The Last Movie Star
Article by Paul Preston
What an appropriate picture of Tom Cruise. Walking the Earth by himself. The lone member of a dying race:
The Movie Star.
When Tom Cruise came on the scene, he was a supporting actor in films like “The Outsiders” and “TAPS” until his charm and blazing smile could no longer be contained. And instantly he was the best at everything. The best fighter pilot, the best pool player, the best race car driver, the best bartender, you name it. During this run of box office successes, he even took a swing at Best Actor with “Born on the Fourth of July”, and got a nomination.
Soon, that became is M.O. – couple a box office hit with a prestige pic. For every “Top Gun”, there was “The Color of Money”. For every “Cocktail”, there was “Rain Man”, with “Far and Away” came “A Few Good Men” and so on. Cruise made every smart move you could make to be both wildly popular and taken seriously.
This all happened during (or started), the modern era of The Movie Star. More than you heard “What movies are coming out this summer?”, you’d hear “When does the next Tom Cruise movie come out?”. Lead actors led the way. Every summer, you could expect a Tom Hanks movie, a Mel Gibson movie, a Jim Carrey movie, a Harrison Ford movie and a Kevin Costner movie. These actors sought pedigree as well, appearing not only in “Sleepless in Seattle”, the “Lethal Weapon” movies, “Dumb & Dumber”, the Jack Ryan films and “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, but also “Philadelphia”, “Hamlet”, “The Truman Show”, “Presumed Innocent” and “JFK”.
But who’s doing that anymore?
Who headlines a movie that you’ll see because of the lead actor, regardless of what it’s about? Bruce Willis is no longer that guy. He can still show up in great films like “Looper” and “Moonrise Kingdom”, but he’s not a sure-fire movie star. He’s more of an ensemble player now, like in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and the “Red” films, even his latest “Die Hard” opus teamed him up with another actor to play his son, just to make sure you’d still see it. And you didn’t. Nicolas Cage? He tried like hell to do in the late ‘90s what Cruise did in the ‘80s, coupling the likes of “Leaving Las Vegas” with “The Rock”, but soon his slate of films reeked of desperation to stay popular and edgy. Sadly, now he’s neither.
Julia Roberts once ruled the list of box office females. That time has passed, seemingly, without an heir. Once it looked like Cameron Diaz would take that title, then Reese Witherspoon, but neither had the staying power of Roberts. Sandra Bullock probably comes closest, with recent hits “The Blind Side” and “The Proposal” and Best Actress. In fact, Bullock and Roberts both won their Oscars about fifteen years into their careers, let’s see if Bullock can keep relevant as long as Roberts. Or either of them as long as Cruise.
So when there’s a sparsely populated, post-apocalyptic Earth with only one person wandering it, having adventures, there’s only one actor who could hold our attention for two hours in that environment. Tom Cruise. Eleven years ago, it was Hanks with “Cast Away”, but the likes of “Larry Crowne” (with Roberts) and “Cloud Atlas” proved that audiences will come out in droves when he’s Woody. Six years ago, audiences gladly watched Will Smith roam a post-apocalyptic Earth in “I Am Legend”, but after the misfire “Seven Pounds”, he disappeared for four years. He returned with some box office muscle with “Men in Black 3”, but now I think he has an obsession with his kids that the rest of America may not share. He doesn’t smile once in the trailer for “After Earth”, which may not be the best way to direct Will Smith.
There are loads of great, popular movie actors out there today – George Clooney, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio – but I think that when Universal, who a few years back moved the start of the summer season to the end of April with “Fast Five”, wanted to pull back summer to April 19th this year, they called on one guy to do it. Cruise brought a personal-best Friday gross of $13 million to “Oblivion”’s opening weekend, and scored a $38 million weekend. The guy just, no pun intended, has all the right moves.
When he saw public perception hit the cellar for his personal beliefs, he showed up as Les Grossman in “Tropic Thunder” and surprised and entertained the hell out of everyone, including critics, and quickly (wisely) made another “Mission: Impossible” movie, perhaps the best in the series.
We’re about to launch into a summer full of stories and concepts. This may bode well for the ticket buyer, as the “Iron Man”, “Star Trek” and “Fast & Furious” franchises seem to be in the best shape they’ve been in. There are numerous ensemble comedies (“This is the End”, “The Hangover, Part III”) but there are no movie star-led films.