Tom Cruise: great or rubbish actor?
Tom Cruise is like Marmite - you love him or hate him, well perhaps a little too strong, you either like him or don't, and that don't seems to leap into hate in some cases, usually when people start considering his personal life.
As an actor he has a mixed bag of films from classic to poor, and from good to great, but it seems no one can really agree on if he's a great actor or not. Myself, I think he's hugely underrated, because when the circumstances are right he can deliver a blistering performance, private life or not.
I do believe he's an underrated actor, even though that's at odds with his high level profile and career. He's one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, of that there's no doubt, and he's also one of the most talked about in and out of film. Love him or loathe him, you have to admit he can deliver some fantastic performances.
What's interesting about Tom Cruise is that the love-hate relationship changes from film to film, unless you factor in the personal life and rumour into the equation. Once you do that then there's a big swell of personal opinion against him.
His private beliefs are something I most definitely do not share, and I have strong views about organised religions, even the big ones. However people do have their own right to their beliefs and to have whatever faith they want, and when the man is on screen he's being an actor and delivering a performance that has nothing to do with his private life.
Just look through Hollywood, and indeed any of the world's major film markets, and see the amount of actors who are accepted despite being convicted for driving under the influence, assault, drugs, weapon charges, and so on, but someone with views away from the mainstream majority that you might not agree with? How can the audience possibly accept them?
Strangely they do, everyday. However it's because Cruise has spoken publicly about his beliefs and his views that has done him the most harm.
So let's forget his personal life for a moment, that's not in a film, and if it is then you can chose not to see it for those reasons. Let's look at the roles he's played a bit closer and find out what the truth is.
Tom Cruise has a superb on screen presence and a fantastic intensity, of that there's no doubt, and in some roles that fits perfectly and he delivers some cracking performances.
Yet there's also no doubt that he delivers some terrible ones too, why is that?
I had a think about it and I believe it's down to being challenged. There are many films on his slate where he plays similar characters and is not challenged in the role. I don't know if that's down to typecasting, poor scripts or just him being happy to earn money that way, or if it's because directors and other actors are too scared to challenge him and push him forward because of his reputation.
I think there might be a bit of all of those in his career, but I think the latter may well be true because when you do look at roles in films with stronger directors and actors around him he just about always delivers something special.
Cruise was on screen early in his career and up against some huge names, putting the powerful George C. Scott to the side for the moment, there was Ronny Cox and a young Sean Penn, all giving strong performances.
The director Harold Becker has had some strong films since, with big name actors too, and although they've not been hugely successful he's managed to pull some great performances out of them. Sea of Love with Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin, Malice with Alec Baldwin, Nicole Kidman, Bill Pullman, Anne Bancroft, Gwyneth Paltrow and George C. Scott once again, City Hall with Pacino, John Cusack, Danny Aiello, Martin Landau, and the stunning and much missed on screen Bridget Fonda.
Working with names like those you would expect Becker to be able to push for what he wants, and there's also the fact that Cruise was early in his career and could be moulded easily.
Francis Ford Coppola, can you get a film director who is any stronger than this man? I don't imagine that he would be intimidated by any talent, and the stories of what he will do to get the performance he wants are almost legendary.
For me this is where his typecasting began, with this role. This is the part of Tom Cruise's acting character that I think many people have come to dislike. However at the time it was great.
Ridley Scott. Now there is a director that knows what he wants and pushes his talent to get it. Here he's playing a very different character and the script and role are the aspects of the film that are really challenging him, not just Scott.
Well it's an iconic film, and a role that began to build that typecasting, but Tony Scott is in charge, and like his brother, he's another director who gets what he wants from his actors to give the right feel for the film, except there's nothing that challenging in the script, so Cruise settles back. Sure he's up against Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards, Tim Robbins, Tom Skerrit and Michael Ironside, but that doesn't feel like it's actually challenging him that much, rather it seems like they were having a great time.
The Color of Money
A great role for him, and something that takes that character that has begun to be typecast in him and play on it. Martin Scorsese directing and acting next to Paul Newman, he certainly is being pushed to give something extra, and you can see it in his performance. In fact you can see it in everyone's performance. This is a great film, and despite similarities in his character to previous films, it's perfect here, and perfect for his career.
Okay, here we're back to the typecast character that Cruise plays, but even now it's successful, and that's because the character is written perfectly for this kind of cocky, self-assured performance. It's The Color of Money character with a cocktail shaker instead of a pool queue, it's the Top Gun character with a cocktail glass instead of a steering column, it's the same character but in a different situation. Why does this one work so well?
Well just as the other films have something strong to drive them forward, this one has Bryan Brown to play off of, and whatever you think, he's the real lead of this film. Elisabeth Shue, Kelly Lynch and Gina Gershon provide the eye candy for the men to hang in there too.
Talking of driving his performance forward, he's starring next to Dustin Hoffman, and this was one of Hoffman's stronger films in the later part of his career. There are a couple of good films from here on, but he goes the same way as De Niro and Pacino and gets watered down.
In Rain Man though he's firing on all cylinders, and not just in a heart tugging role to gain an oscar. Hoffman really pushes Cruise forward and what we end up with is a bit of a transitional role for Cruise, a rather clever one actually.
To a degree he's the same character from Cocktail, Top Gun, and The Color of Money, but that's just how he starts out. The script pulls the character towards his brother and brings out a more complex, multi-layered character with conflicting emotions between his own selfishness for life and his growing love for his brother.
What this role does is help him change the standard character we have begun to associate with Cruise, and to a degree begun to dislike, into a real actor.
Born on the Fourth of July
Now we start to see some really strong roles come out from Cruise, and some roles that are completely different from what we've seen before. He's going to immerse himself in characters and really deliver strong performances. Starting with Born on the Fourth of July where he really takes the lead of the film, and despite having a strong cast behind him, there's not that many actors who are really pushing his performance forward.
However we have Oliver Stone leading the film, from a screenplay he wrote based on a true story, and on a subject Stone is very passionate about, and out of those we get a very strong Cruise performance, one of the strongest of his career in fact.
A Few Good Men
The good performances continue, and again we see Cruise challenged by going head to head with Jack Nicholson and Kevin Bacon - even if he doesn't get to shine as he normally does, he's still a strong foil for Cruise. J.T. Walsh, Demi Moore and Kiefer Sutherland provide a little push for him, but not much, and like Kevin Bacon, Kevin Pollack is hugely underused and there to bring through the cocky and cheeky side of the Cruise performance that we've been used to.
This is another role that connects the standard performance of Cruise to some great acting moments and there are a number of reasons for this, Rob Reiner, a script based on a stage play which makes for a character and dialogue intense piece, and Nicholson who just pushes him forward.
Mission: Impossible, II and III (Filmstalker review)
This series is great, it provides some superb action sequences, brilliant set-ups, and some great actors for Cruise to play off of, however none of them are at the level to truly challenge him. They are good actors, but you can imagine that they might be more affected by his presence and performance than he of theirs.
Except in the first film there's Jon Voight, Jean Reno, Kirstin Scott Thomas and Vanessa Redgrave, not to mention the figurehead of Brian De Palma. There's a strong script behind it too, you just have to look at the credits of David Koepp, Robert Towne and Steven Zaillian to see what talents they are - Carlito's Way, The Shadow, Snake Eyes, Stir of Echoes, Panic Room, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown, The Parallax View, Tequila Sunrise, The Two Jakes, Awakenings, Schindler's List, Clear and Present Danger, Gangs of New York, All the King's Men, American Gangster, and so on.
I think here we see two actors spurred on by each other, Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr., who's career since has been a poor shadow of what it was. Cameron Crowe wrote and directed the script, and so I think he has a lot to do with pulling a performance out of Cruise and matching the character to the actor and vice versa. However I think this does stand out as a bit of an anomaly for me. It's a successful film, repeat viewing I think doesn't give it the same edge and power as it once had though.
What a performance, and again the signs are all there that Cruise is being pushed by others. Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed, and so there's a powerful force there already, but then there's the calibre of actors that are alongside him, including Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, William H. Macy and Julianne Moore.
What the character here also allows Cruise to do is pour into it the aspects that the audience have begun to dislike of the previous characters he's played, and we get a fantastic performance from the actor.
I am with a lot of people here, I'm not a huge fan of this remake, I love the original Abre los ojos much more, and for many reasons that I shan't discuss here. However this is still a very strong film and with a really good performance from Cruise.
Here there's something else going on that we should be aware of, and in the performance side of things it is really worth mentioning, Penélope Cruz. The private side of his life during this film may just have affected the performance somewhat, and for the better. We see a gentler, more open and human performance, and the scenes with Kurt Russell are superb, from both actors. Russell surprises as much as Cruise does, and together with Diaz deliver performances that are rather unexpected from the actors.
There's also the strong original story and script with Cameron Crowe directing once again.
The Last Samurai
Ken Watanabe really does give a huge performance here and with the writer of Any Given Sunday, Gladiator and The Aviator, John Logan, in the hands of Edward Zwick, there's more than enough to push Cruise away from the standard performance and deliver something special. This character is again filled with humanity, self-doubt, and starts from a very low point in his life to find redemption, and alongside that powerful presence of Watanabe he delivers once again.
Michael Mann with a Stuart Beattie script, suddenly you've got a huge driving force there that will really push actors to get the right performances. Then there's something else to consider, and I don't mean that he's acting next to an understated Jamie Foxx, no this is the fact that he's playing a bad guy, an incredibly bad guy with no sense of morality at all.
I think a little of this was playing up to his own media image, and it worked, but getting this superb performance out of Cruise is down to Mann, Beattie's script, and the fact he's playing a pretty evil character.
War of the Worlds (Filmstalker review)
If you've followed me this far and haven't argued yet (which I seriously doubt) I think now is the time when you will. I don't think War of the Worlds is the greatest of films and it has some insanely stupid and emotionally targeted moments that make a mockery of story telling. However, from the moment I watched this I realised something that was very clever about the Cruise performance and the Steven Spielberg direction.
The film opens with Cruise playing that typical Cruise character, and it's totally transparent, in fact it's downright annoying. Yet in the space of the car journey home Spielberg and that David Koepp and Josh Friedman script transform him into his character, a concerned father who really doesn't know how to be one and is struggling to deal with events around him.
I thought that was superbly done because as the camera opened on him I was thinking nothing but Cruise, and by the time he gets home I'm totally bought in to who he is and what he's feeling. I loved the film for that. From then on there are only brief glimpses of the original character, but for the most part we're pulled away from him.
Lions for Lambs (Filmstalker review)
This is the last film I'm going to mention from his career, sure there are some to come with some great talent alongside him and behind the camera, but this is the last one that can really be used to prove the point.
A politically charged Matthew Michael Carnahan script with Robert Redford directing would normally be enough to help bring out the best performance in anyone, but the additional challenge of acting alongside Redford and directly off of the great Meryl Streep pushes him even further.
Although the film didn't work as well as I had hoped and definitely lost its way, the performance of Cruise is superb and draws on elements of Collateral and Magnolia, but transplants them in a very real situation and character.
I think you can see from that rather lengthy look at Tom Cruise and his career to date that he has delivered some blistering performances, and that these happen best when he's pushed and challenged by other actors, the script, and/or the director. All the above examples show that very point, it's only when he isn't challenged and relaxes back into the role he's become typecast in do we see that character that just doesn't work any more on screen - try watching Risky Business, Top Gun or Cocktail again and you'll see that character strong and proud, during a time when we enjoyed seeing it on screen.
Now he's proven himself as an exceptional actor, you only have to look at some of the stunning roles mentioned above to see that. However it only seems to happen when he's really challenged to bring out a performance, let him relax into an easy role and use the actor for his headlining name, and you'll get that Cruise performance that so many people are sick of.
Bring on more Cruise I say, and so I look forward to Valkyrie with relish.