If we are indeed witnessing the death rattle of Cruise's career, then perhaps it's time to give him some credit for what it was that made his stardom so impenetrable for so long.
We never really outgrow our resentment of the popular kids, do we? In the grownup world, where the lines between the cool and the uncool are a bit blurrier, celebrities become an extension of the high school "in" crowd. We admire them from afar, and we secretly wish to join them, but we don't lose much sleep when they come crashing down.
Britney Spears is the attention-grabbing prom queen who got knocked up. Bill Clinton was the charismatic class over-achiever caught being naughty behind the gym. And Michael Jackson is . . . well, there's no way to make an analogy work for him.
But when it comes to Tom Cruise, we have a case unto himself. Cruise's superstardom has lasted for two decades with no major blemishes. His divorce from Nicole Kidman his second divorce not only left him on solid footing, but even made a bigger star out of Kidman. Through Scientology, romances, and endless exposure, the spotlight never got the best of him, until now. He was the pop icon we were trained to take at face value and enjoy. And now, just as his stardom seems unique to the era, so apparently is his seeming downfall.
As the Tom Cruise media catastrophe pushes forward at full throttle, there's a widespread sense that people have been quietly waiting for this moment -- they've just been more discrete about the creeping celebrity backlash than normal. Everything from FreeKatie.com to the international tabloid onslaught reflects a public that seems to be celebrating the long-overdue collapse of the world's biggest movie star. This is not merely an enraged populace punishing Cruise's recent public outbursts of bizarre and generally undesirable behavior.
The angry response to Cruise's recent antics is justifiable. Plenty of stars date significantly younger women, cruelly pick on other celebrities, and mercilessly pimp boutique celebrity religions. But no one in recent memory has done all three so publicly and gracelessly. Cruise's summer has been a startling combination of Jack Nicholson's love life, Eminem's professional courtesy, and Madonna's rendition of Kabbalah. When Hollywood's alpha male is going all Gene Kelly on Oprah's couch and losing a high-profile feud with Brooke Shields, you know things have hit rock bottom.
But what's troubling is not the public outcry at Cruise's behavior or the doubts of his continued star power. What's unsettling is the sudden and ubiquitous idea that Cruise was nothing special in the first place, that his body of work is fungible and his talent replaceable, all in reaction to his latest slip-ups. If we are indeed witnessing the death rattle of Cruise's career, then perhaps it's time to give him some credit for what it was that made his stardom so impenetrable for so long.
Cruise may be limited as an actor, but he's always been outstanding as a movie star. He has been more consistently astute in his choices than any other star of his generation. Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt are often praised for avoiding the "easy" superstar path, but both have made some lousy choices both in and out of the mainstream (Sleepy Hollow and The Mexican come to mind). While Cruise has theoretically taken the path of less risk and greater reward, he deserves credit for consistently picking movies that are not just profitable, but actually very good. Risky Business, A Few Good Men, and Jerry Maguire were all forced to cradle his established persona, but all three have held up well over time.
Meanwhile, Cruise doesn't get credit for just how many chances he has taken. As his producing debut, Mission: Impossible was seen as a further step in selling his soul. But after the first Mission:Impossible, he made Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, helping deliver larger audiences to perhaps American cinema's greatest departing auteur and its greatest arriving one (Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, respectively). And even Mission saw him hire director Brian De Palma, one of Hollywood's most daring figures, but far from one of its most bankable commercial directors.
Contrary to popular wisdom, Cruise has actually been one of the most daring stars in Hollywood over the last five years, even if the results have been mixed. Vanilla Sky was a high-minded fantasy experiment, even if it turned out terribly. Minority Report was a high-minded sci-fi experiment, even if it arrived dumbed-down. It was bold of Cruise to take on a heavily subtitled historical epic in The Last Samurai, and it was even bolder of him to play the villain in the violent and technically unorthodox Collateral. And through all this, Cruise has helped launch the careers of Pitt (Interview With The Vampire), Colin Farrell (Minority Report), Reneé Zellweger (Jerry Maguire), and Jamie Foxx (Collateral).
Cruise may not have consistently tried to make art, but at least he seems to have consistently tried to make better than run-of-the-mill multiplex fare. He has rarely Oscar-grubbed, never taken on a vanity directorial effort, and has, since the '80s, yet to have a movie out-and-out flop. That puts him in a class that excludes Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington, and Tom Hanks on all three counts.
What's so shocking about the public's lightning-fast turnaround on Cruise is that he's treated the public with reasonable respect over the years. Perhaps it's no coincidence that all this comes on the heels of War of the Worlds, a movie whose excesses and vacuity are hard to ignore. Nonetheless, Cruise must be beginning to see why Cary Grant quit acting and left stardom behind while the choice was still his to make.
Hollywood builds stars by making actors seem like familiar old friends and acquaintances. So it's especially shocking to audiences when a buddy as old and dear as Cruise does unforgivable things like attacking post-partum depression sufferers and making Mission: Impossible 2. But stars are built to disappoint. Spencer Tracy drank himself to death. Marlon Brando was notoriously mean. Matthew Broderick killed a woman and her child in a car accident.
When it comes to celebrity personal lives, there's little we know and all too much that we actually don't. There's plenty to berate Cruise about these days, yet there are still unverifiable stories leaked about practices in the Church of Scientology, each one sounding, appropriately enough, more and more like something out of Eyes Wide Shut. Movie stars have one metric by which we can measure them: their movies. If Tom Cruise is really finished now, we should at least have the dignity to look back on his career and see a superstar that was truly worth having as an icon for all those years.
Perhaps the best reflection of Cruise's career is his 2004 appearance on Inside the Actors Studio. Throughout the extended episode, host James Lipton pontificated and interrogated his way through a seemingly endless string of well-remembered titles, each of which drew enthusiastic applause. Cruise was charming, self-aware, self-effacing, and candid.
When the subsequent question-and-answer period ended, Cruise was allowed to speak to the crowd directly to cap the episode. Then, as he spoke and cited the works of L. Ron Hubbard, the response was one that Cruise had not seen that day or in almost any step of his career -- uncomfortable quiet and awkwardness from the audience. As the students gazed up at a nakedly stumbling and imperfectly human presence, it was a moment they neither expected nor wanted from Cruise. And when the credits rolled, it became almost difficult to remember the adulation and ease that made up the bulk of the show.
As Cruise continues to make his way through his public relations self-destruction, let's try to remember why Cruise was set up so high in the first place. Let's try to remember his true legacy of stardom, without the taint of his recent indignities. And let's have the integrity ourselves to not pretend we didn't like him, anyway, and not save our applause for the crashing end to a noteworthy career. Not now, simply because he's the coolest kid in school.