THE CRUISE CONTROLLERS” CRUISEIEST TOM CRUISE PERFORMANCES
A Look at Our Top Ten Cruiseiest Performances by Actor TOM CRUISE
By the Members of the Cruise Controllers
Ben Stiller asked some important questions at the 2000 MTV Movie Awards: “Who is Tom Cruise? What is Tom Cruise? Why is Tom Cruise? When is Tom Cruise?” These are perhaps unanswerable questions, but the best we can do to attempt an answer to them is to state the obvious: Tom Cruise is a movie star. Tom Cruise is a matinee idol. Tom Cruise is a celebrity. Tom Cruise is an icon. And as is often true with iconic actors, his film career is full of countless iconic moments. It”s not too difficult to argue that Cruise has committed more classic lines and memorable scenes to celluloid than most, if not all, of his contemporaries.
Whether he is sliding across the floor in his skivvies or inspiring men to “respect the cock and tame the cunt,” whether he is playing some homoerotic shirtless volleyball or asking to be shown the money, whether he is hanging from cables an inch above a sensored ground or dancing his prosthetic ass off in a fat suit and bald cap, whether he is pool-sharking to Warren Zevon”s “Werewolves of London” or being accused of pre-crime, whether he is asking for a truth he can”t handle or having a girl at “hello,” whether he is wandering through an eerily empty Times Square or finding a way into a secret sex cult, Tom Cruise knows how to make the most of a moment. He milks them for all they”re worth.
It”s easy to forget–especially when one thinks of the movie star who jumped on Oprah”s couch, the matinee idol who was blessed with leading man good looks, the celebrity who boasts a high Thetan level, the icon who seems as cocksure as his characters–that what makes him such a towering figure in the film industry, and what allows him to create some of cinema”s most memorable moments, is his acting ability and not his star status. Sure, sometimes he skates on his stardom, sometimes he lets his charisma carry him most of the way, but when Cruise gives a performance his all, he burns with a hard, gem-like flame.
We need more than a beer to put these flames out. When he gives us those performances, he completes us–all of us who live in this cynical world. To remind everyone that Cruise is more than mere spectacle, to prove that there is plenty of substance, we, the Cruise Controllers, have compiled our top ten Cruiseiest Tom Cruise performances.
10. Lt. Pete Mitchell aka Maverick in Tony Scott”s Top Gun
“Attempting a critical Top Gun viewing in 2014 is to fight a nearly hopeless rearguard against nostalgia and ironic expectation. For starters, the bulk of the film seems comprised of archetypal 80s cinematic techniques, the first of which hits within three minutes of the opening credits: the “Introductory Montage” set to a hard-driving pop-rock hit (in this case, Loggins” immortal “Dangerzone”). Many, many more follow, from the “Homoerotic Sports Showdown” to the “Silhouetted Love Scene” (cue Berlin”s dulcet synth tones) to the transformative sea change of the “Best Friend Death.” A contemporary viewer smirks at these familiar narrative tricks, as nostalgia does battle with postmodern awareness and condescension (even as dopamine coats our gray matter in an oily, Mavericky bath). That battle is at play, too, in my estimation of Tom Cruise in the film, as the zaniness of his future seems to echo back across his past work, even as I strive to ignore it. His performance in Top Gun is workmanlike and believable, if curiously blankfaced, even a little sterile. This is not necessarily a knock against him; rather, it”s what he needed to be at the time: a kind of 80s dramatic lead ideal. With a roguish grin and magnetic intensity, pre-maniac Top Gun Cruise created an effortless brand of clean-cut seduction, becoming both sex symbol and heir apparent to the “Scrappy White Male” cinematic fantasy. I like this Cruise. If I”m honest, he charms me–even in the face of his future couch-hopping meltdowns and creepy Xenu proselytizing, I pull for Maverick without hesitation. His confidence is a force of nature, eroding resistance with a white suit, a close shave, the scent of cheap tonic. In the end, that, to me, is the most impressive thing about his Top Gun performance: its ability to make us forget (albeit briefly) the perceptual taint of Future Cruise.” – Dustin Illingworth, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
9. Vincent Lauria in Martin Scorsese”s The Color of Money
“Oh, Vincent Lauria, how I love to hate you. Let me count the ways. You wear a T-shirt with your own name on it: “VINCE.” You cannot stop from grinning before parading your unstoppable talent and charm around a pool table. You cannot put the grin away, out of good taste, like anybody else would, eventually, even while beating your helpless opponent. You just keep grinning. And you dance, first with a little half-step that suggests maybe dancing is new to you, but hell, you”re gonna give it a shot–and you like it. So you dance, and then you swing and arm your billiard stick like a bat, a sword, a pair of nunchucks. And all of this to the unfortunate tune of “Werewolves of London,” a song forever ruined for me by the movie, while a room of pool players and people just watch, which of course, ultimately includes me watching, all of us hating you even while we admire you, resulting in us all hating ourselves a little bit. The Color of Money is a great movie, not in small part because it best exemplifies the most powerful thing about Tom Cruise, his undeniable mix of smarmy overconfidence and boy-like charm, and all in the service, here, of a character that looks so much and acts so much like Tom Cruise, now and then, at the time, a young and talented upstart getting schooled and humbled by a class act elder master (and here I also mean both the character and its actor, Eddie Felsen and Paul Newman).” – Scott Cheshire, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
8. Lt. Daniel Kaffee in Rob Reiner”s A Few Good Men
“How does one possibly add more intensity to an Aaron Sorkin script? Why, add Tom Cruise, of course! A Few Good Men has long been a favorite, extra-Cruise-y movie because it hits so many of the Cruiser’s highlights: 1. The Cruise Charm: When we first meet Lt. Kaffee, he’s a lazy smooth-talker who doesn’t even want to defend his own clients. Unlike many of his fellow officers, (and as Colonel Jessup so assertively reminds him,) Kaffee has never even seen battle. He’s a total coward! Who is this leading man?! But you’ve got to admit: there’s something there. You just know there are deep fonts of truth in those eyes… 2. The Cruise Freak-Out: As Kaffee tries to uncover the truth, he is faced with the difficult reality that the bond between Marines coupled with some truly tyrannical leadership is making that task very difficult indeed. Things only get worse when the closest person Kaffee has to an eye-witness commits suicide. Kaffee loses it, gets shit-faced, and screams at his co-counsel, convinced he’s going to be court-martialed and his clients sent to prison for the rest of their lives. The stakes are simply too high! There are few actors better than Cruise at conveying such desperation and despair… 3. The Cruise Intensity: As Co-counsel Galloway (played by the equally intense Demi Moore) convinces Kaffee to make the risky move of calling the seriously intimidating Colonel Jessup to the stand, everyone’s convinced that Kaffee’s going to choke. (I mean, the way he chugs that glass of water does not really inspire great confidence.) And yet, all-of-a-sudden, that Cruise intensity turns on: eyes squint, dialogue quickens; which brings us to… 4. The Cruise Win: In what is easily my favorite Cruise quote to yell at people, Kaffee finally provokes Colonel Jessup into admitting that–spoiler alert–he ordered the torture that eventually killed PFC William Santiago (and not Kaffee’s clients, as charged). Cruise can get Jack Nicholson to lose it! A Few Good Men is such a perfect storm of Cruiseiness that it makes me beg for more Tom Cruise! I mean, I think I’m entitled…” – Ariana Lader, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
7. Dr. William Harford in Stanley Kubrick”s Eyes Wide Shut
“Tom Cruise tends to portray characters who win and know they’ll win from the get-go. He struts into frame brimming with masculine bravado. The removal of a shirt or the flashing of that knowing smile is all it takes. I’m not trying to come off as flippant here, by the way. Because there’s an admirable unorthodoxy to the approach his characters take in pursuit of victory. Their actions and thoughts lean toward one-in-a-million opportunism. They wrangle that American Dream, but do so by their own rules. You know who I’m taking about: Maverick in Top Gun, Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder, the eponymous Jerry Maguire and Jack Reacher. The list goes on. They have in common an approach to life that stylishly defies the status quo. They’re renegades, defiant and weirdly patriotic. Cruise’s acting, too, is so ridiculously natural, so lacking in discernible vulnerability that it’s impossible not to believe his character’s triumphs. But he’s at his best when he plays against this type. When doubt and fear confound him. When he’s left paralyzed by the world he thought he knew turning violently on its axis. When he loses. In Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise plays a prominent New York City doctor, and the proceedings start off familiarly. Dr. Bill Harford, dressed to the nines, searches his big apartment for his wallet. Shostakovich’s “Waltz 2″ plays on a CD player. His elegant wife, Alice, asks him how she looks. “Perfect,” he says. He has his American Dream and steadfastly believes in the roles he and Alice, a former art curator, play in sustaining it. However, during a pot-fueled conversation after a Christmas party, Bill learns of Alice’s desire to give up everything for one night of passionate adultery. Her candor shakes his values to their core and leads him down a rabbit hole of carnal curiosities. He nearly has sex with a prostitute. Afterward, an old friend tells him the address to a mysterious mansion and the password needed for entry. He rents a cloak and mask at a local costume shop. While there, he witnesses the shop owner’s underage daughter engaged in a threesome. At the mansion a ritualistic orgy ensues. Bill proves to be an unwanted guest, and one of the prostitutes working the event seemingly gives up her life to save his. He’s set free, but questions linger in his mind. Most importantly, when did all of NYC apparently risk everything for pleasure? It’s a question he can’t answer though, and Bill reacts with bewilderment toward his traditionalist confinement. He’s in that debilitating position of doubting every choice he’s ever made, every belief held as truth. Dr. Harford is a role that shakes the foundation many of Cruise’s other characters built their successes on, and, frankly, it’s a performance topped only by his other against-type performance from 1999: in P.T. Anderson”s Magnolia.” – Matthew Cabe, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
6. David Aames in Cameron Crowe”s Vanilla Sky
“In 2001, Tom Cruise acted in Cameron Crowe”s Vanilla Sky, which I would argue is one of the greatest and most underrated movies of the decade. At the time of its release, the film was not received well. It seems many audience members were hoping for something more in tone with Crowe and Cruise”s previous collaboration, Jerry Maguire. Instead, they got a psychological thriller that is as suspenseful as it is emotional. As a remake of the 1997 foreign film Abre Los Ojos, most of Vanilla Sky“s plot remains true to the original; however, Crowe paints an even more visually stunning version of the story. Not only that, but Tom Cruise delivers one of his better performances as David Ames, a selfish egomaniac who, despite having everything he could possibly want, desires more. Vanilla Sky nearly turns into an action movie–a genre Cruise is clearly capable of and comfortable in–but then takes a turn and careens into an artful dissection of the question “what is reality?” At times, this Cruise-y cautionary tale gains the gravitas of a Greek tragedy. Cruise”s character spirals downward into the rabbit hole, and through his eyes the audience comes to terms with their own humanity, debates their own reality. It”s a film about everything: about vanity, greed, lust, suffering, friendship, and, most importantly, love. It”s a profoundly deep art film dressed up in the snazzy clothes of a major studio feature with a superstar actor.” – Erik Rechsteiner, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
5. Charlie Babbitt in Barry Levinson”s Rain Man
“Tom Cruise”s role as a quintessential jerk-of-a-1980s-yuppie Charlie Babbitt (who, following his father”s death, is left to care for the autistic brother he never knew to try to secure a large inheritance) absolutely TYPIFIES the actor”s longstanding, trademark audience appeal. This perennial likeability, which I”ve named–and coined–UltraCruiseControl, rests in Cruise”s balance of intensity, emotional vulnerability, immersive performance (with just the right amount of Ray-Ban sporting and megawatt dental enhancement). In all seriousness, Rain Man continued the tradition of Cruise”s work with older, more venerated actors that he began with his work with Paul Newman in The Color of Money. Cruise”s support of subtly superb lead Dustin Hoffman (who won an Oscar for his portrayal of autistic savant Raymond Babbitt) demonstrated that TC could more than hold his own against another respected dramatic actor following his A-list turn in Top Gun. The story of a selfish, narcissistic individual who grows to care for a more outwardly vulnerable person was not new in 1988, when the film was released. However, it says something about a familiar story told extremely well that such a simple, familiar turn-of-events can win four Academy Awards and multiple critics awards (Cruise himself won a Kansas City Critics Circle award for his work). If we are to use the character of Charlie Babbitt as a meta-template for how Cruise has maintained such a presence in global pop culture, despite rumors of his own narcissism and bizarre personal life, then we can see how someone who has displayed some questionable or unappealing personal characteristic manages to skillfully charm and draw us in a very genuine, visceral way after 40+ years. It”s UltraCruiseControl (patent pending) in full effect…” – Randall Winston, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
4. Sgt. Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone”s Born on the Fourth of July
“Tom Cruise gives one of his first “serious” performances as former Marine and anti-war activist Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Adapted from Kovic’s caustic memoir of the same name, Cruise excels in capturing Kovic’s mercurial journey from idealistic, white-bread-eating Catholic boy to jaded paraplegic Vietnam vet to righteous anti-war crusader, allowing him to snag his first Oscar nomination that year. Always the reluctant Brat Packer, Cruise certainly waded through risky territory in accepting a role like Kovic, considering the film’s frank portrayal of war (the polar opposite of the bellicose Top Gun). Cruise’s matinee idol good looks might have helped get the film made, but he’s certainly not very likeable for a large chunk of it. There is perhaps a bit too much male self-pity in the film (the nightmarish brothel scenes in Mexico come to mind), but they are redeemed by powerful moments where Cruise bitterly denounces the anodyne American values he was taught in an argument with his mother or towards the film’s conclusion where he makes amends to the family of a fellow Marine he accidentally killed during the fog of war. Cruise’s Kovic is as vulnerable, sincere, and inspiring as he is bitter and filled with self-loathing. Born is not without its flaws of course. The film psychologizes Kovic’s relationship with his mother and its relation to American values far too much. It also perpetuates the American “Expulsion from Paradise” narrative now clichéd in any artistic portrayal or historical retelling of the Vietnam war. Worst of all, as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has pointed out, the film offers a falsely uplifting finale that papers over the hardships of political activism. Still, seeing a major Hollywood production not shy away from America’s role in the murder of innocent Vietnamese civilians (as graphically portrayed in the film) is something to commend in our post-9/11 era. Hollywood no longer has the moral courage to make a film like Born. We are so perpetually stuck as a society endlessly “thanking the troops for their service” (a euphemism if there ever was one) that we now lack the clarity to even remotely question, let alone attack, war and our military-industrial complex. I am not even sure Cruise would allow himself to star in a film that pointedly attacks American foreign policy (The Last Samurai sorta?). These days he is too busy fighting convenient enemies like space aliens, Nazis, and Suppressive Persons. For this reason, Born on the Fourth of July is worth (re)viewing.” – Anthony Volpe, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
3. Jerry Maguire in Cameron Crowe”s Jerry Maguire
“Expressing any affinity for the oeuvre of Cameron Crowe automatically puts one on the defensive. The current antihero vogue of the Breaking Bad persuasion paints his optimistic valentines to the ecstasy of innocence as saccharine machinations of unreality. Crowe’s characters themselves exemplify parables in learned humility and surrendered egoism–unsurprisingly, they don’t exactly translate in a loud, cacophonous age of combativeness–and the eponymous Jerry Maguire is the Crowean moral protagonist par excellence. In one of his most iconic yet personal roles, Tom Cruise stars as Maguire, a shiny, bombastic sports agent who, after an epiphany of moral failure, attempts to rewrite the philosophy and practice of both his industry and his personal life. Mostly though, it’s a film about the gravity and wonder of personal relationships. On the surface, Jerry Maguire’s plentiful catchphrases have made it almost a parody of itself, but it’s truly a beautiful movie. In one famous (perhaps infamous) scene, Jerry walks into a room of arguing middle-aged women, and over the clamor interjects: “Hello? Hello? I’m looking for my wife.” Silence. What follows is the “You complete me/You had me at hello” speech, but this first line is the best. A soft but resolute voice looking for connection–just one connection of love–in a sea of discord epitomizes the struggle that Cruise and Crowe illuminate throughout the film. “We live in a cynical world. A cynical, cynical world” laments a teary-eyed Cruise as he continues, and one can’t help but feel Jerry Maguire is a meta-journey for Cruise himself: an entangled, existential reckoning of both the smug sports agent and the cocksure, explosive Hollywood megastar himself. Whether one thinks Tom Cruise himself took this lesson to heart and carried it with him down the road is irrelevant. Jerry Maguire remains Cruise’s most sincere performance to date, one in which we experience both actor and character as a specimen of utter vulnerability.” – Alex Bacha, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
2. Ethan Hunt & Various Aliases in the Mission: Impossible Franchise (Brian De Palma”s Mission: Impossible, John Woo”s Mission: Impossible II, J.J. Abrams” Mission: Impossible III, and Brad Bird”s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol)
“If Tom Cruise’s essence was to be distilled and bottled, and the aroma of that essence was to be described by a single film or film franchise, it would be that of Mission: Impossible. Tom Cruise is Ethan Hunt, and Ethan Hunt is Tom Cruise. Cruise is one of those “True Movie Stars” who can never really escape himself; he is always Tom Cruise as Tom Cruise in any particular role. But the Mission: Impossible franchise gives him the platform to do just that. Cruise is free to be himself, playing the role of Ethan Hunt: a man playing endless roles, and outsmarting that nameless “them,” outsmarting himself, and forever entertaining audiences. Few can say that the Mission: Impossible movies fail to captivate our simplest, basest film-going desires (except perhaps for the second one). Global nuclear war! Deadly viruses! Arms dealers! Government secrets! Explosions! Leaping away from those explosions! No one can save the world but Tom Cruise. We don’t even care that we are just watching Tom Cruise be Tom Cruise. And perhaps that is the mark of a “True Movie Star”; while a lesser fellow could be caught up in and ultimately overtaken by his characters, or by the very “art” of acting, we are all wholeheartedly content to just sit back and revel in Cruise as himself, playing pretend for us and our amusement. And he’s damn good at it.” - Rachael Bacha, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
1. Frank T.J. Mackey aka Jack Partridge in Paul Thomas Anderson”s Magnolia
“The cocksure Cruise is perhaps the actor”s most famous and most utilized mode, but as others in this top ten have pointed out, many of Tom Cruise”s best performances allow him to show some vulnerability behind his typical overconfident exterior. These roles often play against the cocksure Cruise stereotype; they show him not as enviable winner of the American Dream, but broken dreamer whose carefully crafted reality is bursting at the seams. The tension between these two modes is what makes his oeuvre work so well. Just when you start to assume Top Gun“s jingoistic G.I.-Joe-in-a-fighter-jet Maverick is the prototypical Cruise, the actor takes on the role of Vietnam vet and war critic Ron Kovic, the anti-Maverick. A decade later, he dons a mask and cape not to become a superhero and out-cocksure and out-Cruise his iconic turn as action hero Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, but to become a broken husband reassessing his entire relationship to sex in the wake of an awkward pot-fuelled confession from his wife in Stanley Kubrick”s final film Eyes Wide Shut. And there is no greater individual example of the strained fusion of the two Cruises–the one that plays to the cocksure stereotype and the one that undermines that very stereotype through vulnerability–than Frank T.J. Mackey in P.T. Anderson”s Magnolia. Not only does the film perfectly reflect the competing trends in Cruise”s career, but it amplifies both Cruise-Jekyll and Cruise-Hyde, giving him his most cocksure character who also happens to become his most vulnerable character by the time he sits by his father”s bedside in the final act of the film. As his biographer Amy Nicholson points out, “The personal parallels between [Cruise] and Mackey were closer than he cared to admit.” She details how Cruise”s strained relationship with his father parallels Mackey”s at several points. It”s presumably this connection that allows Cruise to tap into something deeper than he ever had before or ever has since. When we first see Cruise as Mackey in Magnolia, it”s through his infomercial, where he claims to be a “master of the muffin” and attempts to coax us into calling 1-877-TAME-HER to turn our “lady friend into a sex-starved servant.” When we meet the man in person, a few scenes later, he”s on stage, backlit, being cheered, and raising his arms into a flexing Superman pose, all set to the triumphant music of Strauss” “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (also famously used in Kubrick”s 2001). He then proceeds to give his “inspirational” speech on how to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” If this isn”t cocksure Cruise turned up to 11, then I can”t even imagine what would be. When the seminar he”s giving goes on a break, he meets with an interviewer named Gwenovier (played by the great April Grace). It”s this scene that allows us to see the seesaw of Cruise extremes. He walks into the interview as confident as an ape, half-naked, beating his chest. At first, she flirts and plays into his game, but soon she”s wrestled control of the conversation, forcing him to confront his distortions of reality, and Mackey”s confidence melts into indignant childish silence. Watching her break down Mackey is to sit through one of cinema”s most uncomfortable scenes, but to be mesmerized through the discomfort. Cruise instills his machismo Mackey with just enough fragility to make him compelling as a character. This vulnerability grows, and when we finally reach the bedside scene between Mackey and his dying father, we don”t see cocksure Cruise at all, we see a broken man, and we can”t help but feel sympathy. No matter how much of a disgusting pig we know the character is, we feel for him. That”s Cruise”s true talent. Even through the lathered-on charm, the off-putting smirks, the smarmy self-confidence, he is able to instill in his characters a likeability (through just enough vulnerability, flaws, truth) to the point that we can”t help but sympathize with human beings we”d otherwise want to punch in the face or kick in the groin. And it is in the humble opinion of this writer that this is not just “something that happens,” this cannot be “one of those things…” No, this is the work of a master class actor.” - Tyler Malone, Lifetime Cruise Enthusiast
The members of the Cruise Controllers are a group of film fans who love all that is Tom Cruise. The group consists of Tyler Malone, Scott Cheshire, Dustin Illingworth, Anthony Volpe, Alex Bacha, Shea Formaneck, Kelsey Malone, Caitlin Cutt, Conor Higgins, Artie Moreno, Randall Winston, Rachael Bacha, Andy Neltare, Ariana Lader, Taylor Zahn, Matthew Cabe, Ben Steinberg, Erik Rechsteiner, Jeff Malone, and Liz Malone.
Written and Compiled by the Members of the Cruise Controllers
Photography Courtesy of New Line Cinema
Design by Francesca Rimi
Film Still from Magnolia, Photography Courtesy of New Line Cinema