The film we watched was Interview with the Vampire, and it got us talking about Tom Cruise’s performance. It was treated with skepticism and distain when he was first announced as the man to play Lestat, which gave way to cautious acceptance and not much more. Looking at the movie again, the choice feels inspired. Lestat, after all, was a rock star in the books – quite literally – and the kind of swagger and ego required to play the character demanded someone who knew first-hand what it was like to be in that position. Cruise was the biggest star in the world at the time, someone used to that kind of attention and even adulating in it. Who better to bring Anne Rice’s beloved bad boy to life? The blonde hair looked a little off and there’s a certain mannered quality to his delivery, but the stuff you can’t see – the self-confidence, the cock-of-the-walk strut – no one else could have done that. An unknown actor wouldn’t have known the feeling of the limelight (see Townsend, Stuart), and no other star of his caliber could even approach the part (could you imagine Brad Pitt trying to fight his way through it?) He was perfect, and his performance actually feels like a high point of a very long and storied career.
That itself beggars another question, one which my wife and I are still debating with a little help from friends on Facebook. In the past thirty years, no one has approached Cruise in terms of general movie-star-ness. After The Unfortunate Oprah’s Couch incident, he was deemed box office poison… except the film that he was pushing, War of the Worlds remains his highest grossing film of all time domestically, and his follow-up Mission Impossible III, still pulled in almost $400 million worldwide. His “fall” marked a general decline in star power at the box office overall, and with the last Mission Impossible movie scoring big this summer, it’s safe to say that reports of his career death have been greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, there aren’t many stars – and almost none in the modern era – who can match his performance in terms of grosses. If we apply a basic formula for financial success: say a film that grosses more than $20 more domestically than its stated cost – then he has 18 films certified as blockbusters: The 5 Mission: Impossible movies, Risky Business, Top Gun , Rain Man, The Firm, Jerry Maguire, A Few Good Men, Interview, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Collateral, Jack Reacher (yes, really), Vanilla Sky and Tropic Thunder (though the last, admittedly, was a supporting turn).
Compare that to the other stars of his height. Will Smith doesn’t have as many films that make that list. Neither does Eddie Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Robert Downey, Jr. Harrison Ford falls far short, and his hits are concentrated in the Han/Indy/Jack Ryan trifecta. Samuel L. Jackson has more, but many of those are either Star Wars prequels or some flavor of Marvel movie – and as great as he is there, people wouldn’t have stayed away were he not present. Ditto Morgan Freeman, whose films have grossed more, but how often acts as part of an ensemble rather than a stand-alone reason to tune in. Only Tom Hanks can match him, and Hank’s hits fall more into the rom-com formula or historical dramas: $40 million-$45 million pictures instead of the nine-digit blockbusters that Cruise was once known for.
And yet he’s still considered a has-been, wounded by revelations about his Scientology connections and the general spook-the-herd mishigoths of the summer of 2005. But that was 10 years ago, and he’s still bobbing and weaving. The measuring stick is difficult to gauge the way the movie business works, but his record is tough to top… edging into the likes of Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart on the list of all-time movie stars.
That may be a fading commodity in our media saturated world, where every new batch of YouTube videos produces a new celebrity, and reality TV is glutted with flavor-of-the-month names. He may be the last of his kind: the last movie star in the old-school tradition, when we expected glamor from the silver screen and the right name was enough to get us into the theater on its virtue alone. Where Cruise goes from here is unknown, and maybe his slide into oblivion will begin one day. When it does, it will constitute the passing of an era, and we may look back at that weirdo Scientologist with a lot more affection than we might have once thought possible.
Thanks to the gang on Facebook for all their insight and observations.