It’s December, which means one thing to moviegoers: the parade of would-be Oscar contenders has begun. This week sees the premiere of “The Last Samurai,” one of the season’s biggest movies (in terms of hype, anyway), and featuring in the title role one of the world’s biggest movie stars, Tom Cruise, who’s doing his now fairly routine December Bid For Oscar Consideration. (See also: “Vanilla Sky,” “Magnolia,” “Jerry Maguire,” “A Few Good Men”) But how likely is “The Last Samurai” to bring Cruise the Oscar he seems so desperate to acquire?
That Tom Cruise is the most famous movie star in the world is not a subject for debate; it is a fact. He’s definitely among the most powerful, and the most bankable. But as famous and successful as he is, he really isn’t a very good actor. Tom Cruise has become a movie star because of his charisma; as an actor, he has very little range.
Throughout his career, Cruise has constructed a clear and more or less consistent public persona: Everybody’s All-American, with generic good looks and a dazzling grin. Cultivating an image as Everybody’s All-American is harder than you might think. You must at once embody the solid and staid attributes that ordinary Americans aspire to themselves — wealth, responsibility to one’s family, public service — while at the same time acting out the sorts of naughty qualities that ordinary Americans admire in others — a cocky, devil-may-care attitude, particularly characterized by the proclivity to buck authority. The few facts we know about Tom Cruise — as opposed to the tabloid speculation that continues to dog him — bear out both halves of the personality profile of Everybody’s All-American: he’s crazy rich and loves his kids, but he also has a wild streak, getting off on doing his own stunts and piloting planes.
Doing the Maverick shuffle Cruise’s film roles have, for quite some time, been carefully chosen to bolster the public image we have all come to know so well. Of the 26 films in which he’s appeared (it seems like that number should be higher, but that’s really all he’s done), well over half have him playing a callow young man who hates taking orders from the higher-ups and is rebellious (in very conventional ways) for a while until he wises up in the last reel and steps up to behave responsibly and accept an authority higher than his own. Let’s call these the “Maverick” roles, after the character Cruise played in “Top Gun,” and which is really such a textbook case of the kind of characters Cruise has gone on to play throughout his career that watching it now practically makes it look like a parody.
On the surface, for example, there doesn’t seem to be many similarities among the Maverick roles “Days of Thunder,” “A Few Good Men,” and “Rain Man.” In them, Cruise plays a race-car driver, a Navy lawyer, and a general kind of hustler, respectively. But in all three movies, Cruise’s characters follow the same arc: he starts out wanting to do his own thing, showboating around and making seemingly frosty women fall in love with him, until he realizes that there’s something more important at stake, that he has to start acting like a grown-up, and that there is an authority more final than himself, be it The Law (“A Few Good Men”), The Family Bond (“Rain Man”), or Robert Duvall (“Days of Thunder”). We are to start out admiring Cruise’s charm, pluck, and slightly crooked resourcefulness, but end up admiring his sense of responsibility.
Whenever Cruise plays a non-Maverick role — plays against type, in other words — it always strikes the viewer as slightly cynical, like he’s going through the motions of caring about things like stretching as an artist either because he’s just trying to prove to us (or Anne Rice) that he can, and/or because he’s angling for an Oscar. Cruise has been Oscar-nominated both for Maverick roles (“Jerry Maguire”) and non-Maverick roles (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “Magnolia”), but the press seems only to make a big hairy deal out of it when Cruise manages to get through a movie without leaning on that blinding grin like a crutch.
Stretching until it hurts (us)
Why is it such a revelation whenever Cruise tries a non-Maverick role? Sure, it’s newsworthy just because it happens so seldom. (In fact, one could make the case that even Frank T.J. Mackey in “Magnolia” is a Maverick role at its core — just one in which he has to come further to achieve his expected redemption.) You can easily count non-Maverick roles on the fingers of one hand with room to spare: there’s Lestat, a soulless, pitiless demon (“Interview With The Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles”); there’s would-be pervert William Harford (“Eyes Wide Shut”).
Whether Nathan Algren in “The Last Samurai” is a Maverick role or not remains to be seen, although, judging by what we can see in the trailer — a cocky Civil War veteran who starts out braying frattish laughter at a Japanese envoy seeking his expertise, and ends up accepting the higher authority of the samurai and joining forces with them against his former allies — there is a definite Maverick streak there. Cruise is so unwilling to separate his work as an actor from the persona which has served him so well as a movie star that he barely even submits to a period haircut for “Samurai”: I guess we’re supposed to surmise that Nathan Algren was the only soldier in the Union army with a layered coif and conditioner.
Or maybe, more likely, it’s not that Cruise is unwilling to let his public image recede as he inhabits his roles; it’s that he’s unable. There’s a reason Cruise doesn’t moonlight in Broadway productions of “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof”: he may kick ass at being a movie star, but as an actor, he’s proven himself to be extremely limited. Maybe it’s that the only kinds of scripts he responds to are ones in which he’s required to be a Maverick. Maybe it’s that when he commits to a project, it’s rewritten to include more Maverickian elements. Or maybe it’s that, in every role he plays, he can’t help molding the character into the role he’s been playing for us, his public, every day of the past two decades.
Whatever the reason, there’s scarcely a moment in any Tom Cruise movie that the viewer is compelled to forget that the protagonist is Tom Cruise (and not Jerry, or Ron, or Lestat). Which is probably a good thing for Cruise’s career: very few consumer products can command that kind of brand recognition.