Tom Cruise turned 60 last summer, just as Top Gun: Maverick was becoming the biggest blockbuster of 2022. Maverick brought audiences back to movie theaters after the pandemic years, giving them the joy of a cathartic military and moral triumph. It also gave Hollywood hope for the future, even as it lost more than 2,000 movie screens during the lockdowns and $14 billion in gross revenue last year alone.
Maverick handed Cruise the greatest box office success of his career, rivaling the superhero movies that have dominated Hollywood for the last 15 years. It made more than $700 million in the U.S., the fifth greatest box office in U.S. history, and a worldwide total of almost $1.5 billion. Its smash hit status arguably makes Cruise the most successful movie star ever in America.
Of course, Cruise has been too busy to celebrate. He’s been working on his next movie, the seventh Mission: Impossible extravaganza, flying motorcycles off cliffs in breathtaking landscapes and then parachuting his way back to Earth, all for your viewing pleasure. Tom Cruise has been a celebrity for four decades. In TikTok time, that's 10,000 trends.
Eat your heart out, MrBeast!
Now, you might not believe it, but after a career spent on-screen saving America, civilization, and even the world, from the Cold War to the era of digital technology, Tom Cruise has never won an Oscar. It’s as though Hollywood were ashamed of him.
It’s not so elsewhere. Maverick screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where Cruise was awarded an honorary Palme d’Or for his career, continuing a French tradition of honoring Hollywood talent more than Hollywood itself does. Barton Fink, Wild at Heart, and Sex, Lies and Videotape all won the Palme d’Or too, but none of them got an Oscar nod for Best Picture. You’d think the Academy would have learned its lesson by now.
Well, tomorrow, the Oscars have the opportunity to do justice to Cruise’s indefatigable efforts and, though he isn’t nominated as a star, they can give him the statue as a producer, since he’s nominated for Best Picture for Maverick. It would be a fitting victory, too. No other actor has produced his own career with more care and professionalism.
Steven Spielberg, the father of the blockbuster film and America’s beloved techno-magician for an entire generation, seems to be the only guy who gets it. He congratulated Cruise on Maverick’s success at the recent Oscars nominee luncheon, declaring: “You saved Hollywood’s ass. And you might have saved theatrical distribution. Seriously. Maverick might have saved the entire theatrical industry.”
Not everyone feels this way. Hosting the Golden Globes, comedian Jerrod Carmichael mocked Cruise for returning his Golden Globe statue in 2021 in protest against the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s lack of ethnic and gender diversity. Carmichael reminded the audience that Cruise is a Scientologist with a joke about Shelly Miscavige, wife of David Miscavige, Chairman of the Board of that cult. (Shelly has not been seen in public since 2007.) And at the Directors Guild of America Awards, Judd Apatow pilloried Cruise for being short and doing dangerous stunts at his age, calling that an “ad for Scientology,” and reminding everyone that Cruise once embarrassed himself by jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch.
It’s true: Scientology is a crazy cult, and it should not have tax-exempt status. But no one would accuse all Hollywood actors of being especially sane, or, I’m guessing, paying their fair share of taxes.
The Oscars are supposed to reward art more than entertainment, and that’s another reason for a Tom Cruise win. No other star has tried so hard to work with the most talented directors in Hollywood.
After Risky Business made him a celebrity in 1983, Cruise signed up to work for Ridley Scott, who had just made Blade Runner. The result, 1985’s Legend, a fairy tale about princesses, unicorns, and devils, is one of Scott’s weaker movies, but it was an artistic risk, not a crowd-pleasing money grab. More importantly, Cruise was undeterred by failure. After his sensational success with Top Gun in 1986, helmed by Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, Cruise made The Color of Money with Martin Scorsese. Cruise played a pool hall hustler with his usual cocky charm, but without the advantages of heroism. It’s a movie that shows what made him a star, since it trades dazzle for the romance of poverty.
Cruise kept up this pattern: Rain Man was a blockbuster and Oscar success in 1988, and in 1989 he signed up for Oliver Stone’s Vietnam drama Born on the Fourth of July. Cruise got his first Oscar nomination for the portrayal of a veteran who turns to drugs and then anti-war protests because he cannot make sense of his crippling injuries. Like other talented directors, Stone saw the intensity behind the handsome smile and pretty features and brought it out to amazing effect.
Then in 1996, Cruise became a producer and star of Mission: Impossible, which turned into a multibillion-dollar franchise that is now almost 30 years old. After Spielberg introduced Cruise to Brian de Palma, the actor was so amazed by the filmography of the master of horrors and thrillers, he hired him to helm the first film. De Palma’s Mission: Impossible was a big success, making almost half a billion dollars worldwide. It was also the most stylish espionage thriller of that decade, proving that great cinematic talent can also draw huge audiences.
The ’90s were full of hits for Cruise—Interview with the Vampire and Jerry Maguire (another Oscar nomination) on the romantic side, A Few Good Men and The Firm on the thriller side. For most of that decade, Cruise showed a gift for playing underdogs defined by moral earnestness—the staple of American cinema since Frank Capra pioneered it.
He also continued to work with impressive directors. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) earned him his third Oscar nomination for playing a guru whose misogyny—retailed as self-help to weak guys confused by third-wave feminism—turns out to be a self-loathing fear going back to his childhood. Who else but Cruise could show that charm and vulnerability, that aggression and fear, and turn it into the will to succeed?
Stanley Kubrick’s last movie, Eyes Wide Shut, came out the same year—an art movie that made more than $100 million internationally, showcasing Cruise’s subtlest performance. He plays a striving Manhattanite, devoid of the advantages of celebrity, showing his weakness to temptation when faced with a Jeffrey Epstein–style mystery, which could be anything from rich people indulging in prostitution to a cult. Cruise shows all over again why he became a star, bringing fear of failure back into his performance, this time without playing on the sympathy of the audience.
In the second part of his career, Cruise transformed into the action hero we now know—indeed, the last action hero. His best artistic achievement in the genre is Steven Spielberg’s 2002 science fiction thriller Minority Report, the movie that brought Cruise closest to the noir hero, and to tragedy. Cruise plays the champion of an order that aims to replace humans with robots in the name of safety—until he becomes its victim. Eventually, he learns to love all-American freedom and to endorse it over the surveillance state.
This is the career the Oscars should honor. And the Best Picture award is the prime opportunity. Top Gun: Maverick is the pinnacle of Cruise’s career as an entertainer—and as an icon who has uttered some of cinema’s most memorable lines. Back in 1996, playing Jerry Maguire, he declared his undying love to Renée Zellweger by saying, “You complete me.”
Nor would American cinema be complete without Tom.
Will Hollywood say it back?
Titus Techera is a film critic, the Executive Director of the American Cinema Foundation, and host of the ACFmovie podcast. Don’t miss Walter Kirn’s essay on how Top Gun: Maverick brought the holy anarchy of fun back to cinemas.
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