Ghost In The Machine

Film still for Ghost In The Machine

For most of his mercurial career, Tom Cruise has been a star of contradictions. As Mission: Impossible II confirms his number one status, is the real Tom becoming more virtual than CGI, wonders Manohla Dargis

In the first few minutes of his new film Mission: Impossible II, Tom Cruise is scaling a mountain, the red mesas and time-blasted gorges of south-eastern Utah spread out below him. It's a breathtaking, vaguely surreal tableau, as much for the natural vista as for the supple, muscular body in perilous motion. As Cruise leaps from crag to cliff, though, pausing to dangle from a precipice by one hand, you begin to search for evidence - a smear of pixels, some digital artefacts - that the whole thing is merely a special-effects feint, a blue-screen deception to sucker us into the fiction that's just begun. But as the camera darts around him like a hummingbird, continually closing in then pulling back, it becomes startlingly clear that the climbing enthusiast, racecar driver, parachute jumper and world's most famous movie star is literally hanging by his fingertips, white-knuckling it himself from one fissure to the next.

Much has been made in the entertainment press and by the movie's public-relations engine of the fact that Cruise performed many of his own stunts; in the rock-climbing sequence, only a thin safety cable comes between him and a 2,000-foot drop. And it's no wonder - the climbing scene is spectacular, both in its panoramic beauty and, far more important, in the audience's shivery thrill of recognition that it's the star himself, Tom Terrific, hanging off the edge, risking his death for our delight. In the age of the digital, this sort of flamboyant stuntwork might seem anachronistic, even foolish, one more instance of star vanity run luridly amok. But Cruise's physical daring is necessary precisely because digital effects have become so persuasive. In the age of virtual reproduction, the star body has become the test bed of authenticity, the last stand of the real.

Stardom, like the movies themselves, depends on standardisation and differentiation, imperatives that explain why the careers of most successful stars follow an unavoidably predictable trajectory. The star persona depends on coherence, a neat fit between who we think the star is and the roles he or she assumes, which is why it was easier for Julia Roberts to persuade us she was Erin Brockovich than Mary Reilly. (Good writing and direction can help, though not always.) For action stars, in particular, predictability can seem as fundamental to the rigid action formula as the third-act blowout. "I will not change," Arnold Schwarzenegger said in 1993, right before the release of Last Action Hero. "Because when you are successful and you change, you are an idiot." (From Last Action Hero, of course, it's also possible to conclude that it's precisely when a star doesn't change enough that he seems most idiotic, such being an indispensable lesson of stardom.)

"There is a rhetoric of sincerity or authenticity," Richard Dyer writes in Heavenly Bodies, "two qualities greatly prized in stars because they guarantee, respectively, that the star really means what he or she says, and the star really is what she or he appears to be." One reason why the movie Mary Reilly is thought to have failed is that audiences found it impossible to buy their pretty woman as a 19th-century mousy Irish maid; the contradictions between the star's image and the performance were too vast. The failure of Last Action Hero was more complex, involving the turmoil of its releasing studio among other disasters, but in making fun of his own he-man iconography, by joining in on the joke he himself had become, Schwarzenegger let the mask of authenticity slip too far. It's one thing, after all, for us to laugh at the star even as we thrill to his exploits; it's quite another for the star to throw our laughter, our pleasures, back at us.

At first glance, no star persona comes across as more coherent than that of Tom Cruise, whose conventional write-up is as a bland white guy with a killer smile, a killer body and killer business acumen. But Cruise's career has been rife with contradictions from the start, and it's arguable that, more than that of any other contemporary movie star, his on-screen persona depends more on contradiction than coherence. In some instances his roles have seemed purposely to contradict one another; at other times they've served as something of a meta-commentary on the star's own off-screen narrative. Long after his movies have left the theatres, certain of Cruise's roles have clung to him like dust - the flyboy from Top Gun, the lock-jaw lawyer from A Few Good Men - roles that have enforced a sense of him as a consummately ordinary, hard-working guy with that little, indefinable something special. We are always looking for that something special, and because we invariably find it with Cruise (indeed his stardom depends on us doing so), we think we have our proof. Although proof of what, we may not necessarily be certain.

The smile is born in 1983. Risky Business is Cruise's first hit, a Reagan-era satire and, despite studio meddling, a defining movie of the early 80s. In the Paul Brickman film Cruise plays a high-school junior, Joel Goodson, whose parents have gone off on vacation leaving him home alone. School and sex are his obsessions, and it's in the tension between getting laid and getting into college that the story unfolds. Joel is the quintessential boy next door, only better looking, but with his parents away he shucks responsibility and follows his libido to its conclusion: he hooks up with a prostitute (Rebecca De Mornay) and turns the family home into a whorehouse. It's ridiculous and funny (and probably a dream), but it's never offensive because Cruise's charm cancels out the story's sleaziness. The satire is contingent on his character's innocence, which is why Brickman so quickly strips Cruise down to his socks, shirt and BVDs, turning his young star into the film's least likely pin-up. Loaded on scotch, Joel dances and grinds around his living room, tuned into and turned on by Bob Seger's 'Old Time Rock and Roll'. It's a carnal, intensely physical performance, and as the 21-year-old Cruise wags his ass, humps a sofa and rotates a fire poker off his crotch, he becomes every teenager who is suddenly possessed, then delivered, by his own erotic potential.

Cruise had smiled before on screen, in a hapless teen comedy called Losin' It directed by Curtis Hanson and also released in 1983, but neither critics nor audiences had returned the favour. Brickman's comedy was the first time the smile began to define the actor, to brand him. In Risky Business the smile opens tentatively, breaking into bloom only when Joel assumes the role of pimp-salesman and starts trolling for clients, dressed in sunglasses, tweed jacket and t-shirt, a cigarette pendulant from his lower lip. The smile reaches full flower when an entrance examiner, having unexpectedly arrived at Joel's house while it's jammed with prostitutes and horny boys, tells Joel that his grades, and by extension he himself, don't make the Ivy League cut. Joel slips on his sunglasses and, shrugging off Princeton for the go-go capitalist future ahead (it's the actor's first show-me-the-money moment), he spreads open a smile. It's a monster. Stretching wide across the bottom of his face, the smile threatens to swallow Cruise up. Over time, in movies such as Top Gun and Cocktail, it almost does.

During the 80s the smile would become Cruise's signature, his trademark. As with Julia Roberts, it became synonymous with sex and box-office appeal. It defined Cruise's burgeoning star persona as pleasant, extroverted, open, friendly, neither overly macho nor aggressive, and, crucially, as someone to whom all things came naturally. It was the easy-does-it, no-problem grin, a smile without fangs or irony. In his Biographical Dictionary critic David Thomson favourably compares Cruise to Clark Gable, writing that Cruise "has shown a range as an actor, and a willingness, that are impressive." Although Thomson refers to Cruise's smile only in passing, it almost goes without saying that what also connects Cruise to Gable, besides range and willingness, are a mouth crammed with big white American teeth and a genius for turning a simple human reflex into an epic of conquest and seduction. It was that smile, as much as the Bruckheimer-Simpson high-concept formula and all its attendant heavy metal, that turned Top Gun into a smash and Cruise into a superstar, a pin-up, an icon.

The smile made it look easy, but Cruise was always working. In 1985-86, the year he became a genuine star, the year in which he appeared in Ridley Scott's Legend, Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money and Tony Scott's Top Gun, Cruise told interviewer Cameron Crowe: "Discipline is very important to me." While the discipline and hard work were also becoming part of the mystique, a tough-guy corrective to the smile's softer pleasures, throughout most of the 80s the essential Cruise remained the guy who grinned from an F-14 cockpit and laughed his way around a pool table. The smile kept glowing until 1988 and Cocktail when all of a sudden it seemed wrong, a sign of Cruise's superficiality and the yuppie-scum arrogance he signalled. For six years he turned down the high beam. For better and for worse, critically and commercially, he starred in movies that proved just how serious he could be: Rain Man (Dustin Hoffman and autism, 1988), Born on the Fourth of July (Oliver Stone and war, 1989), Days of Thunder (Robert Towne and racing, 1990), A Few Good Men (Jack Nicholson and murder, 1992), Far and Away (Nicole Kidman and expatriation, 1992), and, lastly, The Firm (Sydney Pollack and more murder, 1993).

Nearly as loathed as Top Gun, Born on the Fourth of July is about a lot of things, including its director's hubris, but its fundamental subject is masculinity, including that of its star. Based on the memoirs of Vietnam veteran and anti-war activist Ron Kovic, the film uses John Wayne as a metaphor for the sort of patriarchal horror that ultimately led to Kovic returning from war in a wheelchair, paralysed from the waist down. Cruise had never before taken a role that so strongly contradicted his image as the ultimate specimen of American health and corporal vitality; paradoxically, the part and its intense physical restrictions seemed to liberate and embolden him as a performer. After playing a man robbed of his masculine privilege ("penis, penis, penis!"), and forced to discover another way of being a man in the world, Cruise himself irrevocably changed course. Although he immediately followed the film with the testosterone-charged Days of Thunder, many of the movies in which he would subsequently star would continue to push him further and further away from the breezily facile macho personality he had patented in Top Gun.

By the time Cruise's smile reappeared it had sprouted fangs. In 1994 he starred as Lestat in Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, Neil Jordan's version of the Anne Rice bestseller. The film did nothing to advance Cruise's critical reputation, but it inspired a frenzy of speculation about his sexual identity. To an extent, the gossip was spurred by the film itself, a period piece in which the star wore his hair blond and sunk his teeth into Brad Pitt's reluctant vampire. But an obsession with Cruise's sexuality had long preceded the film, and in Hollywood it had reached the level of near urban myth. The fascination sprang less from any nominal 'truth' about Cruise himself than from the truth presented in Cruise's roles, which conspire to create an unusually complex masculine identity. In his first few movies Cruise had been a veritable Village People of one. In Endless Love, the first film in which he was cast, Franco Zeffirelli dressed the 19-year-old in jeans cut-offs split up the thigh and had him peel off his shirt, his arched back to the camera. In Taps (1981) Cruise's soldier boy curled weights half-dressed; in All the Right Moves (1983) his varsity football player began the day by posing next to a window only in briefs.

Cruise's body quickly transformed into a lucrative spectacle of desire. Around the time Top Gun was in pre-production, producer Don Simpson was unabashed about his reasons for wanting to shoot a locker-room scene with his star: "Look," he told one associate, "we're paying one million bucks to get him. We need to see some flesh." Eight years later, in the 1994 film Sleep with Me, Quentin Tarantino, in a jewel of a cameo, carried Simpson's logic to at least one of its possible conclusions. Analysing Top Gun and the torment bedevilling Cruise's character Maverick, as well as the stridently bitter rivalry between him and a flyer called Iceman (Val Kilmer), Tarantino concluded it was all about "a man's struggle with his own homosexuality. He's on the edge, man. He's right on the fucking line. And you've got the Iceman and all his crew. They're gay. They represent the gay man. And they're saying, 'Come! Go the gay way!'" Everyone got the joke, because by then everyone 'knew' about Cruise.

In Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-1998 critic David Ehrenstein devotes an entire chapter to Cruise's sexual identity, only to conclude that it doesn't matter if the star is gay or not: what matters is that his "erotic energy" wreaks havoc with normative sexual identities. While this may be true, it doesn't explain how the shirtless Cruise registers differently from, say, the shirtless Burt Lancaster, outside of the obvious fact that what was once the provenance of rumour and innuendo is now the stuff of public fantasy and inquisition. (Ehrenstein seems to suggest that the star "becomes" gay just because some fans wish it were so.) If Cruise finally remains more interesting than the gossip that swirls around him, it's because his star persona has essentially failed to cohere around an identity that is either masculine or feminine, gay or straight. In this respect, intentionally or not, his star persona hews closer to those of David Bowie and Madonna than to those of his movie contemporaries. And, like Bowie and Madonna, Cruise is never more sexual, more desirable, more hot, than when in splendid erotic isolation, whether in Risky Business, Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, or hanging by a thread of plausibility in Mission: Impossible II.

In his 1996 film Jerry Maguire Cameron Crowe played Cruise's smile against his star persona by casting him as a slick sports agent whose grin is, initially, evidence of his soul-sickness. As the titular agent who suffers a sudden attack of conscience, Cruise was playing the ultimate redeemable man about whom Renée Zellweger's single mom could declare, without blushing: "I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost is." Crowe complicated Cruise's smile and restored him as a romantic leading man, but the part hasn't stuck. Ostensibly a narrative of male responsibility, Jerry Maguire is instead a narrative of gender retrenchment in which men and women are prescribed functions as rigidly as if they were chess pieces. The problem is that such retrenchment is beside the point with Cruise, who in his fame and beauty has gone beyond male and female to become an emblem of absolute desire. And, anyway, playing a lover of women hadn't done much for him. Just before Jerry Maguire he had played a vampire with homosexual appetites and a young lawyer too ambitious for his wife (The Firm). The first performance showed guts, the second pure profit. Earlier still, however, there had been a pair of films with Cruise's own wife Nicole Kidman; Days of Thunder was risible and Far and Away dull, but both exposed a notable absence of chemistry between the leads.

It's a good bet Stanley Kubrick recognised the lack of chemistry, though whether the suffocating intimacy in Eyes Wide Shut was his invention or that of his stars is anyone's guess. A year after the film's release, one of the more curious repercussions of its maker's too early death is how quickly part of the burden of failure shifted from Kubrick to Cruise, and, to a lesser extent, to Cruise and Kidman. In this displacement Cruise the star contaminates Kubrick the artist, degrading the film with celebrity, self-consciousness and an inability to register with Kidman on screen. In turn, Cruise and Kidman's failure to ignite (which here is somewhat deliberate) provides further evidence that the two don't ignite off screen. Kubrick likely knew some of this, but he wasn't especially kind to Cruise, and not only because he didn't get the performance he could have. (Stone fared better.) Kubrick exploited Cruise the star, and the off-screen hearsay that shrouds that identity, without giving Cruise the actor equal consideration. Whether Cruise knew this or not, his response was to fade out; like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man there were moments when you couldn't see the man for the movie.

Eyes Wide Shut took almost two years to make, during which time Cruise disappeared both from the screen and the US, camped out with family and Kubrick in London. It had been three years since Jerry Maguire by the time Eyes Wide Shut opened, and if the film didn't deliver Cruise back to the screen in the way it had promised, Magnolia, released the same year, did with a vengeance. As Frank T. J. Mackey, a motivational guru with a wolfish leer and rock 'n' roll strut, Cruise was both nightmare and wet dream, frighteningly real and entirely spooky. Written by Anderson for Cruise, the role drew on biographical elements from both men's lives, notably Oedipal tumult and a bellicose view of the press. The role was a gift Cruise returned in kind. When the performance brought him an Academy Award nomination but no award, it was hard not to think the reason was that Hollywood couldn't stomach the Cruise who had returned to the fold. By contrast, Mission: Impossible II, with its hot Hong Kong director John Woo and $100 million opening week, was a relief and a benediction. Industry newspaper Variety went so far as to explain the smash returns with a reference to a "pent-up demand for Cruise"; the audience, it turns out, just couldn't wait to blow its wad on him.

Cruise was back, but not really. Reprising his role as operative Ethan Hunt for Mission: Impossible II, the star was somehow present and absent at once. The ludicrous script didn't help, but Robert Towne's inability to translate Hunt into a coherent character, much less a human being, was perversely in keeping with the way Cruise himself seemed somewhat less than flesh and blood. There were the sensational stunts, the Byronic posturing, the way nearly every trace of teamwork had been erased, leaving Hunt all but alone to climb mountains, drop from helicopters, wrangle a motorcycle, a vixen, a villain, and then save the world. A superman with motorcycle leathers and windswept hair, a duplicate of his own beautiful face stashed in a rucksack, the character triumphed over the impossible because, effectively, he was no longer alive. He didn't have to be, as The Matrix had already shown.

It's no accident that the film that principally informs Mission: Impossible II is less Brian De Palma's 1996 riff on the original television show, or much of anything by Woo himself, than Larry and Andy Wachowski's SF sensation. Packaged cool and post-structuralist allusions notwithstanding, that film's most crucial achievement was the transformation of Keanu Reeves, formerly an unconvincing action star at best, into a new kind of action hero, one heavily predicated on digital effects. How could Cruise, who was at once busy easing himself off the screen and transforming himself into his greatest special effect, fail to notice? The oft-repeated threat that digital will eventually render the human actor superfluous is, of course, already coming to pass, with avatars strolling the decks of the Titanic and roaring from the seats of the Colosseum. It's a paranoid fantasy in which people are rendered redundant, a fantasy mirrored by the plot of The Matrix (in which human beings have been reduced to the function of wet-ware) and, critically, by the star system itself (in which they are similarly reduced to their surplus value). For Cruise, the paranoid fantasy could only be an appeal and a challenge.

The near-instantaneous success of Mission: Impossible II proves that no movie star is better equipped to combat redundancy than Cruise, who, for all his hits and good notices has been historically dismissed as being something of an avatar himself. "How is Tom Cruise?" Pauline Kael asked in her review of Born on the Fourth of July. "I forgot he was there." Kael forgot, but for almost 20 years most of the rest of the world never did, and not just because the publicity juggernaut wouldn't let us. Now, you get the feeling, Cruise would like us to forget him, if just a little. More and more, he has gone missing in action in the American mainstream media; even when he's present, as in Cameron Crowe's recent interview in Vanity Fair, he is more absent than not. He has decamped for London and Sydney. In each of his three recent films - Eyes Wide Shut, Magnolia, Mission: Impossible II - the star persona we have come to understand as Tom Cruise seems to have decamped, as well. There are traces, but the smile is more frugal, the sexual heat more inwardly directed, furiously private or maybe just furious. The cheekbones look as sharp as knives now; the body has been whittled into a weapon. He is beautiful but distant, at times even spectral. He is still an actor but inevitably the remotest of stars. He was and remains Tom Cruise, and if, increasingly, it has become difficult to understand who that is, well, then, that is exactly to the point.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012