Yesterday I watched Top Gun: Maverick on IMAX. It is, as most of the reviews have noted, far better than it has any right to be. I’ll have some Maverick-specific thoughts a bit later, but for right now I’d like to talk a bit about the reason the movie happened at all: Mr. Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise is a good actor; not a great actor, but a good actor with a few specific strengths. He’s been quite bad in some roles, pedestrian in others, and absolutely irreplaceable in others. He’s also created some of the most indelible moments in the last 40 years of film history. It’s worth a moment exploring how that came to be.
Cruise has three great strengths as an actor. The first is best known; his ability to absolutely command the attention of the camera and make himself the center of attention. I won’t dwell on this today because it’s well-understood, although I am curious how much stage work Cruise has done over his career and whether his onscreen charisma translates. In any case, Cruise’s domination of the camera enables his two other great strengths; his ability to make space for other actors and his absolute, utter indifference to looking ridiculous.
Let’s take the second of those first. Although it’s quite early this is my favorite scene from Tom Cruise’s career:
There is no guile here, no shame, and not a shred of self-defensive irony. Just wild, genuine enthusiasm and the kind of pure physicality that Cruise has deployed so often in action settings. I do not think there is any other actor alive who could play that scene as well as Cruise; Pitt might come the closest but he cannot avoid shrouding himself with the thinnest membrane of irony, such that his smile is a kind of wink at the audience that Cruise rises above. Clooney or Affleck or Damon? Forget about it. Damon and Affleck are both fine actors but they are both terrified of looking ridiculous. Clooney is, in short, way too cool to be Tom Cruise, who is most emphatically not cool, even when he’s being very cool.
To be sure, Tom Cruise is a man who can afford to be made to look ridiculous, but this willingness is evident in his earliest films, and is a characteristic that has stayed with him for his entire career. It’s part of his ability to create an indelible character in Tropic Thunder, and it’s on full display for the delightful first half of Edge of Tomorrow where Cruise dies in an absurdly entertaining variety of ways (my favorite is him getting squashed by a truck as his tries to escape his seargant); it’s a key part of his ability to do all of the various absurd things that happen to Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible. Again, you may be tempted to think that “willingness to look ridiculous” is not a skill that’s important for an actor, but I’d encourage you to try to imagine Ben Affleck doing many of these roles; I think that Affleck is an excellent actor but even his performances in roles such as Batman are colored by a deep, unsettled embarrassment at the fact that he might look ridiculous. The complete lack of shame is evident in some of Cruise’s best roles, including the hit man in Collateral and the Incel Whisperer in Magnolia (the latter is probably my second favorite Cruise, although the fabulous early scenes are discolored a bit by the overwrought later scene with Robards). To do another early career intellectual exercise, imagine trying to trade Cruise in Risky Business for Broderick in Ferris Bueller; it absolutely does not work in either film. The willingness to look ridiculous can also lead to some absolute disaster, like Rock of Ages; a membrane of self-protective irony might have helped moderate that particular tragedy.
The willingness to look ridiculous enables Cruise’s generosity. Chances are that many of your most available memories of Cruise involve another actor talking to him and absolutely dominating the conversation. This is probably most evident in Eyes Wide Shut, where Nicole Kidman and Sydney Pollack each act the hell out of their scenes with Cruise:
These scenes are *often* interpreted as a director doing the best he can with the limitations of an actor who effectively enabled production with his star power, and that story isn’t entirely wrong. Cruise is out of his depth but is playing a character who’s out of his depth, and the scenes come off perfectly; Kidman and Pollack use Cruise in some sense as a prop to bounce ideas off of. But let me suggest that this story isn’t quite right, either; Cruise’s strengths as an actor (command of the screen, willingness to look ridiculous) allows both of those scenes to make sense. The audience is supposed to have contempt for this wealthy, staggeringly good looking doctor, and Tom Cruise is absolutely fine with that, and will take pains as an actor to make it happen. Even from the first Top Gun, it’s likely that the scenes you best remember are of Kelly McGillis, Tom Skerrit, Anthony Edwards, or Val Kilmer talking to Tom Cruise, while Cruise smiles or grimaces or stares into the distance.
My favorite of the Mission Impossible films is the third, because the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is probably my favorite actor of all time. His scenes with Cruise (which include Hoffman playing Cruise playing Hoffman) are all absolutely amazing.
Tom Cruise allowing other actors to make him look ridiculous is his replicable skill as a craftsman. You will feel the temptation to lay all of the credit for those scenes at the feet of Hoffman (or Kidman, or Pollack, or Newman), but it’s not the right way to think about it. Tom Cruise is great at letting other actors make him look ridiculous. It’s one of his superpowers as an actor, every bit as important as his smile.
It is very possible that Top Gun: Maverick will result in a Best Actor nomination for Cruise. A Best Actor oscar for an actor of Cruise’s profile is mainly a career achievement award, handed out when the Academy makes it best guess that the actor in question won’t ever have a performance better than the one on hand. Cruise is fine in Top Gun: Maverick but it is not at all his best work; there’s too much attention on the technology and on the plot to really take advantage of the actors. This is not to say it’s not an excellent film, but more on that later. I will say that Cruise is as deserving of a Body of Work academy award as anyone working in Hollywood today.