American viewers have an on-again, off-again love of Tom Cruise. He’s got his issues, most of them relating to Scientology, but he’s also the son of a special education teacher and an electrical engineer, someone who grew up in poverty and survived regular beatings by his father. He attended 15 schools growing up. Now he can’t keep a marriage, he’s been accused of wiretapping one ex-wife, and he’s listed on 50 Most Loathsome People lists. Is he someone to admire or someone to be wary of?
You can’t honestly approach a top performances list without measuring whether the man deserves one. Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There are both things to admire and things to loathe. No celebrity should be viewed without context. Audiences aren’t wrong to admire him or wrong to dislike him. There’s no right answer, just a lot of complicated ones. With that caveat, let’s consider Tom Cruise’s 10 best performances.
Before he became an action hero, Tom Cruise was considered one of the best young character actors in Hollywood. Before Aaron Sorkin was the creator of The West Wing and Newsroom, he had an award-winning play about the cover-up of a Marine’s death. When Sorkin brought it to film, it was Cruise who skillfully embodied the ambition and frustration in Lt. Daniel Kaffee, traits that would become the Sorkin hallmark of idealized, young, professional men in government and media jobs.
In all the hubbub around the idea Tom Cruise was playing an historical character who wore an eye patch and tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the reality of Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie became lost. Here was a respectful and exacting procedural with a reasonable eye for historical accuracy, boasting a restrained and often quiet portrayal on Cruise’s part. The intensity for which he’s so widely known was kept boiling beneath the surface, communicating the sheer amount of discipline Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg must have exerted while plotting the ultimately failed assassination attempt.
Vincent is a ruthless assassin who both uses and develops a grudging relationship with the cab driver he abducts (played by Jamie Foxx). Tom Cruise doesn’t just play a sociopath, his performance belies the emotion Vincent denies himself in his own personality. He plays sociopathy as a conscious choice, as a practiced worldview. Vincent is a bright-eyed philosopher who misuses his intelligence to chase away the things that might gnaw at his conscience, but he’s so good at it you can only see bare moments when honest emotion threatens to shine through. What’s remarkable is Cruise communicates the moments when Vincent consciously denies those emotions, as if the act is just as practiced as reloading a gun.
Bill Harford was the sort of role you might more readily associate with a young Christian Bale. Whole stretches of Tom Cruise’s performance were silent and involved only movement to communicate emotion. Here was a man measured in his reaction, who thought perhaps too much before he spoke. What many miss about Cruise’s performance in Eyes Wide Shut is just how much he lets the audience see through his eyes. Cruise draws himself back so the audience can fill in the space that’s left.
You can’t make a Tom Cruise list without including an action movie, and Minority Report contains his most complex action performance. Cruise has always had a unique (some would say obsessive) ability for physical performance. He does most of his owns stunts on film. His first collaboration with Steven Spielberg was lightning in a bottle, combining one of Cruise’s best physical performances with one of his rawest emotional ones as the disgraced Chief of Pre-crime John Anderton.
Parents go away for a trip, you drive your Dad’s car into Lake Michigan, and you open up a brothel in your house to pay for the repairs. You know how it goes. Perhaps the lost mini-masterpiece of Tom Cruise’s career (especially with the original ending), his portrayal of overwhelmed kid Joel Goodsen feels emotionally honest. What would later be interpreted as contrivances in his performance just belong to a nervous kid. None of it feels like a put-on.
If none of Tom Cruise’s performance in Risky Business feels like a put-on, nearly all of his performance in Rain Man does. As Charlie Babbitt, Cruise plays a cross between a yuppie and a con man, out to get the money his father left to savant brother Raymond. Charlie is frustrating, manipulative, and dishonest. He doesn’t give up these things wholesale in order to bond with his brother, he just sees through them enough to lower his defenses for this one man. Dustin Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor for playing the autistic Raymond, but in retrospect, Cruise delivered the better performance and carried the heart of the film’s difficult emotional journey.
Here’s what’s forgotten about Tom Cruise – he followed one of his most intentionally dishonest performances with perhaps his most honest one. He’s not perfect as Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July, but his best moments are his most deeply powerful. They feel like watching a real human being, and not an actor emulating one.
Many forget Tom Cruise acted in a Martin Scorsese film. In fact, Cruise turned down a record-amount of money to make Top Gun 2 in order to play second fiddle to Dustin Hoffman and Paul Newman in movies like Rain Man and The Color of Money. Audiences complain all the time about actors selling out – Cruise might be the shining example of one who didn’t. The result is an extraordinary film about the mentor-ingenue relationship between Newman’s Fast Eddie and Cruise’s Vincent Lauria.
Rarely has Cruise’s ability to control and connive an audience been used as well as when he played the creator of Seduce and Destroy, Frank T.J. Mackey. Rarely has his anger been directed to reflect intense sadness and dissatisfaction the way it was in Magnolia. On the heels of a stretch that saw Mission: Impossible and Jerry Maguire, Cruise chose instead to act in art films with limited popular appeal like Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. This remains the hallmark of Cruise’s career. He balances the big films with a desire to continue pursuing his craft in an underrated career.