By Amy Nicholson
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By Alan Scherstuhl
For two decades, Cruise had tried to keep the spotlight on his work. Now it was fixated on him. Even the old guard — after years of chafing under his publicity restrictions, and finally freed from the need to appease the powerful Pat Kingsley — happily spun everything to fit the new narrative: Cruise was crazy.
Guided by his sister's inexperienced hand, Cruise could only oblige, proposing to Katie Holmes and then debating the use of antidepressants (which Scientology opposes), specifically by a postpartum Brooke Shields, on The Today Show with Matt Lauer.
Kingsley never would have let the Today footage air. But Kingsley wasn't there. "Afterward, I remember the PR people coming in and saying, 'Well, none of that stuff on Scientology and Brooke Shields, that's not going to be on the air,'" says Jim Bell, who at the time was executive producer of Today. "I started laughing and I said, 'That's probably going to be on a promo in about 30 minutes. It's going to be airing in a loop.'"
Cruise hadn't hurt his box-office draw — his movies continued to be successful. But Hollywood was convinced he was poison, a religious fanatic, and possibly unhinged. Three months later, Paramount boss Sumner Redstone, who had partnered with Cruise's production company for 14 years, succumbed to the bad publicity and ended their professional relationship.
"His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount," Redstone told the press. "It's nothing to do with his acting ability — he's a terrific actor. But we don't think that someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot." In the six years before, Cruise's movies had made 32 percent of Paramount's revenue.
The Internet told us Tom Cruise killed Oprah. The truth is the Internet tried to kill him.
Today, when even ABCNews.com runs "5 Things to Know About George Clooney's Fiancée Amal Alamuddin," it's hard to remember that just nine years ago, the worlds of tabloid and legitimate journalism were more sharply defined. In turn, we've become more cynical about click-baiting headlines, even as celebrities have figured out the new rules. After the summer of Cruise and the couch, celebrities go on network TV fully aware that anything they say could go viral. Actors weaned on the web can wield it to their advantage: Think Emma Stone lip-synching on Jimmy Fallon.
Today's Internet-driven media culture isn't necessarily worse than the one run by the big, boring conglomerates Pat Kingsley expertly controlled. Even Cruise has figured out how to navigate the new playing field.
But the lesson came at a cost.
Building up to 2005, Cruise had tackled some of the most challenging dramas of any actor of his generation: Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Vanilla Sky. Even his popcorn flicks — Minority Report, Collateral, War of the Worlds — were intriguingly dark. He'd never played it safe or shot a cash-grab. He trusted that if he chose movies he believed in, the audience would follow.
Post-2005, we've lost out on the audacious films that only Hollywood's most powerful and consistent star could have convinced studios to green-light. Cruise was in his mid-forties prime — the same years when Newman made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting — and here he was lying low. Imagine the daring roles he hasn't dared to pursue. Cruise's talent and clout were responsible for an unparalleled string of critical and commercial hits. We gave that up for a GIF.
Like an insistent heart monitor, the box-office numbers continually prove Cruise is alive, but even he seems to have been convinced of his own premature demise. He'd finally opened up and been harshly punished. When Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol was deemed his comeback (not that he'd ever made a flop; even Knight & Day earned its money back), he decided audiences wanted only one version of Tom Cruise: the action hero he'd never wanted to become. He has even said yes to Top Gun 2.
Cruise's present-day, crowd-pleasing action crutch hasn't been bad. He has given every film his all, and some of them have been quite good.
His latest, Edge of Tomorrow, is ambitious fun. Cruise plays Lt. Col. Bill Cage, a smooth-talking, cowardly army recruiter forced to fight on the front lines of mankind's make-or-break battle against alien species the Mimics. No one expects him to live more than a few minutes. And he doesn't.
But Edge of Tomorrow's high-concept twist is that, to his surprise, every time Cruise is killed, time resets and he wakes up the day before the battle, alive and eager to try again until he gets it right. It's an energetic blockbuster that balances Wile E. Coyote cartoon hijinks with his painful, unending martyrdom. It's also a nifty parallel to Cruise himself: the last great screen hero who refuses to die.
It won't earn him an Academy Award, but maybe he still has time. After all, Newman won his Oscar at 61.
Amy Nicholson is the chief film critic at LA Weekly. Her book Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor will be published in July by Cahiers du Cinema/Phaidon Press.
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