Tom Cruise, the man, showed up to a British Indian restaurant earlier this week and liked his curry so much he ordered another right after. A day later, Tom Cruise, the movie star, made an emergency helicopter landing in a random family’s garden and gave the kids a free ride. Of course, Tom is in the U.K. still shooting the seventh Mission: Impossible movie, a process that has taken approximately twenty years.
Last December, audio leaked of Tom Cruise losing it on the set of said Mission: Impossible movie. Members of the crew had violated COVID safety protocols during a time when everyone seemed ready to mourn the death of cinema. Not Tom. “They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us!” he screamed. “Because they believe in us and what we’re doing! I’m on the phone with every fucking studio at night, insurance companies, producers, and they’re looking at us and using us to make their movies!” Tom yelled himself hoarse for us, the film-loving every man who just wanted to watch things blow up on a big screen.
A bunch of people, myself included, greeted this leak with something like embittered agreement. We’d been in quarantine for months, thousands of people were dying, those of us who worked in retail or the restaurant industry or the medical profession or any job still in regular contact with people could see the contempt and confusion in the public’s eyes as they wandered around our workplaces with “masks” hanging off their ears thinking COVID was a psyop. And here comes Tom, the last of the true Hollywood movie stars, descending with the fiery sword of righteousness, setting the record straight. He cared! He was right!
There is a lively feeling when someone famous condescends to think of the little people. Why else would people continue to think Bill Gates or MacKenzie Scott giving away a small percentage of their unfathomable wealth is endearing? It is nice to imagine they think about us, but thinking about them — considering for any extended period the inner lives of the truly wealthy — causes an aneurysm of the soul. You stitch together a series of shots: Leonardo DiCaprio with any under-25 model, David Hasselhoff wasted in his house, Fyre Fest, Jeff Bezos eating an iguana, Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively getting married on a plantation, Mark Zuckerberg surfing with his face covered in sunscreen like a clown; you can see culture and the planet burning in the background. These people whose existence we’ve all collectively acquiesced to or encouraged, who have no attachments to reality, whose every minute decision and aberrant behavior we pay attention to. They’re just like us! No they’re not! Yes they are! It’s fun, it’s flirty, it’s unsustainable, it’s probably one of the few things that can bring the general populace together in harmony, and future generations will look back on us from some distant planet and think, “$261^56%80**_=194”.
But it’s even stranger to think of Tom Cruise as this kind of person, a person at all really, let alone one who cares about other people. He is a dinosaur, one of the last celebrities who is so completely unlike his audience. While Gal Gadot was singing “Imagine” and Brie Larson started a Youtube channel, Tom Cruise was off elsewhere trying to make another movie. The currency of social media has always been voyeurism. Give a little, get a little. Maybe I don’t actually believe you’re baring your soul to 50M followers with some prominent merch in the background, but at least I get to see the inside of your house, which reminds me that you go to the bathroom like the rest of us.
Tom hasn’t even attempted any of that. Try to imagine Tom Cruise walking through some palatial estate making a front-facing camera video about how tough things have been for all of us, how he’s started a sourdough or drinking a “quarantini.” He learned his lesson on Oprah’s couch. And maybe on B.E.T. in 2006 when he was promoting Mission: Impossible III by doing Yung Joc’s motorcycle dance in front of a live audience. In the background, you can see his co-star Ving Rhames, famously Ethan Hunt’s only black friend, hyping him up the way one might scream at a dying fire after you’ve run out of wood. Also in the background, people are screaming. I might mourn the unhinged Tom that once popped up on every major talk show before his public image imploded, but there’s no denying that that Tom Cruise is dead now.
Instead, we have a different person entirely, one who rarely gives an interview that doesn’t comment on his supreme physical skills, his death-defying stunts, his “love of movies.'' Tom is one of few real movie stars left, equal parts charismatic and totally unknowable. Despite what his haters say, he can act, which puts him above other not-young action stars like Vin Diesel, who takes the Fast & Furious franchise even more seriously than Tom does Mission: Impossible. Crucially, Tom knows how to sell himself. He doesn’t do gimmicks. Because he’s unknowable, because we only have the mask, the slate is malleable. Not everything works out (RIP Universal Studio’s Dark Universe), but these hiccups constitute blips in the career timeline. If anything, they simply keep giving Tom fuel to make the demands he thinks are necessary.
He likes being untouchable. Despite its sort of maniacal intensity, that leaked audio made him look pretty good, until you remember he produces his movies because he wants to be able to fire anyone who tells him “no” (as he says in the audio leak, “If I see you do it again, you’re fucking gone!”). Any purported abuse or misconduct he’s committed has been heavily litigated (Tom loves to sue) and any of his actions done under the umbrella of Scientology (Tom loves to wiretap people) are shrouded in even more secrecy. Which also seems to make Tom one of the few people who doesn’t exist on the plane of cancellation.
Some might see this all as evidence of a deeply disturbed mind, which could be true. The only direct quotes you get from him, in the hermetically-sealed chamber of his PR team’s approval, are incomprehensible. In a feature from Empire’s Summer 2021 issue, he says “You look at Singin’ in the Rain and those actors are just there, and they stick the camera there. It’s magnificent—it’s character, it’s story, it’s emotion, it’s all in the frame.” What?
But somehow Tom maintains one of Hollywood’s most robust reputations. If he can’t appear normal, he won’t appear at all. This isn’t genius, just media savvy. Which makes the December leak, and the recent temporary shutdown of the M:I7 production due to a positive COVID test, all the more unsettling. It’s disturbing to think of Tom as a person because it gives way to the possibility that he has an inner life and emotions. What could he possibly, ever, be angry about? What does that mean for the people around him? Is it even possible to talk about the desires of someone like Tom Cruise? He has existed for so long in a state of having every need, every whim, met immediately and without effort. Can a person like that be said to know what it means to want anything anymore?
For a while, I’d been forming a theory that Tom was trying to kill himself during the production of his movies just to get away from Scientology. He hangs off the side of the Burj Khalifa. He hangs off the side of a plane. He hangs off the side of a helicopter. He hangs on, by the tips of his fingers, ever more precariously and at greater peril. Perhaps in this way, in the barely hanging on, he becomes somewhat recognizably human. Tragic, even.
I can’t help but wonder: what if that tragedy were to become real? In other words, will we lose something when Tom inevitably joins Xenu in space? For one, it might represent the final death rattle of a certain era of Hollywood. Theater-dominated, studio-driven, streaming-averse. But there’s also the question as to who will fill the role of, in the words of my beloved editor, “bug fuck weirdo celeb action star”? It’s almost impossible to say. Generations of people all over the world know who Tom is, have grown up with him, have watched him change. That’s a kind of long-lasting fame that virality can’t hope to compare to. Tom Cruise, not necessarily an enfant terrible of cinema, but certainly close. The Big Spender. The Man Who Gets the Job Done.
This is one of the reigning problems of writing about someone like Tom. He is a very rich, very famous guy and he’s a jerk and that’s so boring that it becomes more interesting to think of him as an object rather than an active person, someone who we can come up with all manner of theories about without really getting close to something intimate. The running! The maniacal laughing! Tropic Thunder! Tom can’t hurt you because he doesn’t exist! He may not, but everyone else does, and that’s the problem. For the first time in a long time, the unstoppable force of Tom Cruise’s ego met the immovable object of global catastrophe. He could only yell and gnash his teeth as he tried to wrestle the world into submission.
Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.