Opinion

Tom Cruise’s Rise to Superstardom, Explained

Updated July 30, 2015
8 min read

Let me state from the very beginning I do not care about his personal life, it is none of my business, all I care about is his work. He is the biggest movie star in the world. Period. However, he is also among the finest actors at work in movies, which is not always discussed, which is not always something people remember about Cruise. Directors will tell you how hard working he is, his co-stars are in awe of his preparation and commitment to each project and when he is challenged by both director and script, his work can be astonishing. Perhaps because he often is seen in major blockbuster movies critic do not take him seriously as an actor, or his fine work is overshadowed by the effects and chases in his films, for example the Mission: Impossible series.

In many ways his career has mirrored that of Paul Newman, a close friend until Newman died, in that Cruise has been able to balance being a major movie star with a fine actor, growing before our eyes. His major breakthrough was, of course, the teen comedy Risky Business (1983), an edgy well-written comedy that offered Cruise a strong role that amply displayed his gifts as an actor. He became choosier about his roles after that, seeking out strong filmmakers with solid co-stars rather than taking on films that were programmed to be box office. Working with Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman he gave an excellent performance in The Color of Money (1986), deserving of an Oscar nomination for supporting actor which did not happen. That same year he starred in the blockbuster hit Top Gun (1986) which made solid his status as a leading man and gave him box office clout.

He used the clout to make the movies he wanted to make, such as Rain Man (1988) in which he was superb giving the real performance in the film as nasty Charlie Babbit, who begins his journey using his autistic brother for his money but comes to love him, finding his own humanity. The lion’s share of reviews went to Dustin Hoffman, but it was Cruise who gave the greater performance, the one with the tougher arc to portray. He should have been nominated along with Hoffman, but the Academy failed to do so. A year later they did not.

For his stunning performance in Born on the Fourth of July (1989) he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor and won the Golden Globe as Best Actor…at long last he had the respect of his peers he so coveted. As Ron Kovic, a real life Viet Nam veteran who protested against the war after he came home paralyzed from the waist down, Cruise was a revelation, throwing himself into the part like he never had anything before. Aging more than twenty years the actor stunned the critics with the sheer ferocity of his performance and the staggering depth. No one would question him as an actor it seemed.

For the next few years he walked that line between actor and movie star, merging the two sometimes in films such as A Few Good Men (1992) in which he shared the screen with no less than Jack Nicholson, and The Client (1994), though it was his work as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire (1994) that had everyone talking. Cast against type as a vicious vampire, Hollywood snickered at the thought of Cruise in the role, even writer Anne Rice got into it, challenging Cruise and the studio with sharp words about the stunt casting as she called it. When the film was previewed for Rice she no longer felt that way and celebrated what Cruise did in print in the Los Angeles and New York Times. He was terrific as Lestat, my only issue being he always seemed aware he was the villain, he had to play it badly and when you do that it becomes tiresome because you have nowhere to go. So while he was good in the film, he stopped from being great by his own block that did not allow him to go there.

For his sublime work in Jerry Maguire (1996) as the sports agent struggling to do the right thing, he was rewarded with the finest reviews of his career for his simply superb performance. Moving from cutthroat agent to attempting to take care of his clients, finding love and a family, Cruise was brilliant, giving himself over to the role in every way and again, evolving before our eyes. Surrounded by a great cast which included Cuba Gooding Jr., who won the Oscar for supporting actor and Renee Zellweger, Cruise seemed to elevate his game and do the finest work of his career in the part, winning another Golden Globe and earning another Oscar nod. He should have won this time, and it was clear most in Hollywood thought he would.

He and wife Nicole Kidman then went off to work with legendary Stanley Kubrick and I suspect neither of them thought it would be the experience it became. For more than two years they worked on Eyes Wide Shut (1999) dealing with the master directors endless retakes, odd behavior and maniacal control of his set. Yet they learned Cruise said so much about filmmaking and became fast friends with the reclusive director. While shooting the film in England the actor was visited by red-hot director Paul Thomas Anderson who had written a supporting role in his next film with Cruise in mind. The actor agreed to do the part but wanted to wait and finish the Kubrick film first.

When Kubrick died suddenly in early 1999, Cruise and Kidman saw a finished cut of the film and the actor fought for that cut to be what audiences saw. When the picture opened to mixed reviews and some disappointment, not everyone was really surprised. He and Kidman did fine work in a film that was sort of a meandering film, the sort of thing David Lynch might have made early in his career. Gone was the Kubrick daring, that perversity that was in most if not all of his films.

As misogynistic sex guru Frank Mackey in Magnolia (1999), he is all flamboyance and arrogance, which hides the little boy he reveals later in his performance with issues of abandonment. It is a powerful and daring performance as the character is so instantly dislikable, and foul-mouthed. Yet to the credit of the actor he allows us in slowly, gently pulling us close to him until his breakdown at the death bed of his father when e finally see the pain he has masking. It was the finest piece of acting he has ever done and the critics took note of the work in the demanding film. He was nominated a third time for an Academy Award, this time for Best Supporting Actor and won his third Golden Globe for the performance.

Through the next decade, Cruise was plagued with bad press of his own making, and though it was front page news, I could care less, because all that matters is the performance. While the Mission: Impossible franchise took off, he busied himself with both box office hits and strong character driven pieces. Working with Steven Spielberg twice he gave a strong performance in Minority Report (2002), one of those grand physical performances he is capable of giving, following that with a haunting performance in War of the Worlds (2005), Spielberg’s 9-11 allegory.

As Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai (2003) he gave one of his finest performances as a war hero in the time of Custer who is sent to Japan to go to war against the famed samurai warriors, Taken as their prisoner he spends the winter in the mountains with them and becomes entranced by their discipline, becoming one of them, eventually going to war against his own kind, siding with the samurai. Cruise is excellent in the film,m was more than deserving of an Oscar nod which did not come, but the performance remains one of his best. He then stunned audiences and critics with an unbilled cameo in Tropic Thunder (2008) all but unrecognizable under makeup as Les, a money mad movie producer trying to keep costs down on a film running away. The man is hilarious…and the actor understood the manner in which he had to go over the top to perfection.

The same thing happened with his rock star in Rock of Ages (2012) in which he brought a great deal of his own star persona to the part, as a lazy, over sexed rock star going for his last big show. The body language, the speech pattern, the manner of waiting for everyone to do things for him was brilliant. And did I mention he does his own singing and he is damn good. He gave an excellent performance in Jack Reacher (2013) and now has another Mission Impossible opening, this one subtitled Rogue Nation (2015) and the early word is very good. He seems to be back in the groove and we can expect some more great performances from him. Tom Cruise is an actor, first and foremost, and one of the very best. About time the critics backed off and realized that.

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