Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The secret studio

with 5 comments

Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut

A few days ago, Jordan Crucchiola of Vulture wrote a think piece titled “The Best Place for Women in Action Movies is Next to Tom Cruise.” The article makes the argument, which strikes me as indisputable, that the women in films like the Mission: Impossible series have made such consistently strong impressions that it can’t all be an accident. I’ve written here before at possibly excessive length about Rebecca Ferguson in Rogue Nation, who was arguably the best part of one of my favorite recent action movies, and Emily Blunt in Edge of Tomorrow speaks for herself. And it’s only after multiple viewings of Ghost Protocol, which is a movie that I’m happy to watch again on any given night, that I’ve come to realize the extent to which Paula Patton is its true star and emotional center: Cruise is content to slip into the background, like a producer paying a visit to the set, while the real interest of the scene unfolds elsewhere. For an actor who has often been accused of playing the same role in every movie—although it’s more accurate to say that he emphasizes different aspects of his core persona, and with greater success and variety than most leading men—he’s notably willing to defer to the strong women with whom he shares the screen. As Crucchiola concludes: “You get the sense that, as he approaches sixty, Cruise is more than happy to share the responsibility of anchoring a blockbuster action movie. It’s almost as if he’s creating a kind of hero apprentice program.

This is all true, as far as it goes, but it also hints at an even larger insight that the article glimpses but never quite articulates. You can start by widening the scope a bit and noting that the best place for a man in a movie is next to Cruise, too. Actors as different as Cuba Gooding Jr., Colin Farrell, and Ken Watanabe have gotten big assists from providing reliable support in a Cruise vehicle, and his filmography is littered with fascinating but abortive experiments, like Dougray Scott, that never quite got off the ground. As a movie star, Cruise has shown an unusual interest—and again, it’s so consistent that it can’t be accidental—in providing meaningful secondary parts for both men and women, some of which are really the lead in disguise. (Eyes Wide Shut is essentially a series of short films in which Cruise cedes the focus to another performer for ten minutes or so, and each one feels like the beginning of a career.) And when you pull back even further, you notice that he’s performed much the same function for directors. At the height of his power, Cruise made a notable effort to work with most of the world’s best filmmakers, but after Kubrick and Spielberg, there were no more worlds to conquer. Instead, he began to seek out directors who were on the rise or on the rebound: J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, Christopher McQuarrie. Not every effort along those lines paid off, and it can be hard to discern what he saw in, say, Joseph Kosinski. But you could make a strong case that Cruise has launched more players on both sides of the camera than any other major star.

Rebecca Ferguson in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"

In other words, his track record with actresses is just a subset, although a very important one, of a more expansive program for developing talent. Elsewhere, I’ve spoken of Cruise as a great producer who happens to inhabit the body of a movie star, but this doesn’t go far enough: he’s more like a one-man studio. A decade ago, he and Paula Wagner made an undeniably bad job of running the creative end of United Artists, but it’s noteworthy that his shift toward working with emerging directors occurred at around the same time. It’s as if after failing to turn around a conventional studio, Cruise saw that he could put together a leaner, nimbler version on his own, and that it required no permanent infrastructure apart from his stardom and ability to raise money. It would be a studio like Pixar, which, instead of scattering its attention across multiple projects, devoted most of its resources to releasing a single big movie every year. When you look at his recent career through that lens, it clarifies one of its less explicable trends: Cruise’s apparent decision, well into his fifties, to redefine himself as an action hero, at a point when most actors are easing themselves into less physically challenging parts. If you remember how versatile a dramatic lead he used to be, it feels like a loss, but it makes sense when you imagine him as the head of a studio with only one asset. Cruise has chosen to focus on tentpole pictures, just like the rest of the industry, and what makes it unique is how relentlessly he relies on himself alone to drive that enormous machine.

Which only reinforces my conviction, which I’ve held for years, that this is the most interesting career in the movies. Even its compromises are instructive, when taken as part of the larger strategy. (The Jack Reacher franchise, for instance, which the world wasn’t exactly clamoring to see, is a conscious attempt to create a series of midrange movies that allow Cruise to hit a double at the box office, rather than going for a home run every time. They’re the breathing spaces between Mission: Impossible installments. Similarly, his upcoming involvement in the reboot of The Mummy feels like a test case in partnering with someone else’s franchise, in a kind of joint venture.) If Tom Cruise is a secret studio, he’s done a better job of it than most corporations. At a time when the industry is struggling to come to terms with the problem of diversity, Cruise has launched the careers of a lot of attractive, talented performers of diverse backgrounds without ever making a point of it, and he’s done it in plain sight. Outside the echo chamber of Hollywood, and with the significant exception of Disney, audiences aren’t interested in studios as brands. Development executives are nonentities whose anonymity allows them to associate themselves with success, distance themselves from failure, and conceal the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing. Cruise doesn’t have that luxury. He’s made smart, pragmatic decisions for thirty years—and in public. And he makes the rest of the industry seem smaller by comparison.

5 Responses

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  1. This line you wrote is funny: “It’s almost as if he’s creating a kind of hero apprentice program.” because since Tom Cruise is the face of the scientologist recruiter program…and has recruited a lot of hollywood for the cause, it’s not far from the crazy truth, altho the women’s roles become less Heroic and more horrific off screen. Kind of a stepford wife thing. Yikes! Can’t help ponder what Nicole Kidman was tapping in her own life experience for that movie. Sheesh!
    Anyhow, new reader and thanks for the interesting read.

    katherinejlegry

    October 25, 2016 at 12:37 pm

  2. If he’s got so many roles in a movie, an actioner with someone to share the load makes sense — he probably has too much on his mind to disappear into a role, which surely takes a kind of selfishness. How many director/stars manage to provide really intense centres for their own movies? I know Cruise is not directing, but he’s got to have a lot on his mind.

    Darren

    October 27, 2016 at 5:23 am

  3. @katherinejlegry: As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about Tom Cruise and Scientology, I’m still not sure how to reconcile those two sides of his personality. My best guess is that Cruise is the kind of person who would have succeeded no matter what, and since he associates his success with the tools that Scientology provided, he’s become their most visible recruiter. But it’s also obvious that they need him more than he ever needed them.

    nevalalee

    November 6, 2016 at 9:10 am

  4. @Darren: That’s a good point! It’s especially obvious in a film like Ghost Protocol, in which he essentially defers for most of the movie to the supporting cast.

    nevalalee

    November 6, 2016 at 9:11 am

  5. Hi Alec, I think Tom is extraordinarily good on film… as an actor. I wouldn’t be able to say that if he wasn’t because in reality, he’s completely effected. I was never attracted to him as a male hero. And so if I can get past that, and become absorbed in his characters & stories, without my personal barriers, I realize he’s got “it.”
    altho I don’t like all of the vehicles he’s in… I’ve watched him sometimes anyway to see what he can do. (The females are not as memorable in any of his films, excepting Nicole Kidman who never needed Tom to make it. She’s a knock out.)
    I don’t believe he truly helps women in hollywood or in “real life” or in religion/spirituality. I think they help him… and or enable him. Women aren’t offered many good roles and they need to do more directing and writing and casting and producing of their own. Tom isn’t the guy who “makes” ’em gold. That’s something the woman does on her own. She has to. Men don’t make women stars. Women actors either shine or they don’t. Marketing helps… of course… networking and all that. Getting lucky to work with Tom so that popularity ensues is entirely different politics, I mean.
    I think of scientology as a bastard religion… a cult more than something that helps family and community, so it’s effect on hollywood is sociologically interesting. How we continue the view our gender roles with powerful religious men behind the media images matters. Women are getting the short end of the stick from Tom. He’s got the space ship.
    Anyhow… Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me and for the discussion. You’re absolutely right the scientologists needed Tom more than he needed them.

    katherinejlegry

    November 7, 2016 at 6:52 am


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