cargo cult and was forthwith re-cut, re-purposed, and re-mulched into endless iterations of parasite entertainment, the wired masses playing with the corpse of Tom Cruise’s persona like vultures picking at roadkill. He was no longer a reliable source of entertainment. By turning unreliable, he had become entertainment.
We poured our doubts and scornful laughter into the crack between the old Cruise and the new. His relationship with the Church of Scientology — a reportorial no-flyover zone when Kingsley was steering the career — came into controversial focus with his public attacks on psychiatry and a leaked in-house video. Movie stars, of course, are not supposed to profess religious beliefs other than safely mainstream ones; the only church we worship as a culture is the church of celebrity. Cruise obeyed this rule — the extreme secrecy of his church demanded it — but the fully wired, 24/7 Omniverse refused to play along. So what roles can an old-school movie star play in an age where the audience has control of the message?
Ones intent on surprising us. “Tropic Thunder” (2008) tweaked Cruise’s image meltdown by suggesting he was in on the joke, or at least part of it. Unbilled, foul-mouthed, padded in faux-fat, the actor played a soulless movie producer for pure comedy, and the shock lay in realizing that maybe Tom Cruise got irony after all. The key word is maybe. We’ve never asked for self-awareness from the man, but what if he has it anyway and doesn’t know where to put it?
His latest roles encompass movie heroism while standing at a curious remove: The good Nazi of “Valkyrie” (2008), the antic spy of “Knight and Day” (2010), the ridiculously capable Ethan Hunt of the latest “Mission Impossible.” And now there’s Stacee Jaxx, a rock ’n’ roll decadent that only a gifted control freak could have created. What does Tom Cruise want? It’s a mystery and it’s beside the point, possibly as much to him as to us. But he has our money and he’ll never have our respect, so where do you go with that?
It will be interesting to see. The weirdest is yet to come.
Follow him on Twitter @tyburr. This article includes material drawn from the author’s forthcoming book, “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame” (Pantheon Books), to be published in September.