Can’t Find a Better Man
We're deviating slightly from form today to discuss a question of little practical value but of some esoteric interest to film enthusiasts: Tom Cruise's legacy. Cruise has carved out a unique place for himself in cinema, a mega-star niche in which he lords it over successful paycheck hacks like Nicholas Cage but comes up wanting in comparison to truly gifted artists such as Tom Hanks. The catalyst for this contemplation was, as usual, some drunken capering with the missus.
Pop Culture Item Consumed: An inadvertent fortnight selection of the Tom Cruise oeuvre, culminating in a late-night game of grab-ass with Mrs. socalled on the living room floor while watching Far and Away and competing to put on a worse Irish accent than Cruise sports throughout that movie. This led to the sad spectacle of two 40+ adults looking up IMDb at midnight on a Friday to see how many of Tom Cruise's movie names could readily double as gay porn titles. Mrs. socalled's sense of humor was surgically removed at puberty, but she's pretty game for nonsense like this.
Given Tom Cruise's prominent placement in the most unintentionally homoerotic movie of all time -- Top Gun, as if you had to ask -- I'm sure we're not the first ones to notice this, but it's pretty striking just how gay-porn Tom Cruise's filmography sounds, and that's before you get to some of his characters' names: Cole Trickle, anyone? Admittedly we had to contort some of the titles, but with a little tweaking (rimshot!), it's pretty much the DVD catalogue for the Richard Simmons San Francisco Cockstroker Retreat. Herewith, the Tom Cruise man-love list, along with the year of release (bah-BOOM!) with alterations noted by bold print:
Losin' It (to My Stepdad), 1983: Not a great start, but it was early in his career; he was working up a head of steam. Oy.
Risky Business (with My Stepdad), 1983: Risky Business could mean so many things; while this one came out just as HIV was beginning to make its presence known, even a Tom Cruise gay theme can't make AIDS funny. Let's go with the much more humorous subject of quasi-incestual pedophilia.
All the Right Moves (with Your Stepdad), 1983: Completing the famous Stepdad Trilogy.
Legend (of Fire Island), 1985: Okay, so this one's not so clean cut. But "legend" sounds like a word one might use in reference to a porn star, and for the stupid haircut alone, Cruise must suffer for this movie.
Top Gun, 1986: You don't even need to add "In My Pants"; it's as clearly implied as a long, loving staredown with Mario Lopez. You might think there would be no option after this but to go down (huzzah!), but oh how wrong you would be.
Cocktail, 1988: Making up titles is actually more difficult than just using the real ones.
Young Guns, 1988: This was an uncredited appearance, but there's nothing Cruise won't do to for his chosen shaft. Er, craft.
Days of Thunder, 1990: Wow. Just ... wow. So many ways to go here. Days of Butt Plunder. Gays Down Under. Gay Butts Asunder. Not to mention that his character's name was Cole Trickle; why not just name the guy Weak Stream of Tepid Jizz and make it a sequel to Dances With Wolves?
A Few Good Men, 1992: Again, Tom Cruise giveth generously before his agent realized the problem with naming every movie after the embroidered pillows from a San Francisco bathhouse.
Far and Away, 1992: Again, I don't even know where to start. Scarred By a Gay? Starry By the Bay? Okay, that's more of a Fabio romance novel, but still.
The Firm, 1993: I like to think of it as a companion piece to The Mighty. If they ever make The Mighty Firm, they can do a Viagra product placement. (Side Note: This came out the year I graduated from law school, and my mother nearly had an aneurysm over the idea that the Mafia would be bankrolling my legal career. If only.)
Thighs Tied Shut, 1999: A bit of a stretch (bam!), but here's where the stream runs dry (boo-yeah!) ....
During the mid-90s, a funny thing happened on the way to libel and slander court -- when the rumors about Cruise's sexual orientation began to swirl in earnest, his movies suddenly became much less susceptible to suggestions of amusing gay porn titles. After Cruise's Kubrick collaboration, the next movie name even remotely suggesting a fondness for something hot, tumescent and sweaty was Tropic Thunder, and the game is no fun when the movie title is already a satirical swipe. I'm left with ridiculous strains (hi-ya!) like Magnum Oleo and Mission: Heterosexually Impossible. Geez, work with me, Tom!
Ah, well; at least we can look forward to next year's drama starring Cruise as a convenience store owner, Dick's 24/7.
Beverage Consumed: Hmmm, something I respect but don't like ... something I will drink at your party but which will require that I actually want to be there ... let's go with vodka shots. Why? Why not.
Summary of Action: So what do we do with this Tom Cruise fellow? Other than pin his arms to the ground, fart on his head, do drool ropes over his face, and administer head noogies, I mean.
Look, I have no love for this batshit douchefarmer -- for starters, I'm as anti-religion as it gets, and Scientology is a laughable parody of the craziest nonsense the Mormons ever came up with. By all appearances, Cruise is a cold, calculating shitheel who somehow believes aliens put our souls in volcanos, or some equally babbleicious nuttiness, and don't even get me started on his irresponsible attacks on psychiatric healthcare. You fuck with Brooke Shields, you fuck with me. You fuck with Pretty Baby, YOU FUCK WITH ME!
Ahem. So: Let's cut out the last three or four years (for starters) and lay them aside, awarding a cosmic mulligan to excise his certifiable insanity during that period. If Tom Cruise wakes up tomorrow, calls a press conference, and announces, "I am sorry for being a colossal tool since Nicole resigned as the biggest beard in the history of homo-jinks," what do we make of his career? Because I actually enforce the rule to which the Baseball Hall of Fame only gives lip service (rimshot!): It's not what you do in your personal life that I care about; what matters is what happens on the field. The gay, gay field of your dreams.
The facts are that, in the career aggregate, Tom Cruise is one of the biggest box office draws of all time while remaining an enigma in terms of acting talent. From a studio executive perspective, in adjusted dollars, he has delivered a steady stream of hits that paid for more mountains of cocaine, ecstasy-addled starlets, sexually confused young boys, pre-murdered hookers, and designer shoe lifts than Bruce Willis and John Travolta combined. Cruise altered the course of pop culture with his unwittingly homoerotic adventures in the 80s and early 90s, leading millions of young men to believe it was okay to oil up and preen for each other during volleyball games near, but not directly on, the beach. He caused the misperception that Kelly McGillis was a woman, he somehow came off as more feminine than Rebecca DeMornay, and he convinced this trepidatious lad that I could simultaneously service Elizabeth Shue and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio better than Cruise could take care of either one individually. For these gifts, we all owe him a great debt.
But what of history? We certainly and justifiably ridicule Cruise for his weakness for big budget laughers like War of the Worlds and Far and Away. At the same time, we must credit him for Born on the Fourth of July, a profound and moving film with a fantastic lead performance from Cruise, as well as Rain Man, in which he somehow kept from being overshadowed by that hammiest of hams, Dustin Hoffman, who cannily went only half-retard. A half-retard Ratso Rizzo! And yet Rain Man crashes and burns without a massively restrained performance from Cruise, who played a haunted, early shadow of mug-master Jerry Maguire. One of the primary problems with the film Jerry Maguire is that Cruise had done the exact same character, except the right way, eight years earlier. Jerry Maguire is an unrestrained Cruise playing himself: jumping on Oprah's sofa seems uncomfortably close to the meltdown walkout from his employer's sports agency. Rain Man shows the power of a harnessed Cruise, actually acting like someone else, a winning combination of the cluelessness of Frank Mackey from Magnolia and the cringingly self-aware second banana of A Few Good Men. (His comic timing ain't bad either -- "You strenuously object? Oh, well, if you strenuously object, then I should take some time to reconsider.")
Look at Cruise's inspired performance as paralyzed Vietnam vet Ron Kovacs in Born on the Fourth of July and consider what could have been. Without Cruise's keen nose for the shallow hit, without his rank knowledge of how Hollywood successfully paws the public wallet like a longshoreman feeling up a slattern in a tavern pisshole, Cruise could have been an actual actor. You see flashes of it in the adaptation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, in his intensity in All the Right Moves, in his self-effacingly effeminate and bracing turn as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire. Cruise's unfailingly self-serving cinematic instincts have landed him in a number of good films where he brought his actual skills to the fore and blended into talented ensemble casts in the service of genuine works of art.
Likewise, it's no accident that his most indelibly etched roles were monuments of self-parody, though one has to wonder whether Cruise really grasps that fact, even today. Frank Mackey from Magnolia is the most obvious example, but his turn as the pompously menacing studio head in Tropic Thunder was every bit as telling, if a bit better concealed. Mackey was too obviously Cruise, strutting about on the leading edge of a self-fellating theology that everyone around him except the blank-slate dittoheads knew to be utter crap -- there was no real risk to Cruise because Mackey was so broad. "I'm making fun of how people view me, not how I really am."
His turn as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder is the actual bitter truth: Sold as a parody of Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, the role was supposedly a retaliatory strike for Redstone's and Viacom's abandonment of Cruise following Cruise's suicidal self-Oprah-lation. The reality is that Grossman was a punch in the throat to everything Cruise stands for. As incestuously cross-hatched as Hollywood is, as long a memory as some of those assholes have, do you think for one second that the producers and director of Tropic Thunder would needlessly incur the enmity of someone like Sumner Redstone? Let's keep in mind who we're talking about here: no less a studio whore than Ben Stiller produced and directed the film. While Tropic Thunder lampoons every studio executive who has greenlit an execrable mound of maggot shit like The Last Samurai, it does so only in a general sense -- there's nothing personal about it, at least not to the moviegoing public. Cruise knowingly mocking Redstone is akin to George W. Bush making fun of those crazypants illustrators responsible for Curious George -- ironic to the point of "not possible."
Yet Cruise abides. I wonder why I would ever look upon a film containing this man; that I would do so is a tribute to his real talent, which is the business of movies, not their artistry. I suspect many people share my feeling that Cruise no longer has any independent drawing power -- and in fact brings some negatives to the table -- while at the same time appreciating his shrewd sense of project selection, at least until recently. For example, had Tom Cruise been selected to carry the Jason Bourne or Iron Man franchises, I would have had no built-in interest in them before they came out -- if the movies drew positive reviews, I would have seen them because of my interest in their pop culture relevance, not because of Cruise. To some extent, I would have seen them in spite of Cruise.
Yet Cruise has shown a remarkably keen eye for picking projects and scripts, at least until his last few pictures. Cruise built a remarkable career finding the spots where we would be looking anyway, then inserting his clean-cut, white-toothed, oily muscled physique into that space. He's a machine, but a cyborg -- a cynical, douche-alloy chassis encased in the flesh and blood of failed actors with talent. Mission Impossible finally coming to the screen; Stanley Kubrick's final film; the long-awaited Anne Rice movie; the Steven Spielberg regurgitation of a beloved sci-fi classic ... do we see a theme here? Does that mercenary sensibility merit consideration alongside titans like Tom Hanks and Sean Penn? Doubtful. Let's take it down a level. Does it merit consideration alongside secondary or tertiary powers like Kevin Spacey or Kevin Bacon? I'm still not there. Even one-note Bruce Willis, perhaps the closest comparator to Cruise in terms of drawing power and a penchant for abject hackery, has at least tried a few times to do something challenging and obscure. 12 Monkeys and In Country may not have been that successful, but Willis was working hard all the same, and not always with his eye on the fare meter. Plus, he's a likeable jackass, not the other kind.
In the end, I suspect Cruise will be remembered as he thrived: as his own beast, respected but not liked for the money machine that he was. Only the most ardent Cruise fan would apply the term "artist," but the film history of my lifetime would be the poorer without the films built around him. It's true that, without Cruise, I wouldn't know the retardery of needlessly twirling perfectly good bottles of booze, nor would I have endured about half the stupid movie catchphrases of the last 20 years -- "You can't handle the truth!" Thanks, Colonel Jessep; the bare-chested Navy pilots in my basement would like a word. But I also wouldn't have seen Ving Rhames and Jean Reno breaking into the CIA, I would have missed Paul Newman getting his second chance at that pool table, and perhaps Nicole Kidman would never have dropped her clothes like they were on fire. In cinema, we take the good with the bad, even when they're the same.
Tastes Like: I'm pretty sure you don't want to know. Or maybe you already know.
Overall Rating: I give it a GAYVN. You'll just have to Google that.
Ted Boynton is a dedicated sot who plans to leave his barstool to stalk Whit Stillman, now that someone has found Whit Stillman. Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not. Readers may scold, hector, admonish or taunt Ted by e-mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.