Sure, Cruise’s hetero-babble can seem maddeningly coy, defensive, at times (sorry, Tom) Freudian. “This woman is magnificent,” he told Access, “and I’m not gonna pretend.” But “I love women. I do” (his comment to Reader’s Digest) still doesn’t deserve the snickering, asses-covered-against-lawsuits gay-baiting to which he continues to be subjected.
Can I just say that I find something both loonily sweet and sneakily admirable about the way Cruise is now comporting himself?
But let me state the critical point. Cruise has distracted us all with his publicity campaign, but that only makes it all the more necessary to remind ourselves that he’s not merely a celebrity. He’s an actor—and a good one. If his public image is spinning out of control, his screen work is stronger than ever. Last year, Cruise deftly executed a skillful thespian stretch as a silver-haired hit man in Michael Mann’s Collateral; he contributed a sharp performance to 2003’s otherwise jagged Last Samurai; and he locked into just the right mixture of paranoia and athleticism in Spielberg’s 2002 Minority Report. I haven’t seen War of the Worlds yet, but I know that Cruise’s acting is increasingly subtle and mature—he’s moving into middle age as a man who’s looking for roles that challenge his eager-pleaser image, an ambitious streak that only bodes well for the future. Michael Mann told me, “I never worked with a bigger star who was more ‘up’ for subverting what people think about him.”
These mini-media-explosions are plenty entertaining, but they threaten to distract us from that talent. Maybe that’s why Steven Spielberg himself had to be satellited in on Oprah, looming electronically over the proceedings (like The Great Gatsby’s billboard bespectacled symbol of humbuggery, Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, or Cruise’s own PowerPoint Magnolia huckster, T. J. Mackey), to plead, “I hope that Tom will say a little about [the movie],” and to proclaim, “What your audience sees of Tom is how I know Tom. There are no secrets.”
Ah, but there are secrets, Mr. Spielberg, and you (Dawson Leery’s favorite auteur!) know that as well as anyone. Tom Cruise’s biggest secret may well be that some things—the pressures of his career, his life—are so great that sometimes he just wants to explode everything by opening his gleaming choppers and venting. You can believe him or not, but you can’t deny the guy his current peculiar genius as a squawking, leaping piece of performance art.