Tom Cruise, approaching 60, remains Hollywood’s alpha dog

tom cruise

Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick.”

He’s a hot shot who thinks he knows better than anyone else (and is usually right). An overachiever who has managed to get everything he wanted, except a lasting relationship. A charismatic extrovert who is the center of any crowd — and yet always seems remote, unknowable, alone.

That’s one way to describe the hero of “Top Gun: Maverick,” which will be released on May 27.

It’s also a good way to describe the star who plays him.

Yet however difficult it may be to know Tom Cruise, it’s clear he knows himself — or, at least, what works for him onscreen. That rare sequel that actually improves on the original, this belated follow-up to the 1986 hit takes what had been a jingo-istic Reagan Era recruitment ad and turns it into a straightforward, fast-paced action movie. There are no misjudged moments.

There are some familiar ones. There’s another, and still not very convincing, love story. There’s another extended, homoerotic sequence of bare-chested warriors playing sports and getting photogenically sweaty. And Cruise is, once again, endlessly in motion — running fast, racing his motorcycle, doing Mach 10 in very expensive planes which he treats very badly.

“The time has come,” an enraged superior officer tells him early in the film. “Your kind is headed for extinction.”

“Maybe so, sir,” Cruise shoots back. “But not today.”

Perhaps we’ve had so many years of action movies beating us to death with magical creatures and superhero mutants and outer-space swashbucklers, we’d almost forgotten what a not-entirely-impossible story starring vaguely human characters looked like. But Cruise remembers, and delivers. The movie is hugely entertaining and guaranteed to make a mint.

Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July.”

Even more obviously? Tom Cruise is the Hollywood star — and maybe even the last one.

He certainly knows how to create product and, in some ways, his first and greatest product has always been himself. Born in Syracuse in 1962, Thomas Cruise Mapother IV was the son of a devoted mother and an erratic and often violently abusive father (“a bully and a coward,” Cruise called him later). They moved around a bit, spending time in Ottawa and Ohio. Finally, when he was 12, his parents divorced. Eventually Cruise’s mother remarried and moved the family to Glen Ridge.

The rootless childhood ended up being a plus, leaving Cruise culturally ambiguous. There was never any doubt when you listened to James Gandolfini or John Travolta — or checked out the attitude of Jack Nicholson, or Bruce Willis — that they were from Jersey. But Cruise? Maybe the Essex County suburb left a trace of polite, pleasantly preppie confidence. But the perpetually accentless, ethnically malleable Cruise could be anyone, from anywhere — an advantage for any actor.

Yet even though he was capable of playing different characters, Cruise, like the most successful stars — consciously or not — quickly began creating a persona, based on his own life.

Like him, the characters he played often had a difficult relationship with an older man who criticized them and, sometimes, abandoned or betrayed them. They faced various, difficult lessons they had to master, and challenges they had to overcome (Cruise struggled with dyslexia for years, claiming he was “functionally illiterate” in high school). And like him, they armored themselves with an almost physically aggressive confidence, and a charm so overpowering — that perpetual grin, baring huge white teeth — it could seem like a threat.

Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire.”

After Cruise’s star rose — “Risky Business,” the first “Top Gun,” “Rain Man,” “Jerry Maguire” — he moved to take more control of his projects. That could lead to tensions. Helming “Mission: Impossible 2,” director John Woo found himself regularly second-guessed and overruled by its producer and star; co-star Thandiwe Newton said the difficult shoot left her shaken. “He was a very dominant individual,” she said of Cruise. “He has this sense that only he can do everything as best as it can be done.”

Cruise isn’t so egotistical that he tries to be the alpha dog in every pack — he certainly didn’t attempt to tell Stanley Kubrick where to place the camera on “Eyes Wide Shut,” or Steven Spielberg how to edit “War of the Worlds.” But if Cruise sees an opening, he will take it. And that he’s often correct — his hugely popular “Mission: Impossible” franchise, which is in the midst of wrapping a two-part conclusion, can make the 007 films look quaint — only makes some people dislike him a little more.

Cruise attributes a lot of his success to Scientology, which the formerly devout Catholic — he once was a seminary student — converted to under the tutelage of first wife Mimi Rogers. But it’s also brought him the closest he’s come to disaster.

Following his divorce of Nicole Kidman in 2001, Cruise seemed to ramp up his proselytizing for the religion. He lobbied for the church and pushed its beliefs, including its strident medical views. An appearance on “Today,” in which he patronizingly dismissed Brooke Shields’ use of prescribed prescription drugs to treat post-partum depression — “She doesn’t understand the history of psychiatry” — drew an immediate backlash.

Meanwhile there were also reports — denied by Scientology — that its authorities were actively “auditioning” younger, more compliant women to replace Kidman (who had never really signed on to the creed). Cruise’s later, couch-jumping announcement on “Oprah” of his new romance with Katie Holmes seemed somehow both calculated and unhinged.

Tom Cruise in “War of the Worlds.”

There was, eventually, a price to be paid. Spielberg was said to be annoyed at the distractions from “War of the Worlds,” which the star was supposed to be promoting at the time. Paramount seriously reconsidered their lengthy business relationship with him. His long-time publicist left him. (She was briefly replaced by Cruise’s sister — also a Scientologist.) The controversies were briefly rekindled in 2012, when Holmes ended their marriage amid reports she’d grown worried about the church’s influence.

Over the years, though, Cruise has slowly, cautiously repaired his image. He has a professional publicist again. He avoids all but the most carefully managed press appearances. He even demonstrated a rare sense of humor in “Tropic Thunder” and “Rock of Ages” before returning to pumping out pumped-up blockbusters. Only the ones that deviated from his tested formula — “The Mummy,” “Oblivion” — failed to connect with audiences.

That’s because, after 40 years in the business, Cruise knows what works for him. He also knows what he isn’t willing to risk. He got good reviews as the disabled peace activist in “Born on the Fourth of July.” He got the best reviews of his life as the misogynistic motivational speaker in “Magnolia.” Yet he seems reluctant to take those gambles again.

In between blockbusters, Cruise’s friend Will Smith always tried one serious, obviously Oscar-bait picture (finally winning the statue this year, for “King Richard,” before sabotaging himself). Not Cruise.

But Cruise knows what the audience wants to see, he knows how to deliver it, and he seems willing to deliver it forever — even as this perpetually boyish performer heads into his 60s (he’ll turn 60 on July 3).

There aren’t many like him anymore — bigger-than-life personalities who still jealously guard huge swaths of their private life, celebrities who are also hard-headed businesspeople, controlling every aspect of their films. Perhaps that’s a good thing; perhaps it’s not. And perhaps, in a world of CGI eye candy, populated by interchangeable actors in flashy costumes, old-fashioned movie stars like Cruise really are headed for extinction.

But not today.

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