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Happy Birthday Tom: A Tom Cruise Reading List

A photo of a young Tom Cruise and a recent photo of him
Photos courtesy of Getty Images.

By Chloe Walker

In the days of classic Hollywood, the private lives of movie actors were zealously guarded — and often downright fabricated — so the viewing public would believe their carefully calibrated onscreen personas. There was little faith that audiences could keep public and private in separate boxes, so the private box was deeply buried, often not seeing the light of day until after the stars’ deaths.

The things we know about Tom Cruise would have sent these Hollywood publicists to their own early graves. The innumerable strange, sinister stories from his very long, very public, embroilment with Scientology. The divorces and separations from his fellow A-list actors. The whole couch-jumping incident. Various other embarrassing viral videos. Anyone who spends four decades as one of the world’s biggest movie stars might rack up a few scandals along the way, but with Cruise, the baggage is on a different level. 

The whole time, however, he’s kept working, and we’ve kept going to see him. As he moved from the charming young hero of ’80s hits like Top Gun and Risky Business, through his “serious actor” period in the ’90s, to the action hero of today, his movies have continued to make impressive money at the box office; even his few disappointments — War of the Worlds, The Mummy — wouldn’t be disappointing by most actors’ standards. His longevity, especially in the face of all those negative headlines, is formidable. His megawatt smile remains undimmable. His energy just as dauntingly intense as when we first met him, as a teenager. Cruise turns 60 on July 3, and it seems eminently possible he’ll still be flinging himself onto moving airplanes and scaling skyscrapers in a decade’s time.

Is that why he’s never seemed to exist in the same realm as us mortals? Or does this constant need to impress prove such a relatable aching vulnerability that it hurts to acknowledge it? While there are infinitely more deserving recipients of sympathy — those who don’t have endless money and aren’t the figureheads of a decidedly dubious religion/cult — I still can’t help but feel a little sorry for him. The pressure of being “on” all the time. The knowledge that the whole world knows your most embarrassing eccentricities. All celebrities must have moments of feeling like animals in a zoo, but it’s hard to imagine when Cruise would ever be able to escape that feeling. The gilded fishbowl of his particular fame is a place many would drown. He keeps right on swimming. 

Some of the authors cited in this reading list are dazzled by Cruise’s grin or wowed by tales of his oft-lauded work ethic. Some find him a disconcerting figure, or a silly, pitiable one. Several of the pieces are solely concerned with his screen roles; others find patterns in those roles and draw conclusions about Cruise’s thinking and motivations, or even parallels between the trajectory of his career and America as a whole. Taken together, these 10 articles paint a kaleidoscopic picture of a complicated, fascinating, unique kind of stardom.

I don’t know if I’d really want to solve the riddle of Tom Cruise. Perhaps there’s no riddle to be solved; maybe he’s just an empty vessel behind a shiny surface, reflecting back at us our own ideas about the nature of celebrity, and what we require from our superstars. Maybe, despite all we’ve learned about him over the years, there are depths yet to be plumbed. We might never know for sure, but that’s okay —  the contemplating’s all part of the fun. 

Crossing the Line to Stardom (Aljean Harmetz, The New York Times, June 1987)

Cruise is one of many ’80s actors profiled in Aljean Harmetz’s New York Times piece, which discusses the differences between stardom in classic and ’80s Hollywood. Harmetz asks which of the then-current crop of young talent has the best chance of making it big, and what exactly is a star anyway? Published the summer after Top Gun cemented Cruise’s A-list status, Harmetz questions him, and various Hollywood executives, as to what it is that put him over that titular line. Their answers underscore how consistent his persona has remained over the past four decades. 

”That guy has the most winning smile of anyone I have seen except Eddie Murphy,” says Mr. Katzenberg. ”His smile says, ‘We’re going to have fun.’ ” Adds Ellen Chenowitz, a casting director, ”He has that killer smile that Nicholson and Redford have.”

”I don’t worry about whether I’m making the right decision,” says Mr. Cruise. ”I’m one to believe that everything I do is right, that I can make it right.” That kind of confidence is part of Ms. Chenowitz’s recipe for stardom. “Actors can’t apologize for themselves,” she says. ”You can’t get the impression they feel, ‘I’m not really good. You don’t want to see me.’ ”

No More Mr Nice Guy (Neil Strauss, The Guardian, September 2004)

Though Neil Strauss’ interview is ostensibly concerned with Cruise’s transition from the heroic roles of his early career to his more complicated characters in Magnolia and Collateral, more words are spent just on the strange experience of being in the actor’s presence. Describing their time touring various Scientology hotspots and riding motorbikes in the Mojave Desert, Strauss presents Cruise warmly, yet as a total oddball: charming, sincere in his interest in other people, but as something akin to an alien wearing a human skin suit.

And now, here it comes: the famous Tom Cruise laugh. It comes on just fine, a regular laugh by any standards. You will be laughing too. But then, when the humour subsides, you will stop laughing. At this point, however, Cruise’s laugh will just be reaching a crescendo, and he will be making eye contact with you. Ha ha HA HA heh heh. And you will try to laugh again, to join him, because you know you’re supposed to. But it doesn’t come out right, because it’s not natural. He will squeeze out a couple of words sometimes between chuckles – in this case, ‘Wouldn’t that be awesome?’ – and then, as suddenly as he started, he will stop, and you will be relieved.

Tom Cruise: The Fixer (Cal Fussman, Esquire, June 2010)

Cal Fussman’s interview with Cruise is written as a first-person piece from the hand of the megastar and is perhaps the closest thing to an autobiography we might ever get from him. Although a sanitized account of his personal life — his relationship with his abusive father is mentioned in such a tangential way, it’s almost confusing — the attempt to present a relatable side and the self-mythologizing of his underdog story, from the bullied working-class kid of divorced parents to Hollywood luminary with a peerless work ethic, carry their own fascination. 

These small steps of personal awareness came with the work. You know what else I found out? The better I became at the job, the better I could do it. The better I got at delivering newspapers, the more clients I got. And if I missed delivering the paper to a certain house one day, it was: Wow. This guy’s pissed. Then it becomes: What do I do here? And I realized, Oh, I gotta talk to this guy. Handle it. Then you see: Oh, I can fix this. By taking responsibility, I can fix this.

What Katie Didn’t Know (Maureen Orth, Vanity Fair, October 2012)

Published a few months after Cruise’s divorce from his third wife, Katie Holmes, Maureen Orth’s bombshell Vanity Fair piece details the many ways his romantic life has become entwined with his status as Scientology’s Superman. This cover article — ardently refuted by the organization —  is packed with juicy tidbits that powered their own headlines for weeks, most prominently that Scientology held auditions to find Cruise an appropriate girlfriend following his split from Penelope Cruz. Orth’s piece describes in detail the brief, troubling relationship between Cruise and younger actress Nazanin Boniadi that sprang from these auditions.

Though the first month on the project was bliss, by the second month Boniadi was more and more often found wanting. Cruise’s hairstylist, Chris McMillan, was brought in to work on her hair; in addition, says the source, Cruise wanted Boniadi’s incisor teeth filed down. Finally, she was allowed to tell her mother that she was involved with Tom Cruise. Her mother, a hairdresser, did not like the fact she was now out of the picture, not even allowed to do her daughter’s hair, and she frowned upon the age difference between her daughter and the then 42-year-old actor. She reportedly also had to sign a confidentiality agreement, but she never reached the point where she qualified to meet Cruise.

A Grand, Unified Theory of Tom Cruise Movies (Ryan McCarthy and Jim Tankersley, The Washington Post, October 2014)

Ryan McCarthy and Jim Tankersley’s ambitious, amusing discussion attempts to discover a throughline between all of the leading roles that Cruise played up to 2014. While they don’t quite manage to find something all-encompassing, the different categories they assign his roles (“The Working-Class Guy Caught in the Middle of Bad Institutions,”’ “The Cool, Unemotional Specialist Who Saves The Public”) are instructive, as are the parallels between the types of men that Cruise plays and the concurrent state of American society.

[McCarthy:] One of the interesting things about my thesis of the three major Cruise movie categories is that it’s semi-chronological. He started as the devil-may-care Maverick of the 1980s, moved to a guy being held back by bad institutions and now is mostly the dry-cool specialist fighting aliens or disembodied stateless terror organizations.

Which is weird, right? In a time of relatively tame job creation, wage stagnation, income inequality and general economic negativity, shouldn’t we be seeing more of the guy getting held down by bad institutions? Why did the relatively happy ’90s featuring a leading man always being held down by society? Why are Cruise roles basically counter-cyclical?

Cruise’s Oscar Years: One Decade, Three Nominations, Myriad Lessons (Mark Harris, Grantland, July 2015)

Cruise has been in action hero mode for so long now it’s surprisingly easy to forget that for a while he was a serious actor who looked for challenges more emotional than spectacular. He worked with esteemed directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick and even garnered a few Oscar nominations along the way. Film critic and historian Mark Harris analyzes his three nominated performances — Born on the Fourth of July, Jerry Maguire, and Magnolia — looking at a time when the irrepressible energy and manic charm that still personifies his acting was directed at characters with depth, and how those characters were a perfect fit for the actor. 

Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire is essentially an essay on Tom Cruise that Cruise coauthors by enacting it. Everything we feel about him — how can he be so unbelievably charming, why is he always selling, can we possibly trust someone who asks for our trust that nakedly, does his need make him more human or more scary, shouldn’t that irresistible surface count for something, why does it have to be quite so polished? — is embedded in this character, who is either trying to be a better person or trying to convince you he’s trying.

How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star (Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly, May 2014)

In her LA Weekly piece, Amy Nicholson argues that Cruise’s move away from his artistically interesting ’90s output toward his safer action-oriented work was precipitated by the ruinous reaction to his infamous 2005 hijinks on Oprah’s couch. Detailing the confluence of events that allowed an initially innocuous-seeming interview to become one of the internet’s earliest and most indelible viral moments — primarily the firing of his experienced publicist, and the recent creation of YouTube — Nicholson laments that such a trivial incident could have cost us many years of Cruise at his most interesting.

Post-2005, we’ve lost out on the audacious films that only Hollywood’s most powerful and consistent star could have convinced studios to greenlight. Cruise was in his mid-40s prime — the same years when Newman made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting — and here he was lying low, like the kid who’d run away to London. Imagine the daring roles that he hasn’t dared to pursue. Cruise’s talent and clout were responsible for an unparalleled string of critical and commercial hits. We gave that up for a gif.

Tom Cruise Vs. The World  (Nicholas Russell, Gawker, August 2021)

Responding to the leaked audio of Cruise screaming and swearing at the crew on the seventh Mission Impossible movie about their lax COVID safety protocols, Nicholas Russell contemplates the opaque nature of “our least relatable celebrity,” and how Cruise stands so very far apart from his fellow superstars, who still yearn for said relatability. Russell considers how Cruise’s longevity — the sheer volume of years he’s spent as Hollywood’s most successful weirdo — has given him a degree of impenetrability. The rules just don’t seem to apply to him.

It’s disturbing to think of Tom as a person because it gives way to the possibility that he has an inner life and emotions. What could he possibly, ever, be angry about? What does that mean for the people around him? Is it even possible to talk about the desires of someone like Tom Cruise? He has existed for so long in a state of having every need, every whim, met immediately and without effort. Can a person like that be said to know what it means to want anything anymore?

What Makes Tom Cruise’s Star Shine So Brightly? (Mike Fleming Jr., Deadline, May 2022)

For Deadline, Mike Fleming Jr. talks to directors whom Cruise has collaborated with throughout his career, gathering glowing tales about the various ways in which working with him was a pleasure. Whilst they discuss specifics of his craft, and the various kindnesses he has shown colleagues over the years, more than anything else the piece portrays a man whose love of movies and moviemaking is the driving force in his life. If there’s a singular answer to be found as to why he remains so widely adored despite all the baggage, perhaps it’s that. 

[Douglas Liman:] I mention to Tom, ‘Are you thinking of going away for your birthday?’ Tom says, ‘No. I was thinking since we have the day off on July 3, we can use that time to have the eight-hour aviation meeting that we’ve been having trouble scheduling.’ I am beyond tired and I’m like, ‘You want to have an eight-hour meeting on your birthday?’ He said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want for my birthday. I want to be making a movie. That’s the best birthday present.’ There was no blowing out candles, either.

Tom Cruise’s Last Stand (Bilge Ebiri, Vulture, May 2022)

Thirty-five years have passed between Cruise’s breakthrough turn in Top Gun and his appearance in the sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. In his review for Vulture, Bilge Ebiri finds the recent film awash with melancholy, and heavy with the weight of all that has happened to America and the leading man during the cavernous three-and-a-half decades that separates the two movies. He sees Cruise as the poignant manifestation of that earlier era, the shiny carapace of his stardom tarnished and dented by the heavy weight of time. Maybe he’s not immortal after all.

Even Cruise’s remarkably well-preserved face and physique add to his out-of-time and out-of-place aura. The actor has never seemed so vulnerable; Maverick might be the first time he has played a genuinely broken man, and there’s a poignant irony to the fact that he’s doing so while resurrecting his most iconic character. His tears, when they come, reach beyond the screen — they seem like a cathartic lament for everything that has changed since 1986.

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Chloe Walker is a writer based in the U.K. She is a regular contributor to Paste Magazine and the BFI.

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