The core of Tom Cruise’s ongoing superstar appeal to audiences is relatively self-evident: He’s a doer. His characters do things that encourage us to believe that we can do things. It’s too easy to say that Cruise came of age at the perfect place and time—the gung-ho American 1980s—and rode that rollercoaster to the bank for something like 30 years and counting. Cruise is shrewd and adaptable, and he’s probably still in the game because he informed his fame with a quietly autobiographical aura. He lets his work show, and so his desperation to be “taken seriously” as an actor while staying forever youthful parallels his characters’ various self-actualizing yearnings.
Cruise is a continued subject of fascination for critics because his everlasting prominence as a star is noteworthy regardless of any further context and, more interestingly, because of that tendency to always assume that still waters run deep. Cruise is so polished, and his performances so clearly, nakedly hyper-controlled, that he can’t help but invite scrutiny of neuroses and of more-obvious-than-usual bridges between art and commerce. Cruise’s self-consciousness implies a peek behind the curtain of how Hollywood works, and critics, obviously, are concerned with the symbology embedded in Hollywood product. Control, whether artistic or personal, is, fittingly, the theme of Amy Nicholson’s Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, and the star’s tricky simultaneous courting of fame and artistic credibility is the book’s logical through line.
In the tradition of the other various authors who’ve participated in Cahiers du Cinéma’s Anatomy of an Actor series, Nicholson examines her subject through the lens of 10 “iconic roles.” The author’s first few choices aren’t surprising, but they aren’t debatable either, as Tom Cruise as we know him is pretty much unthinkable without Risky Business and Top Gun. Nicolson touches on familiar autobiographical details, acknowledging that they’re familiar and highly manipulated by their progenitor, such as the dyslexia, the missing father issues, and the prodigious daredevil athleticism that would define virtually every performance throughout Cruise’s career. More promisingly, Nicholson discusses Cruise’s uneasy relationship with Top Gun as a macho military recruiting video at the height of the militaristic 1980s, and reveals that the actor was calculatedly and essentially apolitical, more concerned with portraying a personal transcendence than in delving into said transcendence’s potential social reverberations.
Granted, Cruise was in his early 20s at the time, and his career prescience is remarkable, but that’s also a telling observation that boils his success and its accompanying problems down to one element: His limitation as an actor is his self-absorption (his on-screen asexuality, which Nicholson also examines, springs from this), which also transforms him into a cartoon of everlasting endurance that taps his gifts as a superstar. This absorption partially explains why his performance in Born on the Fourth of July, also covered here with a degree of enthusiasm that isn’t shared by this critic, doesn’t work. You never feel that you’re watching an approximation of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic because Cruise’s performance is an audition for the legacy of great actor—substituting ghoulish gimmickry for empathy—that revels in the kind of narcissism that would be later parodied by Cruise and company in the surprisingly and gratifyingly vicious Tropic Thunder (also covered here). Nicholson is cognizant of that vanity, though she often appears to believe that it enriches the performances—a point of view that’s especially evident, later, in her cataloguing of the actor’s various tics in Magnolia.
Nicholson initially appears to be unresolved about the contrivances of Cruise’s performances and unsure as to how to express that uncertainty. She occasionally accepts the actor’s mythology with a straight face, and relies heavily on on-set anecdotes that fail to take us beyond the familiar image of Cruise as an eager Boy Scout forever striving to be a great actor. (There’s a quote, in which Cruise says he isn’t concerned with image, that’s blatant enough to make even Joan Crawford blanch.)
But the book finds its footing at the halfway mark, perhaps because the films themselves grow more interesting and less discussed from a Cruise-centric point of view. For instance, Nicholson provides some of the best and most persuasive writing about Eyes Wide Shut that I’ve personally read, memorably claiming that it “isn’t a movie about a human consumed with distrust and jealousy—it’s a movie about distrust and jealousy that simply uses a human as its conduit.” That’s a terrific reading of that film, as well as a telling encapsulation of Stanley Kubrick’s work in general, that invigorates Nicholson’s confident read on the fascinating pairing of Cruise, a control freak who feigns humanist empathy, with Kubrick, the king of control freaks who wears his impenetrable sadism as an artistic (and sensationalistic) badge of honor.
Nicholson astutely connects Eyes Wide Shut back to Interview with the Vampire through their intentionally strained eroticism, which serves to acknowledge the films’ respective true theme of the capitalist power that lingers under the superficial sexual roleplay. This, in turn, underlines the great irony of Cruise’s career: that his weirdest and most original performances, particularly in these two films, are often panned because they entail subtly blunt trickery that involves the deliberate assumption of cold, alienating theatrical tactics that point inward toward their own inherent falseness. These are Cruise’s most daring and revealing turns, rather than the obligatorily “relevant” performances that often win him praise.
In the tradition of her film criticism for L.A. Weekly, Nicholson wears her erudition lightly, her swift, pared prose allowing the resonances of Cruise’s career to sneak up on you. The author captures the weirdly obsessive pull of the superstar, and illustrates that obsession to be the pivotal complication of his grade-A American exterior, which is intended to be encouragingly bland, but is more often equally unnerving and poignant. It’s fitting that Nicholson concludes her book on Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, as it embodies a retreat on the actor’s part toward roles with global recognition, away from the ostentatiously challenging work that he wants to define him. It’s also one of his best performances, allowing Cruise to channel all of his perfectionist preoccupations into a purely physical state that damn near resembles grace. Nicholson captures Cruise’s pervading artistic conundrum: that he’s at his best when he’s selling out. And that’s why Cruise’s career is ageless. He’s a brilliant capitalist who’s never entirely resigned himself to it.
Amy Nicholson’s Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor is available July 28 from Phaidon Press; to purchase it, click here.