Though he's long been among the most recognizable celebrities in the world, Tom Cruise has always seemed vaguely irritating, like the popular kid at school everybody secretly dislikes. His is an odd sort of fame: Globally recognized but rarely acclaimed, he remains more reliably bankable than nearly any other actor of his generation, his presence an almost guaranteed boon to a film's bottom line, despite being a magnet for bad press and, in recent years especially, mild scandal.
Part of the problem, of course, is that our gossip-saturated conception of celebrity culture privileges private controversy over professional achievement. That's why, in the public imagination, a few years of incriminating tabloid headlines have apparently eclipsed the accomplishments of a three-decade career, effectively transforming a once-celebrated star into a spectacle of folly.
What's strange about this perceptual shift isn't so much that a respected actor's reputation has been summarily tarnished—it would hardly be the first time public sentiment curdled so suddenly, as it did with Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle—as it is that Cruise's recent bout with popular opinion began during one of his career's most prosperous periods.
In 2005, the year of his notorious couch-hopping meltdown, Cruise had just delivered back-to-back performances in two of his most compelling films: first came Michael Mann's groundbreaking foray into digital filmmaking, Collateral, in which Cruise played a virtuoso hitman chauffeured around downtown Los Angeles by a reluctant cabbie, played by Jamie Foxx. Collateral found Cruise consciously subverting an increasingly shopworn routine, suppressing his trademark charisma and recalibrating his charm toward something decidedly understated.
Cruise starred in Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds the following year. Though not particularly well-received upon release—at least by the standards of Spielberg, whose previous film with Cruise, 2002's Minority Report, was a massive hit both critically and commercially—it seems apparent now that Worlds represented a serious effort on the part of both director and star to grapple with some of the lingering residual anxieties of the period. In many ways, the film endures as one of the definitive works of post-9/11 cinema. Our cultural conversation neglected this dimension of the film in favor of vacuous rumor-mongering, which suggests the degree to which we value watercooler gossip over deep engagement.
Not that any of this was new to Cruise, mind you. He'd already sparred with the press in a years-long public-relations battle more than five years before Scientology and Oprah's couch ever entered the discussion, when aspersions cast on his sexuality eclipsed recognition of his work. This was around 1999, the actor's artistic peak. That was the year in which Cruise starred in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, the great director's final film and arguably his richest, as well as appearing in a crucial supporting role in Paul Thomas Anderson's widely hailed Magnolia.
What these movies share—more than simply being major, somewhat difficult works by important, infamously difficult filmmakers—is that they more or less relegate Cruise to a position of weakness, simultaneously tapping into his stardom and pointedly undermining it. Eyes Wide Shut finds Cruise being shut down and emasculated at every turn; Magnolia, meanwhile, finds his exaggeratedly macho poses thoroughly deconstructed, his persona exposed as phony.
These qualities prove intriguing, but they also prove, more significantly, that Cruise was once willing to relinquish control of his image to filmmakers whose creative judgment he clearly trusted, which resulted in work of surprising intelligence and sophistication—unsurprisingly, some of the best of his career. Lately, however, Cruise has taken the opposite approach: Rather than actively seek roles that challenge his iconography and legacy, he's receded into complacency and, even worse, seemingly desperate self-mythologizing.
When he isn't busy reprising one of his least interesting roles—Mission Impossible's milquetoast hero Ethan Hunt—he's hard at work (re)building his own reputation from the ground up, furiously reasserting his masculine prowess and utter infallibility in such trifles as Jack Reacher and the antiseptic sci-fi trifle Oblivion.
It's not that these roles or even films are bad, necessarily—though Jack Reacher is pretty lousy—but rather that they're uninteresting, which for an actor once respected for making genuinely daring choices is disappointing. Cruise seems stuck making films for the sake of his agent rather than for his audience or the cinema. Perhaps this is simply an extended period of downtime for an actor known to occasionally phone it in, as he did in Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.
But it's possible that maybe this is a delayed response to how often we've ignored Cruise's capacity to branch out and surprise, a kind of career shrug from a guy resigned to the fact that, no matter how hard he tries, we'll always focus on his personal life instead of his talent. Whenever Tom Cruise most obviously deserves acclaim and recognition, the cameras are directed toward something private and wholly unrelated, and the conversation shifts from praise to scrutiny to vehement rejection.