If you’re of a certain age — an age whose childhood, and even early adulthood, didn’t involve cell phones or wireless internet — chances are you remember what it was like to watch Tom Cruise and realize, in whatever simple and clear manner, that you were observing greatness. For me, Cruise belonged in a pantheon with Michael Jackson, whom I referred to — completely without irony — as “the king of pop.”
It was Cruise’s face that stared back at me from the video-store cover of Cocktail, whose soundtrack served as the background music to my entire 1988. Cruise was who we’d act like when we sang “Danger Zone” and drove our bikes in frantic, dizzying circles around the cul-de-sac. He was constantly looking handsome in snippets on Entertainment Tonight, especially after he fell in love with his gorgeous and exotic-looking co-star Nicole Kidman, whose perm, to my 10-year-old eyes, was perfection.
Cruise was a solid actor, but he was a truly masterful movie star. Part of it was the smile, and the specific sort of charisma, manifest onscreen throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, that accompanied the classic Hollywood filmic structure of confidence, slight dent in confidence, restored and ratified confidence. (Not that I really knew anything about that: I wasn’t allowed to watch a Cruise film — the vast majority of which were rated R — until The Firm.)
That the magnitude of his stardom was legible, even to a child, even without seeing his movies, is a testament to the simplicity and strength of Cruise’s image. It was composed of a somewhat complicated tangle of post-industrial Cold War-era Americanness, but the final product somehow just seemed to signify the best. There was no doubt in my mind: Tom Cruise was the Biggest Star in the World.
Today, the vestiges of that greatness remain, especially in the dark room of the movie theater, where, when I watched Mission Impossible last weekend, it felt like that old Cruise, dangling from the wing of an airplane, making a stealthy argument for his own superlativeness. It’s appropriate that that image forms the center of the film’s advertising campaign, as if to signify just how resolutely — and, given the monster projections for the film’s opening, effectively — Cruise has clung to his global stardom.
But this poster is also one of the only ways that Cruise is promoting the film. Once a master of the publicity game, he’s almost entirely absented himself: He’s walked various red carpets and did a softball interview with Jon Stewart, but there have been no GQ covers, Entertainment Weekly interviews, or Annie Leibowitz photo shoots. Rumors of a relationship with his 22-year-old assistant — who just so happens to look like his most recent wife, Katie Holmes — were quickly and unequivocally shut down.
Co-stars Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, and Rebecca Ferguson have taken up the bulk of the campaign trail, deflecting interviewers’ questions about working with Tom Cruise. Exhibit A, Renner: “Cruise demands greatness from everybody.” Exhibit B, Pegg: “We did some crazy stuff. We went down a set of stairs in Rabat — like, in a car.” Exhibit C, Ferguson: “I was in love with him, [and] I was 11, 12? He was probably my one crush.”
You could argue that Cruise, especially Cruise in Mission Impossible, doesn’t need promotion: That product sells itself. But the strategy also highlights just how scarce Cruise has to make himself, and his personal opinions in particular, in the post–couch-jumping world. Any onscreen relationship, any medical theory, any comment, really, on anything that isn’t his role in the film, the greatness of his co-stars, or his stunts — all of it has the potential to remind you of a Cruise that both he and the studios that pay him many millions of dollars would like you to forget.
That Tom Cruise has been put away. The Tom Cruise that’s emerged in his place, however, isn’t new at all: He’s simply a return to Cruise’s original publicity strategy, in which the building blocks of his American masculinity — hard work, athleticism, professionalism — assert themselves as the “truth” of Cruise’s image.
But can those of us who knew him as the greatest star on earth, who might even love his totally charming Cruise turn in Rogue Nation, ever shake the catastrophe of the last 10 years?
The Cruise we fell for was a publicity masterpiece, primarily orchestrated by publicist Pat Kingsley — who, along with superagent Michael Ovitz, turned the raw material of Thomas Mapother IV into Tom Cruise. Together, they shaped his early career and guided Cruise through the ’90s turmoil that could’ve ended his career: his interest in Scientology, his first divorce, his on-set romance with Kidman, his adoption of two children, his divorce from Kidman. With Kingsley, the items broke news but never made waves.
Kingsley was a master at leveraging the desire to have a star of Cruise’s wattage with precisely circumscribed access: It wasn’t that Cruise wasn’t interesting, or couldn’t give good answers to questions. If anything, his life was too interesting and he was too passionate. On Kingsley’s watch, he avoided talk of Scientology and reporters skirted asking him about it. Interviews largely focused on whatever project he was promoting — Cruise has always loved to talk about his craft — and steering clear of his personal life. Any publication that refused to toe the line would be cut off from the dozens of stars managed by Kingsley’s firm. Play Kingsley’s game, the logic went, or don’t play at all.
For two decades, Cruise’s public appearances had the same overarching demeanor as his performances: He was willful and persuasive, oscillating between extreme, serious focus and throwing his head back in laughter. To watch Cruise was to observe a meticulously executed 90- to 120-minute campaign to make you believe in him. It’s more than a charm offensive; it’s a charisma war — one that Cruise always, always won. At least until he tried to wage the battle alone.
The Great Tom Cruise Implosion of 2004–2005 started the way most celebrity meltdowns do: with a set of paparazzi photos. But unlike the photos that would soon substantiate the long-simmering rumors of a romance between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie — or the haunting shot of Britney Spears’ shaved head — the shots of Cruise and his new girlfriend, Katie Holmes, were very, very welcome. While in Rome for Cruise, then 43, to accept a “lifetime achievement” award, they went to dinner, they held hands, they did something just short of what my grandma would’ve called “necking.”
It could’ve been perfect timing: Cruise’s relationship with Penelope Cruz had ended just over a year prior, and he was gearing up to promote War of the Worlds — the Steven Spielberg-directed reboot that signaled a return to blockbuster-Cruise form. A burgeoning relationship always fans the film-publicity flames, but this one seemed altogether too convenient — especially since Holmes, who’d struggled to assert her film stardom post-Dawson’s Creek, was soon to appear in Batman Begins.
In Kingsley’s hands, the romance would’ve been handled with something approximating subtlety, if not grace. But Cruise, reportedly frustrated with Kingsley’s insistence that he not openly discuss his religion, had replaced Kingsley with a new publicist: his sister, Lee Anne DeVette. To blame DeVette for the publicity hurricane that followed would be unfair: The energy was all Cruise’s. DeVette simply failed, somewhat spectacularly, to contain it, in part because she, like the vast majority of the Hollywood publicity apparatus in 2004–2005, failed to understand how the rise of digital technologies — including streaming video, digital photography, and the burgeoning gossip blogs — would transform the way celebrities managed their images.
No one told him that you’re supposed to get caught making out, not do it for the paparazzi cameras. Nor did they tell him that jumping on Oprah’s couch while professing his love for Holmes wouldn’t seem cinematic — just creepy. Or that arguing about the efficacy of antidepressants wouldn’t seem like standing behind his principles, but the speech of a fanatic. His smile, once the wellspring of his appeal, became his greatest liability. As his contemporaries aged into silver foxes, his handsomeness curdled. He was decoupled from his sex appeal: Watching a Cruise love scene conjured visions of him manhandling Katie Holmes, which, in turn, made you cringe.
The new vision of Cruise was of him throwing his head back in cackling glee. He was wagging his finger at Matt Lauer and jumping on a couch while Oprah sat below him, gazing on in a mix of abject horror and amazement. And thanks to the proliferating tendencies of the internet, he was doing it all on repeat: a never-ending loop of YouTube plays, a mixtape set to his shrieks, a double-chinned, manic-looking meme.
The image of Cruise as Maverick and Jerry Maguire faded into that of a dark, bizarre doppelganger. The face was the same — preserved by some anti-aging magic — but it felt increasingly uncanny. When it was revealed that Christian Bale took his inspiration for the look of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman from watching Tom Cruise’s hollow, perfect laugh in a Letterman interview, it didn’t seem like a jab. It made perfect, terrifying sense.
It took Cruise about a year to figure out his career was in crisis. War of the Worlds premiered at the peak of The Summer of Freakout and did fine, grossing nearly $600 million worldwide. But Mission Impossible III — for which Cruise would be paid nearly $100 million — grossed a disappointing $397 million, and prompted Paramount head Sumner Redstone to sever the studio’s ties with Cruise and his production company, explaining “his recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount.”
In the aftermath, Cruise receded almost entirely from public view, re-emerging momentarily for a Vanity Fair cover story with a headline (“Yes, Suri, She’s Our Baby!”) intended to counter well-circulated rumors that Holmes was pregnant with a Scientology alien. He hired a new publicity firm and weathered the potential disaster of appearing in a movie in which he played a Nazi and wore an eye patch — and the release of a particularly embarrassing Scientology recruiting video. He was funny in a 2008 cameo in Tropic Thunder, and while Knight & Day bombed in 2010, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a bona fide hit in 2011 — and the exact sort of proof Cruise needed to prove that he was still a massive global draw.
Cruise’s strategy has become incredibly straightforward: Say nothing. Appear on no covers, grant no high-profile interviews. After a somewhat disastrous (and now dropped) suit against In Touch magazine and the release of the Scientology documentary Going Clear, Cruise now doesn’t even respond to claims about his parenting, his love life, or his involvement (or lack thereof) in Scientology.
And so Tom Cruise 2.0 was born: a star supposedly at home in the digital age, complete with a Twitter account. Yet that account bears the telltale signs of ghosting: For a time, it was even named TomCruise.com; its tweets could have been made by a promotional robot.
Which is convenient, because that’s what Cruise’s public appearances have become: pure, well-practiced, promotional robotry. He smiles, nods, looks good in a suit, and answers the never-altering questions about doing his own stunts, giving each project his all, how much fun it is to be on set.
But earlier this week, Cruise risked a deviation: a Jimmy Fallon lip-sync battle. In theory, it’s a smart move: Few things humanize a celebrity like Fallon playing a game with them. Cruise did his very best to emulate the effusive joy that’s turned the challenge into an internet fixture. He sang a contemporary hit — The Weeknd’s “I Can’t Feel My Face” — and a Meatloaf classic. He even teased the audience with the opening bars to his most famous lip sync: “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll” from Risky Business.
Cruise is a consummate performer, but improvisation has never been his strong suit: Give him three months to practice, and he’ll hang off the jet for you. But ask him to do a seemingly impromptu lip sync, and he’ll look like he’s been rehearsing it in the mirror for months. And as Grantland’s Dave Schilling points out, “coolness is defined by lack of effort” — and Cruise, whether here or trying to dance on 106 & Park (or anywhere, really), is no longer cool.
It looks, in other words, like a whole lot of try. It’s been picked up by dozens of media outlets. It’s fine. But it’s no Joseph Gordon-Levitt — and certainly no Emma Stone. While taking in the awkward sound of “the song of the summer” coming out of Cruise’s mouth, I look at the tunneled intensity with which he stares down the camera.
The way he slinks his hand down his body, or extends it and manically beckons the audience closer. I find myself watching it on repeat, the same way I did with Cruise’s couch-jump. I’m shuddering. And all of the beautiful, nostalgic feelings from the weekend re-emerge, coated in bile. I close my eyes and the after-image of the couch, his arm slinking down Katie’s back, presenting her in public and insisting everyone call her "Kate," saluting L. Ron Hubbard in full fascist form in Scientology footage from Going Clear — it all comes rushing back.
The truth sours so much. Including, it seems, The Greatest Star in the World.