Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Praise of Tom Cruise


Everything you hate about Tom Cruise is none of your business. And none of it matters.
Sorry, but it’s true. He belongs to a bizarre religion, but any religion looks bizarre from the outside.  Christianity has a guy walking on water, a God who turns disobedient woman into salt-lick, and a talking snake. So – cast not the first stone. 
You think you know Tom Cruise, but you don’t.  You don’t know Jennifer Anniston or Cee-Lo or Jay Z either. None of us knew Tony Scott, and none of us know why he killed himself. He left a note and we’re never going to see it. At least I hope we aren’t. It’s none of our business.  We do know that Tom cruise was a good friend of his and we have a lot of anecdotal anecdotal evidence that Tom Cruise is a good friend to have. He helps his friends. He helps total strangers. He has more energy than most people and he seems to divert it into good directions. He works hard. We know that, too. It’s obvious. He’s fifty, with the physique of a thirty year old. That’s not liposuction and trick photography. That’s hard work.
He was a gentleman about his recent divorce – he didn’t contest it. He took it like a man and moved on. Was he a bad husband or a controlling religious demagogue? We don’t know. Was his marriage some kind of cynical deal? Was Katie Ho0lmes just a ‘beard’ to cover his homosexuality? Is he gay? It’s none of our business. I don’t give a shit and neither should you. We don’t have to marry him or sleep with him or bear his children. We don’t have to go out to dinner with him or even make small talk with him at Hollywood parties. That’s not the role he plays in our lives.
He never asked us to live vicariously through him. He never invited our speculations and our judgments – unless you think that simply putting yourself in the public eye creates that dark contract.  Marcel Proust famously said “Beauty is permission.” It was not one of his finer moments, but he would certainly agree with the army of tabloid writers and paparazzi who have dogged Tom Cruise and his colleagues over the last twenty years, that fame is permission. Let’s face it – there’s money to be made nosing through the trash bins of the celebrated. Jackals never go hungry.
But we don’t have to involve ourselves in that cynical predatory circus. Don’t read the creepy articles festooning the supermarket check-out (How many times can Brad and Angelina break up, anyway?); don’t watch the sleazy shows; avoid the drooling web-sites. Think about your own life and leave Tom Cruise alone.
Well – not quite alone. Go to his movies and enjoy them. They’re enjoyable. He’s made occasional forays into dramatic acting – Jerry Maguire,  Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July, Interview with the Vampire and Rain Man among them. Even Anne Rice had to admit he was brilliant as Lestat, going so far as to retract an embarassing screed she had published in the L.A. Times dismissing him. Jerry Maguire was a masterpiece, a wonderful film that required him to emboidy a complex, ambitious, idealistic character and he rose to the occasion superbly. Just the silent home movies that revealed Jerry’s  tragic discomfort with his own marriage deserved an Oscar. But I’m not even talking about that stuff. Other people could have played Charlie Babbitt in Rain Man (Keanu Reeves? Billy Crudup? Jason Lee?). Tom Hanks was on the short list for Jerry Maguire. Russell Crowe could have pulled off Ron Kovic or the manhood guru Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia  -- so could  Woody Harrelson.
Still, Cruise is committed, whether he’s mixing the drinks in Cocktail or doing his own singing in Rock of Ages. He put on a fat suit and danced in Tropic Thunder. He was hilarious. The film was considered a ‘comeback’ after all his embarrassing behavior. He shouldn’t have jumped on Oprah’s couch or berated Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressives. He made mistakes and annoyed people. Woody Harrelson and Tom Hanks and Matt Damon are far more circumspect, with much better publicists (Cruise had just fired his).
But here’s what Woody Harrelson and Tom Hanks and even Matt Damon can’t do: they can’t climb the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – the world’s tallest building, by the way -- or launch themselves off a Shanghai rooftop. Cruise does his own stunts – no one else does, except Jackie Chan and he’s more or less retired now.  Cruise is crazed and obsessed and fearless and that’s just the way I like him.
Yes, he had digitally erased cables on him when he was scrambling around  2,700 up on that Arab hotel. But cables break, connections snap, harnesses slip. Would you rappel down the glass face of a sky scraper, holding on to a firehose, with a cable attached to you?
No, you wouldn’t. Neither would I. Neither would Matt Damon. None of us are fearless crazy or obsessed enough. Cruise did his own driving on Days of Thunder – working with Tony Scott . He did his own fighting in Knight and Day … and Collateral and all four Mission Impossible films. He learned Japanese sword fighting the hard way for The Last Samurai. We watched it happen on screen.
His scenes don’t require the elaborate jump-cut trick photography that allow Matt Damon to fake it as Jason Bourne. Cruise is an actual action hero, an American icon of single minded dauntless ingenuity and grace under fire. When he loops his belt around and electric cable and leaps off a Moscow ledge in Ghost Protocol , sliding down the wire and leaping to the roof of a bus then bouncing in an acrobat’s roll to the street below, we believe he did because we know he did it, because he actually did it. Probably several times, to make sure he did it right.
He’s a perfectionist, too.
This gives the action sequences in his films a unique excitement. They generate real suspense, even though the rational side of your brain knows that nothing bad is going to happen to the star of the franchise. When a helicopter blows up in a train tunnel (don’t ask) in the first Mission Impossible movie, you know that of all the people clinging to the hapless machine, only the ones with no monetary value in the world film market are going to die. But the fact remains: Cruise was really hanging onto that helicopter.
Maybe it’s no big deal. What’s a big summer explosion fest, anyway? Just one of several ways to while away a hot evening in the air conditioning. An excuse to eat candy bars and big bags of pop-corn in the dark. What could be more disposable? And they cost so much to make. But as Steven Spielberg (who directed Cruise in Minority Report) pointed out, the real question isn’t “Was that movie worth a hundred million dollars?” The real question is – "Was it worth the ten dollars you paid for it?"
And Cruise, above and beyond everything else, always gives full value for your ticket price. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but most big action stars just don’t and their movies, with stars as diverse as Angeline Jolie (Salt, Tomb Raider)  and Sylvester Stallone (The later Rambo movies, The Expendables movies) so often disappoint us.Guilty pleasure or not, some of us love those movies and  we get a visceral satisfaction from seeing them done right.
That’s why I was pleased to hear that Cruise is going to be playing Jack Reacher, even though Lee Child’s creation has eighty pounds and at least eight inches on him. Cruise makes up for his size with sheer intensity. Lee Child understands that – you won’t see him making a fool of himself the way Anne Rice did. He wanted the best for his character and he got it.
Cruise is simply the best at this peculiar thing, this bizarre profession of action movie star. If Scientology keeps him fit, let him study Xenu, if  clearing his body of Thetans helps him concentrate, more power to him.  I don’t care about the details and neither should you. Leave him alone, give yourself a vacation from judging the behavior of total strangers, and let the crazy guy ply his crazy trade. There’s a lot to be said for crazy, at least when it stays up on the screen.
 Glamor is a function of distance. Let’s keep ours – the way we did in the old days when no one knew that Rock Hudson was gay and William Holden was a drunk. Ignorance is bliss, and so is silence when we turn down the corrupt hiss and crackle of the modern media machine – the cultural leaf blower that scatters information without purpose or perspective.
Tom Cruise movies are electric, big spirited boisterous authentic fun. And that’s good enough for me.

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