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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Still Cruising After All These Years

I haven’t seen Knight and Day yet and the word on the street has been mixed, but even if it’s terrible I’ll still believe that Tom Cruise is a fantastic and underrated actor.

It’s not often that one of the biggest movie stars in the world can be classified as “underrated” because clearly most audiences enjoy his work, but Cruise hasn’t really been given the proper due by the critical community. Sure, he’s gotten a handful of Oscar nominations, but he’s not considered a “serious” actor by cineastes, which is a real shame.

I think Cruise gets a bad rap because 1) he’s a popular actor and 2) he’s handsome. Brad Pitt and George Clooney suffered the same fate for a while; because they’re so unbelievably good looking, they can’t possibly be good actors.  People point to less conventionally attractive actors likeSean Penn or Philip Seymour Hoffman as being elite actors – and indeed they are – while completely ignoring actors like Tom Cruise and belitting their accomplishments as if just anybody could carry a movie like Jerry Maguire or A Few Good Men.

It takes a special blend of not only good looks, but charisma and ability, to carry films as varied as Risky Business and Eyes Wide Shut.  If Clooney is the Cary Grant of our time then Cruise must be the Montgomery Clift: so attractive that people forget how stunningly good of an actor he was.

Whenever I have this conversation with friends, I always point to Cruise in Jerry Maguire as one of the better performances of the past fifteen years.  Usually when I say that, people scoff at me because Cruise is a movie star and everyone knows movie stars don’t give good performances and the movie was a feel-good hit and everyone knows that there are no good performances in movies that bathe themselves in depression.  But if you watch that movie, it’s fascinating the choices that Cruise makes and the risks he takes.

Jerry Maguire is not a likable person.  He is selfish, needy and annoyingly idealistic.  Throughout the course of the film, however, he changes believably.  As I’ve written in this column many times, the most difficult challenge for an actor to take on is to play a part that requires them to change in 120 minutes and to make that change plausible to the audience.  In Jerry Maguire, Cruise makes us believe in that change.

People point to roles that require an actor to play a mentally disabled person, a drunk, or someone with some kind of oddity and they say, “wow, what a performance, I really believe they were retarded!”  Well, the truth of the matter is that playing a role like Jerry Maguire has a much higher degree of difficulty because Cruise has to play an actual human being with flaws and scars. When Cruise comes to Renee Zellweger’s house at the end of the film and does his whole “you complete me” routine, it could easily seem like a cheesy way to win back his girl, like a typical romantic comedy. But Cruise has made us believe that this character is grandiose enough to say something along those lines and to make a speech like this.

Of course, credit must be given to Cameron Crowe for building the character, but to bring it to life in a believable way is quite an achievement. Cruise was rewarded for his work with an Oscar nomination, but the award that year went to the less handsome Geoffrey Rush as the mentally impaired pianist in Shine.

Of course, there’s Cruise’s deservedly lauded role as Frank T.J. Mackey in P.T. Anderson’s brilliant Magnolia, which earned Cruise a nomination.  But, that same year, he did compelling work in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut which was not only shrugged off, but considered something of a weak performance.  I was mesmerized by him in that role because he is not only our hero on this strange journey, but because he’s a wimp.  That was the most interesting thing to me about the way Cruise plays the character; the biggest movie star on the planet was okay with not just being emasculated, but playing a weak-willed, easily intimidated and frightened character who tries to buy himself out of every problem he encounters.

I feel like this is worth reiterating: the biggest movie star on the planet, a man who we are used to watching thwart all enemies with his fists or guns or with big theatrical speeches, decides to play a part where he is bullied, called a fag, told by his wife that he’s not satisfying her sexually, and can’t even bring himself to have sex with a hooker.  It’s not just the bravery of deciding to play a role like that, it’s that he doesn’t shy away from these aspects of the character.  Cruise plays Dr. Bill Harford as a frightened and shaken man and I don’t know that many other movie stars would have had the nerve to do that.

The other thing that makes Cruise such an interesting movie star is that he’s quite willing to play a villain, as he does so well in Interview with the Vampire and Collateral.  Even whenTom Hanks – the other biggest movie star of the ’90s – decided to play a hitman in Road to Perdition, he decided to play him as the most moral and good-hearted hitman in the history of the world.  Hanks doesn’t have the ability to play menacing whereas it seems to come to Cruise quite easily.  In both Interview with the Vampire and Collateral, he not only brings a fear factor to the roles, but he’s so adept at playing a scene for black humor in the midst of murderous shenanigans.  To be able to mix terror and humor is a tricky balance, but Cruise does it with panache.

What makes Cruise so fascinating is that he’s so willing to play parts that aren’t traditional “star” parts. Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for playing the autistic Raymond in Rain Man, but Cruise has the more difficult role as the selfish brother Charlie. Or look at Cruise in Magnolia or Born on the Fourth of July, a movie star willing to stretch outside of the genres that he knows will generate profit.  Even when Cruise made Mission: Impossible, he enlisted Brian De Palma to help him make one of the most dense and narratively twisting blockbuster movies ever.  And I think that movie best encapsulates Cruise in a lot of ways; he never plays down to his audience; he expects them to be smart enough to follow him as he makes difficult choices.

He’s got his franchise and not all of the movies he picks are winners, but you can always expect him to try his hardest and to challenge not just himself but his audience. He picks interesting projects and talented directors and gives it his all and that’s pretty much all you can hope for from a movie star.  When Cruise was picking his “comeback” movie after a small lull, he decided to enlsit Bryan Singer to make a film about a Nazis trying to kill Hitler.  This is supposedly the film that will make or break the rest of his career and he picks Valkyrie, not exactly a project that screams “mega hit” on paper.

One of the films I find most fascinating on Cruise’s resume is Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky, the remake of Alejandro Amenabar’s Abre Lost Ojos.  Vanilla Sky is not a perfect film by any means, but it’s always fascinating and it’s complicated and dense and you know what?  Cruise makes that film work because he’s not just a believable playboy, but he’s so effective in the scenes when his face is torn apart.  I imagine Cruise relished playing those scenes, acting behind a mask (shades of Eyes Wide Shut) or with heavy make-up scarring the face that made him a star, because in those scenes he could rely on his natural ability.

So, I’m going to see Knight and Day and maybe it’s awful, but I will always respect Tom Cruise, one of the most underrated actors today.  He might not be Daniel Day-Lewis or evenCasey Affleck, but he’s been consistently good in everything he’s done and sometimes he’s been a lot better than that.  Knight and Day also stars the criminally underrated Cameron Diaz, but that’s a column for another day.

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon