How Tom Cruise’s Career Made All the Right Moves

Defying the odds against Dinosaurs, Batman, James Cameron and even Marvel superheroes, Tom Cruise bet on himself and delivered; the highest-grossing domestic movie of the year, his career, and the highest-grossing film in Paramount Pictures’ history. It was also nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay and 4 other Academy Awards when that organization typically overlooks action films. Top Gun: Maverick amassing nearly $1.5 Billion feels like a comeback for Cruise after being offscreen for four years. However, it is also a comeback for Cruise in a non-Mission Impossible vehicle. His last bonafide success outside of that franchise was War of the Worlds in 2005.

Today we look at the many phases of Cruise’s career; his ups, downs, rebounds, his brushes with Oscar glory, starting with his first blockbuster Top Gun, all the way full circle, to the long-awaited sequel and his success to come.

In the beginning, he was a cocky kid. He had his 80’s.

80’s Heartthrob Phase – After his breakout turn in Risky Business, Tom Cruise requested Paramount for the Top Gun press tour that the studio send him to as many countries as possible to drum up global interest. And Cruise hasn’t stopped pounding the pavement since. This is why all modern movie stars like The Rock attend their premieres with a global assault. Such strategies build up worldwide name recognition and stabilize a career as western audiences change. 

Top Gun began a creative formula in which Tom would star as a cocky protégé with a mentor figure and occasional love interest inhabiting various sportive worlds; Air Force, Nascar, Pool… Bartending. They were all hits and his turn in 1986’s The Color Of Money (along with 88’s Rain Man) helped his co-star win an Oscar. Roger Ebert noticed the formula on his show At the Movies for the 1990 episode featuring Days of Thunder. A film where Cruise re-teams with Tony Scott who brought him his first blockbuster and introduced his future wife who would bring him personal and professional success.

Then he grew as an actor.

90’s Melodrama Phase – Sticking with calculated mid-budget choices of adapting movies based on books and returning to his 80’s success formula one more time with Days of Thunder, Cruise started to stretch himself. He received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading role working with Oliver Stone on Born on the Fourth of July. In a year of tough competition, Cruise was nominated against Daniel Day-Lewis for My Left Foot, Kenneth Branagh for Henry V, Morgan Freeman for Driving Miss Daisy, and Robin Williams for Dead Poets Society.

In his review of the acting nominations, Roger Ebert selected Cruise as his pick for Best Actor. Although he did lose to Day-Lewis. With the confidence of a nomination under his belt, he stretched himself further with his then-wife Nicole Kidman trying on his ancestral Irish accent in Ron Howard’s old-fashioned lovelorn epic Far and Away. The reviews on his accent were rough but he returned accented, a more seasoned player in American Made (2017) to much better reviews.

His first controversial casting stunt was for Neil Jordan’s Interview With The Vampire as Lestat. A gaunt, suave, gay European vampire. Unlike many people’s interpretation, the New York-born A-lister wasn’t many people’s first choice. Author Anne Rice derided his casting, then changed her mind once she saw his performance. He would meet casting criticism again playing Jack Reacher 18 years later. A hulking military man described in the books as 6’5 compared to Cruise’s 5’7 frame.

After a few good roles (and A Few Good Men, a monster critical and commercial hit filled with A-List stars and crew) he hit the jackpot with Jerry Maguire. A romantic comedy that gave him one of his best roles. The Academy agreed and offered him his second lead actor nomination although he lost to Geoffrey Rush for Shine. A few years later working with Paul Thomas Anderson he received his third Oscar nomination in a rare supporting turn. Many critics regard this as both his best performance and his best-ever shot at getting an Oscar. He lost to Michael Caine who won his second Academy Award for The Cider House Rules.

After that point, he went into full Cruise control, and though his movies were ambitious cinematic genre boundary-pushers, with unexpected nominations for his co-stars (Ken Watanabe and Jamie Foxx) he never went full tilt into the dramatics again until Lions For Lambs in 2007, (wherein his character accurately predicts the fallout of US troops leaving Afghanistan 14 years before it happens) and that movie which he made while he was head of a movie studio— bombed. Perhaps it was for the best. Audiences will take action movies over Oscar bait any day and Cruise might be wasted in it. Though now in his sixtieth year, there’s a hunger from audiences for him to return to more dramatic roles, similar to what his predecessor Paul Newman did. Fun fact: Tom is the same age now as Newman was in The Color of Money. 

During his prime Cruise was, and in many cases still is for audiences, Hollywood’s go-to A-Lister.

Prime phase – Hitting back with M: I-2, the highest-grossing film of 2000 worldwide ($86 million more than the nearest competition), Cruise was in full control. He gave us his best performance as the crazed and cool killer hitman Vincent in Collateral (2004) opposite Jamie Foxx. Foxx was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and ended up winning Best Actor that year for a different role [Ray]. In an interview with MuchMusic, while promoting Valkyrie, the hosts remarked how many of Cruise’s co-stars get nominated or go on to win Oscars. As many will tell you, Cruise is nothing if not an enthusiastic team player. Proof of his good luck charm, you could write an entirely separate article listing all the actors and filmmakers Cruise has worked with who would, later on, end up winning Oscars for their work, even if they already had won one. Add to that acclaim 7 films in a row crossing $100 million in the US/ Canada alone. That feat was only surpassed by Academy Award Winner and former neighbour Will Smith who in 2022 had a steeper fall from grace.

Post couch jumping, in a late-action genre cycle, he retreated to his strengths.

To understand how great the achievement of Top Gun: Maverick is we have to wind the clocks back. 2005 is a notable year for blockbusters and a favourite of mine. The year kickstarted the Dark Knight trilogy with Batman Begins, starring Cruise’s then-fiancée Katie Holmes. 2005 also ended the Star Wars prequel trilogy with Revenge of the Sith. Peter Jackson followed up Lord of the Rings with the incredible King Kong. The year also had the best Harry Potter movie in Goblet of Fire. Computer F/x were taking over and fueling more and more blockbusters. Yet as movie star vehicles with a degree of quality control were starting to get pushed out, actors like Cruise were still posting better-than-ever numbers.

The era of stars married with special effects was too good to last. Epitomized in the publicity tour for War of the Worlds. In my favourite role of his, Cruise plays a lousy father named Ray Ferrier. Playing the father of a teenage son under Spielberg’s direction represented a maturity for both Cruise and Spielberg against the roles the former usually took. It wasn’t until this year’s Maverick that any Cruise role acknowledges time has passed for him and he’s no longer in his thirties. It’s as if the fallout of Worlds’ publicity tour which Spielberg wasn’t able to be a part of due to the fast-track nature of the film’s development, that put Cruise in stasis mode. Starting out as a heel which the best Cruise characters do, Ray eventually taps into his parental instincts. It’s ironic that a movie about aliens invading might actually be Cruise’s most down-to-earth role. Here he is an affable burnout of a husband and father to a teenage son and ten-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning). He makes a lot of mistakes and is clueless regarding his children’s lives but eventually has to learn to survive with them. Maybe it’s because Spielberg was reconciling with his own father in real life at the time or maybe because Cruise could be a reluctant father himself but they manage to make a two-dimensional fortysomething father believable in an action movie. It is some of Cruise’s best acting. Going forward he would have to become the special effect to sell to audiences. But here his character is the cross-section between special effects and human relatability. His success might have built him up too much as the rigorous publicity tour for a blockbuster gave berth to many controversial interviews.

People point to the couch-jumping moment on Oprah where Cruise, instead of promoting War of the Worlds as Steven Spielberg tells him to, parades Katie Holmes out and declares his love in an exciting and embarrassing way to the most electric crowd daytime TV has ever produced. But it really is the breakdown of his relationship with Spielberg that put his career on brakes. Because not only did Cruise cast a shadow over the opening of the movie but he did so by pushing his personal belief in Scientology on publicity tours. Something his previous publicist Pat Kingsley warned him about while promoting The Last Samurai. He listened then and the film was a huge success. He fired Kingsley a year later after 13 years of service and replaced her with his sister Lee Anne De Vette.

The Last Samurai opened to over $24 million in the famously tough post-Thanksgiving box office slot. In the 19 years since Samurai opened, the only movies to sell more tickets that weekend were Frozen 1 & 2. Last Samurai had great legs grossing over $111 million in the U.S. and Canada and was also an international success grossing over $454 million worldwide. The movie was somewhat of a risk as it was a long drama with only a few major action sequences. The movie was also nominated for four Academy Awards. Similarly his follow-up drama Collateral also grossed over $100 million domestically giving acclaimed director Michael Mann his only $100 million hit. Add to that a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Jamie Foxx, which should have won Best Actor were it not for Foxx also starring and winning in a separate film Ray.

Some of the things he’s said or done have forced him to make amends. Like his controversial interview on The Today Show. Morning Talk shows have a history of unflattering their guests. Whether it’s letting Liam Neeson hang himself out to dry or Dwayne Johnson promoting Black Adam being told he’s past his prime and suggesting retirement. So in retrospect, Cruise debating disgraced former anchor Matt Lauer while talking about something neither of them has any business talking about while promoting a movie isn’t the worst interview daytime television has seen. It’s actually the most interesting. In the interview, Cruise makes the mistake of taking a “my way or the highway” approach to an argument on the use of prescription drugs for model Brooke Shields, a mutual friend of theirs. He would later privately apologize to Brooke for publicly offending her.

Nonetheless, War of the Worlds became Cruise’s biggest hit ever (and a personal favourite of mine), but the following year he was let go from Paramount after corporate hothead Sumner Redstone claimed Cruise’s public behaviour affected the grosses of Mission Impossible III. More likely for Paramount it was Cruise and his producing partner Paula Wagner’s heavy portion of the DVD sales after the movie failed to make its money back theatrically. Previously a guarantee, the deal proved too expensive for Paramount’s liking and the actor subsequently became a free agent.

He remained an international icon posting solid yet unspectacular domestic Box Office numbers. Although he has only had one non-franchise film make over $100 million domestically since 2005 (fan-favourite Edge of Tomorrow). His lead films still make over $70 million in the U.S. alone. An incredible rarity and one of the highest batting averages among actors today. In 2017, despite dreadful reviews, Tom Cruise was able to lead the failed Mummy reboot to a career-best $171 million worldwide opening weekend and a $400 million total. Remarkably, it still lost Universal over $100 million.

Turnaround: The most interesting role and riskiest moves Cruise has done were in the late 2000s starting a sort of a mini-comeback for him. He bought the studio United Artists along with his producing partner Paula Wagner and produced two films as head of the studio: Lions For Lambs, a critical and commercial flop, and Valkyrie in 2008 which posted decent numbers and reviews. In between what gave people something else to talk about other than the memory of the 2005 Oprah couch-jumping incident was a critically acclaimed supporting role in an action comedy blockbuster directed by Ben Stiller: Tropic Thunder. The movie netted Cruise a Golden Globe nomination alongside colleague Robert Downey Jr. (who was also Oscar-nominated) and is considered one of the best cameos of all time. A critical and commercial success grossing over $100 million and staying at #1 for three weeks.

Still, although he was putting up solid grosses and still commanding large paydays his status as a leading man was in question. Cruise was now 49, back dealing with Paramount and they planned to try and hand off the Mission: Impossible franchise to then-up-and-coming 2x Oscar-nominee Jeremy Renner. It took the brilliant and bold hiring of Pixar director Brad Bird to kick Cruise’s star power and stunt work into high gear. Flexing every muscle in a story famously and hilariously recounted by Matt Damon, he greatly succeeded in re-inventing himself as a star-powered stuntman. Despite being nearly 50 he managed to remain a credible action star, and with Bird’s help managed to fly the franchise to its highest heights, critically, commercially, and literally.

Mission Impossible 4- subtitled Ghost Protocol was wildly successful despite an unconventional release strategy. It played outside the summer season at Christmas, a first for the series, up against 2 other heavy hitting $200 million domestic franchises: Sherlock Holmes and Alvin & the Chipmunks. While those films disappointed in their performances, M: I-4, played in one-ninth of the theatres and set a record for the highest-grossing limited debut of all time with over $12 million in only 425 theatres. When all other movies were still following the 3D trend Mission Impossible went for IMAX exclusivity. It paid off with numbers that would make Chris Nolan jealous. The film expanded wide to number one and ruled the holidays for two weeks until Paramount’s own film The Devil Inside unseated it in January. Ghost Protocol became Tom’s highest-grossing movie ever worldwide and third highest in North America behind Mission: Impossible 2 and War of the Worlds.


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