Tom Cruise: Hollywood’s Last Great Movie Star

Tom Cruise is the most consistent movie star Hollywood has, and when he stops making films, his absence will signify the end of an era.

“There are only four real stars, and the rest are just popular people”

— Chris Rock, 77th Academy Awards

A number of film critics have pointed out that Edge of Tomorrow (2014) is a metaphor for Tom Cruise’s career. As Richard Roeper puts it, “You can’t kill this guy. He’ll just keep coming.” (“Edge of Tomorrow: a High Point in Tom Cruise’s Indestructible Career”, Chicago Sun Times, 4 June 2014) Indeed, 2014’s best summer blockbuster reinforces Cruise’s legacy as Hollywood’s last great movie star.

Cruise remains an anomaly in Hollywood’s history, but he is arguably most similar to the iconic James Stewart.

There are some who want Cruise to stumble. For whatever reason, they dislike Cruise, and allow their perceptions and opinions of his personal life to influence their views of his work. In a widely circulated article, film critic Amy Nicholson argues that YouTube and Internet journalism destroyed Cruise’s career. (“How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star”, LA Weekly 20 May 2014) Not surprisingly, a number of respondents in the comments section disagree. NibzLivz, for example, claims that Cruise’s reputation is “permanently stained by his ongoing endorsement of a cult” (a not so subtle reference to Scientology), and Michael.f.passe agrees, noting that “Cruise had a hand in his own decline” due to “the negative weight of Scientology.” (ibid)

Like all movie stars, Cruise has had a few misfires, and some of his more recent films have not been as positively received as those that turned him into a household name. However, it’s wildly hyperbolic to claim that Cruise’s career has been destroyed. Although some go to great lengths to attack Cruise, their efforts have had little impact on the success of his films. If we actually take the time to look at the films and their reception, it becomes clear that Cruise is the most consistent movie star we have, and that whenever he stops making films, his absence from Hollywood will signify the end of an era.

When Cruise leaves Hollywood behind, I fear that there will not be any young movie stars around to take his place. Who among the younger men like Robert Pattinson, Josh Hutcherson, and Daniel Radcliffe has the ability to carry a film like Cruise has? Which one of them has the mainstream appeal that extends beyond the franchise films in which they often appear?

What Cruise has, and what younger male actors have not yet acquired, is the ability to attract audiences to any film in which he stars. Whether it be an action blockbuster like Top Gun (1986), a romantic comedy like Jerry Maguire (1996), or a surreal art-film like Vanilla Sky (2001), audiences around the world flock to see the next Cruise picture, regardless of the genre. Like the best movie stars, Cruise can make even the most lackluster films watchable (2013’s Oblivion, anyone?), and he has the good sense to choose projects that play to his strengths as an actor. We cannot always articulate what it is that he does, except to say that he makes “Tom Cruise movies”, which means, essentially, that he is the reason why we buy the ticket in the first place.

Cruise’s mainstream appeal enables even his most ambitious projects to be distributed widely. Consider, for example, the aforementioned Vanilla Sky. The film opened on 2,742 screens in the US and made over $25 million on its opening weekend, which earned it the number one spot at the box office. This is an impressive achievement, given the film’s challenging structure. Unlike other mainstream films, Vanilla Sky lacks a cohesive narrative, and plays like a fragmented dream. It’s fair to say that Cruise is responsible for the film’s success, and that mainstream audiences went along with the storyline because they trusted that he would deliver.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, either. In 1999, Eyes Wide Shut similarly opened on 2,411 screens in the US and made over $21 million on its opening weekend. Like Vanilla Sky, Eyes Wide Shut is experimental, and it doesn’t have much in common with most films that top the US box office. However, Cruise’s presence elevated it to a must-see event (it didn’t hurt that it was Stanley Kubrick’s last film, either).

There aren’t any younger actors who can pull off a Vanilla Sky or Eyes Wide Shut opening weekend. When a popular actor like Radcliffe stars in a more ambitious project like Horns (2014), for example, it opens on 103 screens in the US and barely grosses over $100,000 domestically. In addition, Horns was quickly distributed to on-demand platforms, something that would never happen to a Cruise film.

My intention is not to undermine the talent of Radcliffe,, but to illustrate the difference between Radcliffe and a movie star like Cruise. All of Cruise’s films since A Few Good Men, which was one of the top grossers of 1992, have opened on over 2,000 screens in the US, with the exception of Magnolia (1999), an ensemble piece, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011), which played in IMAX theaters before expanding to the rest of the US the following week. This includes political films like Lions for Lambs (2007) that would not normally appeal to the mainstream. This information is telling, and it shows that Cruise has consistently maintained his mainstream appeal throughout the years, and that studios continue to trust him in spite of risky career choices.

What’s troubling about the distribution of Horns is the lack of faith studios have in Radcliffe that’s needed to open the film more widely. Horns was released after Radcliffe became a household name for the Harry Potter franchise, yet studios didn’t believe that his international fame would lure mainstream audiences into the theaters to see him in a different role. The question begs to be asked: Are you a movie star if audiences only want to see you play one role, or do you need the power to convince them to follow your acting skills no matter the role?

Even though digital technology has impacted Hollywood’s business practices, Cruise’s career has not suffered. His last five starring vehicles, including Knight & Day (2010), Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Jack Reacher (2012), Oblivion, and Edge of Tomorrow grossed over $200 million worldwide.

Most astonishing, Rock of Ages (2012) is the only film Cruise has been in since Risky Business (1983) that has not earned back its budget. Most Cruise films gross over $200 million worldwide, some gross over $100 million worldwide, and every now and then, ensemble pieces like Magnolia or Lions for Lambs gross over $40 million, but they all make profits, which explains why studios keep coming back to Cruise. His track record is impressive, to say the least, and the only ones who can compete are his contemporaries like Will Smith and Denzel Washington.

Of course, quality should not be underestimated. One of the main reasons why Cruise became a movie star in the first place has to do with his on-screen persona. He is effortlessly charming and incredibly cool. He has an uncanny ability to pick the perfect projects, such as Minority Report (2002) and Collateral (2004), and even when he plays the bad guy, he remains likable. He can be the romantic heartthrob or the action hero, and he is known for doing his own dangerous stunt work. On YouTube, fans have paid tribute to some of his trademark touches, like his distinct open-handed run, which has been deemed “Tom Cruising” :

It’s easy to take movie stars like Cruise for granted, but the current state of cinema reminds us how rare he is as an actor. I admire younger actors like Radcliffe, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill, and believe that Seth Rogen, Ryan Gosling, and Tom Hardy have bright futures ahead of them. However, none of the newcomers can compare to Cruise, and this raises some thought-provoking questions about contemporary cinema culture.

If it’s an overstatement to deny the movie star’s place in the digital era, what explains the dearth of younger movie stars today? Why do moviegoers continue to celebrate Cruise, Smith, and Washington, but not give Radcliffe and others the same respect? Why is it that whenever Radcliffe and others deviate from franchise films and lend their talents to more obscure films, they are ignored by the mainstream?

I don’t know the answers to such questions, but they call attention to a problematic cinema culture. What makes Cruise such an interesting movie star is that he can appear in Vanilla Sky one year and Minority Report the next, and that both films will be well-received by the public. If the studios only trusted Cruise to open the blockbusters, and did not have faith in films such as Jerry Maguire (1996), he would not be where he is today.

In other words, studios are equally responsible for making the movie star, and in order for newcomers to reach the heights of Cruise, studios need to open their more obscure films as widely as the franchise films — and see what happens. There are no guarantees for success, of course, but the industry is too reluctant to take any risks, and as a result, it has not produced a genuine movie star since the ’90s when Cruise, Smith, and Washington broke into the mainstream.

Cruise remains an anomaly in Hollywood’s history, but he is arguably most similar to the iconic James Stewart. Just as Cruise could play the romantic heartthrob in Jerry Maguire and the dangerous hit man in Collateral, Stewart frequently switched gears, going from a romantic screwball comedy like The Philadelphia Story (1940) to a psychological thriller like Vertigo (1958), in which he is a deranged stalker. Like Cruise, Stewart’s risky career choices didn’t alienate audiences, and he maintained his popularity for three decades.

By contrast, younger actors like Radcliffe have more in common with Roy Rogers, the famous performer whose “singing cowboy” films were the highest grossing of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Rogers is the same character in each film, which suggests that audiences were less interested in him than the singing cowboy shtick, just as contemporary audiences are less interested in Radcliffe than the boy with the magic wand. I can see why it’s tempting for young actors to lend their talents to popular franchise films, but film history reminds us that they rarely find success after the franchise has concluded.

The title “movie star” gets thrown around a lot, and plenty of actors who are called stars don’t actually deserve it. In addition to Pattinson, Hutcherson, and Radcliffe, actors such as Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Robert Downey Jr. should not be considered movie stars based on the popularity of one role in a franchise. Similarly, great actors like Matthew McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Matt Damon deserve our admiration, but they lack consistent star power, and don’t guarantee box office results.

Unlike most actors in Hollywood, movie stars have longevity. Movie stars convince studies to distribute any movie in which they appear widely across the country, and attract mainstream audiences to each new role. Most important of all, movie stars establish their own genre, in which it is commonly understood what a “Tom Cruise movie” means.

For four decades, Cruise has been Hollywood’s most consistent movie star, and the Edge of Tomorrow metaphor, while clever, is not exactly fair to Cruise. It assumes that Cruise has stumbled and experienced setbacks, but if we study his filmography, we see that he has always been on top. There’s no doubt that Cruise is still as relevant as he was when he began his career, and that mainstream audiences around the world continue to believe in the magic of a Tom Cruise movie. What remains ambiguous, then, is if anyone else will ever match him.

Splash image: Publicity photo from Rock of Ages (2012)