Cruise has thrived in a risky business

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Dialogue with Tom Cruise

The negative press was overwhelming: slash-and-burn attacks for leaping on a sofa, jabbing a finger at NBC's "Today Show" host Matt Lauer, blasting antidepressants -- and even for marrying a woman several years his junior. It was enough to put anyone's career in a tailspin -- and it would certainly have done that with any less a figure than Tom Cruise.

In the avalanche of criticism that Cruise has endured recently -- beginning with the "Oprah" leap and culminating in a duel of words with Viacom's Sumner Redstone -- something has been lost: That Tom Cruise is one of our great stars, the only actor of his generation whose appeal has endured over two decades, who has been able to mold himself into an astonishing variety of roles despite his "star" persona, from the cute and cuddly boy-next-door of 1983's "Risky Business" to the cocky pilot of 1986's "Top Gun" to the embittered war veteran of 1989's "Born on the Fourth of July" to the smooth-talking but desperate agent of 1996's "Jerry Maguire" to the ice-cold assassin of 2004's "Collateral."

It's a remarkable body of work, from action to comedy, from the contemporary to the period piece. Now that this work is being recognized by the Museum of the Moving Image as it honors Cruise with its 23rd annual black-tie salute Tuesday, adding him to the ranks of Sidney Poitier, Robert De Niro and Steven Spielberg, it's high time to recognize just what Cruise does so well.

"He's peerless at being a movie star," says critic Leonard Maltin. "He's a good actor; but above and beyond that, he is a great movie star. There are many fine actors who are not movie stars, and there are some movie stars who are not great actors. But he has that extra something in his public DNA that compels people to watch him."

Just what it is and where it comes from remain a mystery. Certainly, there's nothing in his early life to explain it, the highlights of which are well-known: He was a would-be wrestler who abandoned the sport following a high school injury and switched to acting instead; the child of a broken home who spent years moving from one town to another; the son of a demanding father who all but abandoned him, but who would reconcile with his son before his premature death from cancer.

What is inexplicable is how these elements combined to create a personality that has so powerfully stamped itself on our era.

"He taps into the zeitgeist," says Cruise's business partner, Paula Wagner. But he does so almost unconsciously, she says -- not seeking to play roles that reflect his times, but choosing them, rather, because he is drawn to the character.

These choices have shown a remarkable intelligence at play, and those who know him best say it has characterized much of his decisionmaking, along with an almost unrivaled capacity for work.

"It's not an accident," says Sydney Pollack, who directed him in 1993's "The Firm" and acted with him in 1999's "Eyes Wide Shut." "There's nobody in the business who is more curious about every aspect of it and works harder at every aspect. When I first worked with him, I was absolutely amazed at his sheer endurance and the tenacity with which he approached every single day's work. It was very unusual, particularly for a star of that age. A lot of people work hard, but I have never come across anybody who is as focused on the work."

Any doubts about Cruise's devotion to the work, and not merely to the trappings of stardom, should have been put to rest when he and Wagner exited Paramount recently to take the helm of United Artists, the studio that historically has been a home to some of Hollywood's leading creative talent.

With a personal financial stake in the company and hundreds of millions of dollars in Wall Street funding, Cruise has already greenlighted three intriguing projects: "Lions for Lambs," a drama directed by Robert Redford, in which he plays a U.S. senator and co-stars with Redford and Meryl Streep; "Valkyrie," a World War II drama in which he plays Hitler's would-be assassin, teaming with director Bryan Singer for the first time; and a new Oliver Stone film, "Pinkville."

In embarking on this ambitious slate, Cruise has taken a leap into the unknown, defying any potential fallout that might come from failure. The fact that he chose to do so at a time when his career was under assault, with the controversy of his exit from Paramount, was indicative of a far bolder imagination than many have given him credit for.

Certainly, his departure from Paramount -- after years based in a first-look deal there -- was a low point in his career.

Whether Redstone cut loose Cruise and Wagner's CW Prods., as he has claimed, or whether Cruise and Wagner left of their own volition, as they themselves have said, seems irrelevant: What was far more revealing was Cruise's decision to branch out as master of his own destiny at the top of UA.

"It was a confluence of a number of things," Wagner explains, reluctant to go into details about the spat with Redstone. "(MGM chairman) Harry Sloan was very instrumental in that. He came to us and said, 'Let's sit and talk,' and it evolved. But, of course, it fits very much into Tom's vision: Tom as an actor, Tom as a producer, Tom as an artist, Tom as somebody who is interested in other artists and now as an owner of the studio and someone who is very involved with the direction the studio is going to take."

That direction, in the near future, will mean making four to six films a year, after which production might increase.

In moving to UA, Cruise has built on an established record as a producer, with such well-regarded movies as 2001's "The Others," 2002's "Narc" and 2003's "Shattered Glass," as well as the "Mission: Impossible" trilogy. But being a producer and a studio head are different things, and the films he greenlights now will define the next chapter of his career.

It's a great risk, but it's too easy to forget how many risks Cruise has taken before.

After the jingoism of "Top Gun," he did a volte-face when he played Ron Kovic in "Born on the Fourth of July," an indictment of the very warrior culture he had celebrated with the action film.

In 1988's "Rain Man," he allowed himself to play a self-centered foil to Dustin Hoffman, knowing all the while that Hoffman had the showier part. Similarly, in 1999's "Magnolia," he immersed himself in the role of an egomaniacal self-help guru, never succumbing to the temptation to give the audience a subtle wink that this wasn't the real Cruise.

Perhaps his greatest risk was leaving everything at the peak of his career to work with Stanley Kubrick on "Eyes Wide Shut," in which he teamed with his former wife Nicole Kidman. Few major stars in recent years have wanted to embrace Kubrick, knowing it would mean a schedule of endless retakes, a notoriously demanding director and a full year of their lives spent on his film. But Cruise did so with a passion he has never regretted.

Taking these risks has meant drawing on great strength of character. And those who doubt it might do well to recall that brief glimpse of Cruise at his very best at the London premiere of 2005's "War of the Worlds" when a prankster from England's Channel 4 squirted him with water from a fake microphone. In this age of terror, who wouldn't have leaped over the barrier and throttled the guy? But Cruise simply held the man's hands firmly in place, looked him directly in the eye and, with great sangfroid, simply asked him why he did something so nasty.

It was one of those rare moments that reveal the man behind the facade.

And "man" is the operative word. Lurking behind many of Cruise's recent actions has been a subtle transformation as he sheds the boyish image that has defined him for so long. Quietly and steadily, Cruise has been letting go of the easygoing charm that was his hallmark, searching perhaps for a more substantive appeal.

Wagner insists the substance was always there, right from the moment when they first lunched together, when Cruise was so broke he had to borrow a jacket, but nonetheless insisted on picking up the tab.

"He's very much the same person that I met in 1981," she says. "There are similar qualities: This incredible interest in other people. When you talk to Tom, there's nobody else in the room, because he's really interested in who you are and what you have to say. He has quite a sense of humor, a very unique sense of humor. He is a very compassionate person and has this incredible sense of fairness and honesty, and you see it in his eyes. The person that I met is the person that I know to this day."

Still, his public persona has changed and perhaps will change again in ways we cannot anticipate.

It's an enormously difficult transformation. Most stars in our minds are stamped with a persona carved at one particular point of their careers -- the Humphrey Bogart of "Maltese Falcon" and "Casablanca"; the Clark Gable of "Gone With the Wind"; the James Dean of "Giant" and "Rebel Without a Cause." Few have allowed their personas to shift over the years -- like the older James Stewart of 1958's "Vertigo," a far darker figure than the young star of 1940's "The Philadelphia Story."

"He's at an important juncture," Maltin reflects.

Clearly, his life is in transition: He has left Paramount; broken off with his years-long publicist, Pat Kingsley; and redefined himself as a mogul, as well as an actor. But it is his acting work that the public will look to first and foremost.

"He needs challenges now," Maltin adds. "He needs to show some people who have grown a little wary -- because of his offscreen life -- that he has some 'street cred' by extending his range."

The question is: Can he? Those who know him answer with an emphatic "Yes."

"I am sure, knowing Tom, that he has thought about it," says Pollack referring to Cruise's transitional phase. "He's boyish, and he will be boyish until he's an old man. But I can promise you he is not going to run around trying to play 25 when he's 45. Of course he will transition to other things. I don't worry about him."
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