Monday, June 28, 2010
Miscellaneous Musings – On Tom Cruise and the Passage of Time
June 28, 2010
On Tom Cruise and the Passage of Time
So Tom Cruise’s latest movie Knight and Day only made twenty million dollars during its opening weekend. Years ago, we would have called this a good start. However, in today’s Hollywood, if a film with an A-list celebrity doesn’t break forty or fifty million dollars in its opening weekend, the film is almost immediately called a disappointment, and entertainment correspondents appear on television to explain why the celebrity’s box office numbers are down. In analyzing Knight and Day’s numbers, one “expert” came to this conclusion: people are simply not over the “couch” incident, a reference to Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch during a TV interview. This reminded me of comments political correspondents made about Howard Dean after he became overly expressive in a post-election speech back in 2004. It was as if Mr. Dean had become unpresidential overnight simply because of a facial expression and a yee-haw. This makes as little sense as someone saying he doesn’t like Tom Cruise or his movies because he jumped on a couch.
As far as I know, Tom Cruise has never hurt anyone personally. On the contrary, I can recall several occasions when he was instrumental in saving people’s lives. One of them occurred in London in 1996. As Cruise and his then wife Nicole Kidman were walking through a hallway of fans, the crowd that had gathered to get a glimpse of the pair suddenly moved forward en masse, pushing two young children dangerously against the police barricades. Seeing this, Cruise ran to the children and with police help pulled both of them to safety. Another time, Cruise and Kidman were out of their yacht when they came across a boat that was on fire. They quickly helped the ship’s five frightened sailors onto their boat and called for help. These events were not well publicized, as they shouldn’t have been. He was simply doing what someone should do in these situations. I read about the events in short newspaper blurbs, but I can’t recall seeing them reported much on the news. Compare this to the amount of press that has been devoted to the jump on the couch or his belief in scientology, another detail of his life that both the media and the public focus on intently, yet has never been proven to harm anyone.
Cruise is very public about his belief in Scientology, and this has given comedians and analysts fodder for jokes and gossip. They pick out Scientology’s least conventional elements and hold them up for Cruise to somehow explain or justify. When he cannot or will not discuss these aspects of Scientology, he’s called a pawn and a charlatan. South Park regularly mocks him for his devotion to Scientology among other things. (To be fair, South Park mocks every religion.) However, I know of no other celebrity expected to be an expert of every aspect of his or her religion. This is certainly not true of Catholic or Jewish celebrities. In fact, I’ve never seen an interviewer ask Catholic celebrities to explain some of the Bible’s more controversial passages. However, Cruise is treated differently. Larry King even asked Robert Redford if Tom Cruise’s belief in Scientology was as issue on the set of Lions for Lambs. Redford simply said, “Why would it be?”
If Tom Cruise’s popularity is indeed waning, I highly doubt it has anything to do with either the appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show or his religious beliefs. If most likely has to do with the passage of time. Hollywood is just not the same place, and the definition of a hit movie has changed.
Tom Cruise has been making films now for twenty-nine years. During that time, he has made just thirty-five films. In the same amount of time, John Travolta has made forty-five films, and Bruce Willis has made about sixty-four. In 1986, the year Top Gun was released, Matthew Broderick danced to “Twist and Shout” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Oliver Stone brought the Vietnam War experience to film, the Karate Kid was off finding romance in Okinawa, Sigorney Weaver was dueling aliens in outer space for the second time, and the Three Amigos were trying to save a Mexican village from a dastardly villain. That same year gave us films starring Michael Keaton, Geena Davis, Kurt Russell, Kim Basinger, Mickey Rourke, Rodney Dangerfield, Paul Hogan, Steve Guttenberg, Rob Lowe, Kathleen Turner, Shelley Long, C. Thomas Howell, Emilio Estevez, Lea Thompson, Danny DeVito, and William Hurt. Not many of these actors receive top billing on a movie marquee these days. Cruise still does.
After the success of Top Gun, Tom Cruise could carry a film like few others. In 1988, I went to see Rain Man not knowing anything about it. What mattered was that it was a Tom Cruise film. And Tom Cruise films were significant. The first time I ever saw Paul Newman act was in a Tom Cruise film. Tom Cruise films would also introduce other Hollywood legends to younger filmgoers – stars like Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man), Robert Duvall (Days of Thunder), and Gene Hackman (The Firm). In fact, I wonder if Jack Nicholson’s career would still be as strong as it is if he hadn’t appeared in 1992’s A Few Good Men. Cruise also made hits of some rather difficult films. I highly doubt anyone else could have made Vanilla Sky or Eyes Wide Shut hits. He even scored a hit with Mission Impossible, a television series that had gone off the air twenty-three years earlier. In fact, in the first nineteen years of his career, only Far and Away and Legend could be considered domestic box office disappointments.
Looking at the last ten years, it’s hard to understand all of the negativity surrounding the box office results of Tom Cruise’s films, for every film in which he starred in during this period prior to 2007 has made over one hundred million dollars. What changed was people’s definition of a hit. With rising budgets came greater box office expectations. These days, a movie can make one hundred and fifty million dollars and still be considered a failure simply because some studio executive decided to spend two hundred million dollars making it. In other words, popularity no longer equals success. Viewed from this perspective, Mission Impossible III’s $135,000,000 total no longer looks that impressive, not when films like Transformers are raking in over $300,000,000. Factor inflation into this, and it’s possible to conclude that Tom Cruise’s more recent box office tallies are not that impressive. It cannot be denied however that they are consistent, something executives in Hollywood should be ecstatic about instead of hesitant. As for Lions for Lambs’ poor showing, it should be noted that none of the films that have come out about either of the wars that the U.S. is currently fighting have performed well at the box office. That includes this year’s winner for Best Picture.
Along with the misperception that Tom Cruise’s films underperform at the box office, there is the theory that audiences are no longer watching a film solely because Tom Cruise is in it. I would agree with this. However, in truth, there are few actors that have loyal followings anymore, the kind of fan base that will pay to see an actor’s films no matter what they are about. People seem far more likely to follow a franchise or a director than an actor these days. Moreover, the audience for a film franchise may not follow a star outside of the franchise. For proof of this, just look at the box office results of the other films starring the Twilight cast or the films the cast of The Lord of the Rings series have made since the conclusion of the trilogy. Tom Cruise made smart choices in the beginning of his career, and his audience supported him. Today’s younger actors may not be so lucky.
Last, it seems to me that film criticism has changed. Some critics confuse sarcasm and insults for in-depth analysis. For example, I saw a critic on CNN start a review of a movie starring Al Pacino by reducing Mr. Pacino’s acting to a mixture of quiet moments and abrupt shouts. Another critic began a review of Old Dogs by disparaging Robin Williams. I suppose such comments get someone on television or discussed on social media networks, but they do nothing to advance journalism or reporting in general. This new kind of critic has latched onto both the “couch” incident and the Matt Lauer interview and refused to let go of them. It’s not journalism; it seems more like a case of selective memory.
On its opening day, I went to see Knight and Day. The film won’t go down as the best film Tom Cruise has made, but it was enjoyable. It’s well paced and contains some pretty intriguing scenes. I especially liked the two lead characters and how the film lets their relationship develop naturally. The film is completely implausible, but that could be said of most action films. So it made only twenty-seven million dollars over five day. Let’s give it a little more time before we declare it a success or a failure, and if it happens to fail at the box office, let’s attribute it to the film itself simply not finding an audience. Anything else just seems petty.