The Curse of Being Tom Cruise

Maybe it’s his inability to see that doing in your own stunts at 35 in the first “Mission” Impossible” is cool but doing your own stunts at 50 is desperate


I never thought I would feel bad for Tom Cruise even once in my life, let alone twice. We’re talking about Tom Cruise (exclamation points implied throughout), probably the only actor in the world who can open a movie in Chicago and Calcutta, Boston and Beijing, with equal fervor.

This is a man who does his own stunts, in movies and in matrimony. He has Oscar nominations and he has more money than Les Grossman. Why would Jerry MacGuire, Charlie Babbitt, Ethan Hunt, Maverick, for God’s sake, need any sympathy, let alone mine when any day he’s ever had will probably be beat most people’s best day ever?

There are actors who become celebrities because of the nature of their work. They are private people who become public figures, and promote their work against their will. Then there are celebrities, who are actors because of their natures. They want to be famous and when you’re good-looking enough, acting (quotation marks implied) is a great road to achieving fame. They live as openly as possible, wearing out their welcome with their intense need to known.

But there is also a rarer phenomenon — movies stars, a hybrid of both. Movie stars are performers because it was something they wanted, maybe even needed to do. They realize that the life they’ve been given is part of a social contract — they get to be entertainers if they’re gracious to the audience that’s embraced them.

Actors tend to disparage fame and tolerate their fans. Celebrities believe that everyone’s a fan although they’re usually their own biggest. But movie stars, whatever their innermost and probably conflicted feelings about their chosen life are, embrace and even love their fans. These are the stars that sign autographs with a smile, always have great stories for talk shows and use their celebrity to amplify great causes.

There is a small group of superstars that fit in this category – George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Sandra Bullock. They’re not identically talented and they’ve definitely had varying success in their careers but they know how to be stars. They also know that their time is finite. I’m not talking about on earth because we all know that true movie stars never die. I’m talking about the more merciless nature of show business and the fickleness of the public.

So they’ve all, to one degree or another, prepared their Plan B’s – producing, writing, directing, charity work, acting in indies – and developed them while they still have the pull to make things happen and the glitz to make it look good.

Tom Cruise should be in the list of those stars but somehow he seems different, ill-prepared for the future that’s coming his way or may already be here. Maybe it’s his inability to see that doing in your own stunts at 35 in the first “Mission” Impossible” is cool but doing your own stunts at 50 is desperate. Doing a bit as Len Grossman in “Tropic Thunder” is hilarious but doing a whole Len Grossman movie is misguided. Watching the “Rock of Ages” trailer, I felt that Cruise’s Stacee Jaxx was an ironic joke on Cruise’s own fame rather than on past rock gods but that he wasn’t in on the joke.

And it wasn’t hard to believe that Cruise’s recent trip to India included ‘paid fans.’ There’s a disconnect between the reality of being Tom Cruise, famous since he was 19, and what the world wants from Tom Cruise at 50. It’s not hard to imagine a crew of interns at his publicists, writing fan letters and emails to the star like Norma Desmond’s butler.

Until recently, he always made it seem so easy. Through the Scientology, the always present rumors about his personal life, the Kidman divorce, awkward coach-jumping/Matt Lauer-glibness interviews, he didn’t act put upon or play the ‘misunderstood’ card. But it was during that overhyped Holmes time that I first felt sorry for him. He didn’t seem to understand that he was trying to force himself into relevancy, at a time when we cared less and he cared more than ever.

I’m not ushering him to the Motion Picture Home for the Aged just yet. But I do feel sorry for him. While his peers have found ways to use their talent while gracefully changing with the times, he still seems stuck in a version of his celebrity circa early 90’s without understanding why the rest of the world isn’t there with him.

In the New York Times’ review of “Mission: Impossible” this week, Manohla Dargis comments that Tom Cruise’s action moves aren’t “just a man doing a crazy stunt but also one poignantly denying his own mortality.”I understand that the very nature of being such a huge star for the majority of your life means you’ve lived in a bubble, surrounded by people paid to keep you there. How do you even realize that things have changed if your self-awareness is limited to your role as movie star?

It’s like that swimmer, Diana Nyad, who wanted to reach from Cuba to Florida – she hadn’t been able to do it when she was young but somehow thought that the knowledge of middle age would accomplish what the strength of her youth didn’t. Everyone knew it was a lost cause except her but no one could dissuade her because she couldn’t see the difference between then and now.

Reality shouldn’t be movie stars’ strong suit. After all, they’ve been paid to create imaginary worlds and are blessed or cursed to live in relatively imaginary ones as well. But while Cruise’s contemporaries have found ways to reconcile to new realities, Cruise seems to find it impossible to see the present, which locks him into a rapidly fading past and destroys his future.

It seems ridiculous to pity a man who’s long been the biggest star in the world. But there’s something of the Greek tragedy in his story. I can’t imagine a crueler fate than being a god who falls to earth believing he’s still a god, being ignored by the very mortals who once worshipped him.