'Tom Cruise has all the qualities of a great movie star except relaxation. Most of the greats — Bogart, Mitchum, Hanks, Willis — seem so at ease on screen you could balance a golf ball on the end of their nose, but Cruise has never once lived up to his name: he guns it, every time. He approaches each role like a Chinese gymnast approaching the bars. Critics may have pummelled his new eighties-retro musical, Rock of Ages, but they have all been holding up a “10” for Cruise’s performance as Stacee Jax, a dissipated rock legend attempting a comeback after rumors of Satanic religious activity have driven him from favor.
"People say your fame has turned you into nonsensical recluse," he is asked by a hot Rolling Stone journalist.
Stacee fixes her with a Cobra stare that seems to go right through her, as if his fame had rendered other people transluscent. Staring into the abyss, he sees only his own oversexed legend staring right back.
"Do they even know themselves?" he replies and taps the side of his head. "I know better than anyone. I live in here."
Cruise is, of course, turning in a parody of his own out-to-lunch intensity, although the performance goes beyond mere self-send-up, and is already picking up some awards-season heat, despite the film’s poor showing at the box office. There, Cruise has the success of last year’s Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol to provide him with cover from his critics. The Golden Rule of Comebacks? It’s the same rule that pertains to snake bites: just suck out the poison and spit it back out.
Comebacks are an elastic phenomenon these days. In the 24-hour ubiquity machine that is E! entertainment Glam Cams and TMZ scoops, a celebrity’s Twitter feed need only fall silent for a day for someone to declare their career dead, buried and in urgent need of resuscitation. The term is really the prerogative only of those whose Wikepedia entry contains the words “box office poison”. When Mickey Rourke pleaded “I just don’t want you to hate me,” in The Wrestler, the line pierced our stony hearts because Rourke had been languishing in the wilderness for over a decade. When Quentin Tarantino staged an intervention on the career of John Travolta, the star was appearing in Look Who’s Talking Now opposite a talking dog voiced by Danny De Vito. He hadn't disappeared. He’s simply fallen several echelons of cool, which for the creator of Tony Manero and Danny Zuko may have amounted to the same thing.
Cruise’s ‘comeback’ is of the latter, semi-skimmed variety: more of a reputation nip ‘n’ tuck than a full facelift. The charges against him in the court of public opinion are twofold: 1) belonging to a creepy religious cult which believes humans to be a secret race of extra-terrestrial Thetans trapped in earth bodies; and 2) sequestering his wife and children away from the kind gentlemen of the press who wish nothing more than to liberate them from whatever cruel psycho-sexual brainwashing they are undergoing behind the walls of Cruise’s castle. Or, to put it in plain English: he is guilty of practicing a religion of his choice and protecting the privacy of his family.
You wonder how all of this is going to look in fifty, even 20 years time. Are people going to look on the hounding of Cruise the same way we now look on the shaming of Ingrid Bergman? When Bergman ran off with Roberto Rossellini, the father of Italian neorealism, it dealt a double hammer blow to the American heart: guilty of cheating on her husband and living in sin with a foreign-sounding –ism. By contrast, the ionic charge surrounding Cruise had grown so nebulously toxic by 2009 that all it took was one misjudged chat-show ‘bit’ — in which the star, juiced up on the whoops of Oprah’s live audience, jumped on her sofa, sending the crowd wild — for all good, reasonable men to be of one opinion: the blaggard could not be trusted.
Cruise responded the way stars have always responded, from Gloria Swanson to Frank Sinatra, by getting back to work. He slugged his way through the set-pieces of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol with mastiff determination: tendons as taut as ship’s cable, nostrils flaring like a show horse, shoulders in urgent need of a massage. The films success at the box-office was a nice reminder that Cruise was the first to show us — before even Keanu Reeves in the Matrix movies and Matt Damon in the Bourne films — that the new digital age was going to require more physical dexterity from actors than just bulldozing through plate-glass windows, like the Terminator. Performing much of his own stunt-work, Cruise dangled and spun and leapt and dived, turning his own body into its own special effect.
And now we have his Stacee Jax, another master-class in aerobic physicality: shoulders thrust back, pelvis forward, Cruise seems to be channelling all his psychic energies through the jewel-studded cod-piece at his crotch. Feasting on groupies like a vampire fending off boredom, he is Cruise’s reptilian report back from ground zero of the superstar Id. Like most great performances, it is powered along by a nifty paradox, one teased out expertly by In Contention’s Guy Lodge:
“For all the romantic leads he's played and magazine covers he's graced, the perennially tidy-looking Cruise has always been an oddly sexless star: not in a particularly virtuous or immature way, mind, but in a guarded, reserved one. We've seen his immaculately sculpted torso any number of times, but his characters routinely seem politely cut off at the waist, burdened with too many other responsibilities to fuck.”
But then that’s the dirty little secret of most sex Gods, from Mae West to Madonna: professional Dionysians tend to be strangely unsensual creatures, doomed to turn sex into a continual act of provocation or performance, but denied the one thing everyone else uses it for: contact. They’ll happily raise the rafters with their raunch, but put your hand on their knee and they’ll jump through the roof. Stacee Jax’s guiding light is not eros but thanatos. He is fuelled less by lust and more by what fuelled Cruise’s Frank T.J. Mackey, the "woman-taming" self-help guru in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia: rage.
Rage at the machine, rage at the public acclaim that has him fixed in its cross-hairs — rage at his own audience. When Stacee Jax finally takes to the stage, he prowls from end to end, like a Tiger pacing his cage, bellowing into his microphone, and at the sea of people just beyond, the ones bellowing his name back to him.