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Tom Cruise at the premiere of Vanilla Sky, in Los Angeles in 2001.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

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The hollowness of Tom Cruise

How Tom Cruise went from superstar to laughingstock and back again.

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Tom Cruise has spent this year flying high, literally.

At CinemaCon in April, when Mission: Impossible 7 screened its first trailer for theater owners, Cruise sent along a video intro that he’d filmed while standing on top of a biplane flying over a canyon in South Africa. It ended with him launching into a barrel roll. When he arrived at the premiere of Top Gun: Maverick in San Diego in May, he flew there in a helicopter he piloted himself, emblazoned with his own name and the title of his film.

He’s also flying high on a metaphorical level. Cruise turned 60 on July 3, and he shows no signs of slowing down. Top Gun: Maverick has made over $1 billion since it came out in May, the first film of Cruise’s career to do so and just the second film to manage the feat since the pandemic began in 2020. (The first was Spider-Man: No Way Home.)

In the pandemic era, a lot of movies are making only the most cursory appearance in theaters before they hit streaming, if they make it to theaters at all. Not Tom Cruise movies. The idea of Top Gun: Maverick premiering on streaming instead of in theaters? “Never going to happen,” Cruise said at Cannes in May, even though the completed film languished for two years before seeing the light of day. When Paramount told Cruise that Mission: Impossible 7 would play in theaters for only 45 days instead of the three months Cruise was used to, Cruise hired a lawyer.

For his efforts, Cruise is being hailed as the savior of the cinematic experience.

“Can Tom Cruise save the old-fashioned blockbuster?” asked the Telegraph.

Empire magazine described Cruise’s fight as “the battle to save cinema,” with “the biggest movie star in the world” at the vanguard.

“Cruise is here to remind us that the industry will not die on his watch. Not if he can help it,” said the LA Times. “And honestly, who among us won’t be thrilled if Cruise triumphs in life as in the movies?”

In a white room, Cruise hangs upside down in midair, suspended by a harness, and types on a computer.
Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt in a scene from the 1996 film Mission: Impossible.
Murray Close/Getty Images

It seems clear that Cruise sincerely sees himself as the savior of the big screen, and all the jobs that depend on it. (Or at the very least, he sees himself as the savior of Tom Cruise movies appearing on the big screen.) During the pandemic, he told audiences at Cannes, he called up theater owners to say, “Please, I know what you’re going through. Just know we are making Mission: Impossible, and Top Gun is coming out.” In December 2020, leaked audio footage from the set of Mission: Impossible 7 showed Cruise upbraiding crew members who violated Covid social distancing policies.

“They’re back there in Hollywood making movies right now because of us,” Cruise can be heard to shout on the footage. “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. We are creating thousands of jobs, you motherfuckers.”

“That’s what I sleep with every night,” Cruise concluded: “the future of this fucking industry!”

By now we should know: Tom Cruise is the hero of a movie that never ends. It’s one where he always, always saves the day.

That wasn’t always the case. Cruise’s stock plummeted in the 2000s after Oprah’s couch and Brooke Shields’ antidepressants. Yet today, Cruise is once again considered a bankable and iconic star. He is no longer a publicity liability for a movie studio.

There’s only one thing that Cruise might not be able to save. That’s the nagging, persistent sense that if the movie were ever to stop, when the lights came up, there would be nothing left of Tom Cruise at all.

“Cruise’s own laugh,” concluded Alex Pappademas in the New Yorker this May, “is the best Tom Cruise impression you’ve ever heard.”

But who says the movie ever has to stop?

Tom Cruise escorts Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, up the stairs at the Royal Film Performance of Top Gun: Maverick in London on May 19.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Tom Cruise saves chivalry

“I like treating a woman the way that she deserves to be treated.” Tom Cruise to Oprah Winfrey, 2005.

Here’s an oddity in the latest spree of killer Tom Cruise publicity: For once, the press is really into the way he’s interacting with women.

Over the course of his Top Gun press tour, Tom Cruise has been handed one positive headline after another for his chivalrous habit of taking charge of all ladies present, from Kate Middleton to his co-stars. If there is a woman in the same space as he is, Cruise will escort her up and down stairs and through doorways, present her to the camera, and make sure she is taken care of. It makes for incredible press. In her coverage of Cannes, gossip maven Elaine Lui remarked on how carefully Cruise looked after Top Gun co-star Jennifer Connelly. “I’m told he was never not attentive,” Lui wrote, “always focused on making sure she was looked after, never not ready with a hand to guide her from one place to another, never missing an opportunity to talk about how spectacular she looked, seemingly enthralled by her so that the cameras would pick up on his eyeline and transfer their focus to her.”

This display of “chivalry,” Lui concluded, was “very Tom Cruise.”

Cruise faces a laughing Connelly and holds her hands intimately in his own as photographers look on.
Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise at a cast photo call for Top Gun: Maverick during the Cannes film festival on May 18, 2022.
Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

Chivalry is part of the old-fashioned action-hero masculinity Tom Cruise has long represented: the hero with the square jaw and faultless manners, kind and attentive to everyone around him. It’s also been central to Tom Cruise’s personal mythology for a long time, in both good ways and bad.

On the good side, Cruise used to be in the press on a regular basis for rescuing regular people: saving a family from a burning sailboat; getting the victim of a hit-and-run to the hospital and then paying her medical bills. Every actor who’s ever worked with him seems to have a Tom Cruise story about him making them some impossibly thoughtful gesture or gift.

On the bad side, quoth Elaine Lui, “Remember how he used to ‘present’ Katie Holmes?”

Cruise kisses Holmes’s cheek as she smiles out at the cameras.
Katie Holmes and husband Tom Cruise during a 2007 gala honoring Cruise, at Twentieth Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles.
Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Cruise’s 2005 marriage to Katie Holmes was marked by its public displays of affection. Cruise was constantly presenting Holmes to the camera, cuddling up to her in public, proclaiming his love for her in ever more enthusiastic ways. Even before he jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch and sent his career into a precipitous downslide, he told Oprah that he covered a hotel room in rose petals for Holmes, and that he took her on a motorcycle ride on the beach.

“I’m a romantic, okay?” Cruise said at the time. “I like treating a woman the way that she deserves to be treated.”

Romantic or not, that marriage also represented a low point in Cruise’s professional life. In the wake of his couch moment with Oprah, Cruise’s popularity plummeted, his reputation took a hit, and he almost lost the Mission: Impossible franchise.

Then came the enormous and damaging wave of publicity in 2012, when Katie Holmes divorced Cruise. Stories rolled out by the day: that Holmes had planned the divorce for two years in order to make sure she would retain custody of the couple’s daughter, Suri; that she had to orchestrate the whole thing with burner phones and secret laptops and lawyers in multiple states; that she had done it all — developed this whole two-year master plan — because that was how badly she wanted full custody of Suri. Specifically, the story went, Holmes wanted to save Suri from Scientology.

Cruise has since worked diligently to move past the so-called TomKat years. He’s been so effective that all his gentlemanly gestures on his current press tour tend to read as charming, not creepy. But there’s a clear and strong connection between Cruise’s love of chivalry then and his love of chivalry now. They are part and parcel of what appears to be a driving force behind Tom Cruise’s quest to be a hero, win the girl, and save the world: Scientology.

Left: Cruise on the set of Top Gun in 1985. Right: Cruise speaking at the inauguration of the Church of Scientology in Madrid in 2004.
Left: Paramount Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images. Right: Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP via Getty Images.

Tom Cruise saves mankind (from thetans)

“That’s what drives me: is that I know we have an opportunity to really help, for the first time, effectively change people’s lives. And I am dedicated to that. I am absolutely, uncompromisingly dedicated to that.” Tom Cruise, Scientology recruitment video, 2004.

The controversial Church of Scientology, founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1953, appeals to the sort of worldview Cruise embodies. The world is under attack from evil forces, Scientology teaches, and all that stops them is one good man who’s not going to let petty rules get in his way.

Scientology is also, despite the number of celebrities it boasts among its ranks, a publicity liability. It’s widely suspected of being a pyramid scheme at best and at worse alleged to be an abusive cult profiting from forced labor and human trafficking, according to lawsuits and reports from former members. Its central cosmology, which teaches that human beings are plagued by immortal alien souls called thetans brought to Earth by the galactic emperor Xenu billions of years ago, is ripe for mockery.

The reporting that exists on Cruise’s connection to the church is both lengthy and damning. In September 2012, Vanity Fair published an exposé by Maureen Orth on the way Cruise outsourced management of his romantic life to the church. Tony Ortega, the closest thing there is to a beat reporter on Scientology, has a dedicated Tom Cruise tab on his website. In 2013, celebrated New Yorker reporter Lawrence Wright expanded his existing Scientology reporting into the book Going Clear, which prominently delved into Cruise’s status in the church. In 2015, Going Clear was adapted into an Emmy-winning HBO documentary by the director Alex Gibney, again featuring plenty of Cruise stories. The story they told is dramatic, and it plays heavily on Cruise’s apparent understanding of himself as a savior figure. (The Church of Scientology has strongly denied all these accounts, describing them as lies from disgruntled former members and journalists with grudges.)

Cruise joined the Church of Scientology during his first marriage to Scientologist Mimi Rogers, after Top Gun had already made him a star. According to now-defected former church officials, allegedly he began to drift away from active practice during the ’90s and his marriage to Nicole Kidman, only to drift back as that marriage foundered in the late ’90s. The clincher came, those former Scientologists say in Going Clear, when Cruise said he wanted to tap Kidman’s phone, and the Church of Scientology obliged.

Cruise kisses Kidman’s cheek as she laughs and blushes.
Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise attend a 1991 awards ceremony for the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, California.
Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Keeping Cruise happy apparently became a priority for the Church of Scientology. When Cruise needed a new love interest, the church reportedly recruited a young member for the job, gave her a makeover to Cruise’s specifications, and then broke up with her for him after he tired of her. When the woman told a friend what had happened to her, the church reportedly sentenced her to months of menial labor in punishment.

Around the same time that Cruise was making his grand return to the church, he fired his longtime Hollywood publicist, allegedly because she told him to stop talking about Scientology so much when he was on the publicity trail for The Last Samurai. He brought on his Scientologist sister to manage his image instead.

As Cruise was becoming more and more committed to the church, the tabloid industry was beginning to go rabid. By 2004, Us Weekly had gone from monthly trade magazine to weekly gossip rag, pitting itself against People magazine. In Touch Weekly, Life & Style Weekly, and OK! had all emerged. These magazines thrived on an endless diet of outrageous celebrity soundbites, and as Tom Cruise made the publicity rounds for The War of the Worlds, he kept offering them up, one after another.

“Some people, well, if they don’t like Scientology, well, then, fuck you,” he told Rolling Stone. “Really. Fuck you. Period.”

Citing Scientology’s distrust of psychiatry, Cruise criticized Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants to treat her postpartum depression, and then told Matt Lauer he was being “glib” when Lauer suggested he might have overstepped his bounds.

Cruise’s public behavior became more and more erratic. On the same War of the Worlds publicity tour, Cruise infamously jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, enthusiastically declaring his love for Katie Holmes.

Holmes seemed to be getting caught up in the Scientology swirl herself. A W magazine profile of Holmes saw her conduct an interview with a “Scientology chaperone,” who prompted Holmes with phrases about how much she adored Cruise when she seemed to fumble for words.

The spree of outré quotes took their toll. In 2006, one report found that between the spring and summer of 2005, Cruise fell from 11th most-liked celebrity in the US to 197th.

Fox News predicted the end of Cruise’s career. “It will be all but impossible now for a new generation of film fans to see past his erratic public behavior, the Oprah couch shenanigans, the decrying of psychiatry and now the rejection of Catholicism for a religion invented by a science-fiction writer,” they opined.

Cruise, seeing the writing on the wall, veered away from talking about his religion during his movie publicity tours. But for the next 10 years, Scientology would continue to haunt his public image.

In 2008, a video leaked to the press that was reportedly a Scientology conversion effort, filmed in 2004. It featured Cruise glassy-eyed and grinning in a black turtleneck, talking about all the ways Scientology has changed his life. “Being a Scientologist, when you drive past an accident, it’s not like anybody else,” he explains. “You know you have to do something about it.”

“Let me put it this way,” said Gawker, which broke the news of the video: “if Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch was an 8 on the scale of scary, this is a 10.”

In 2012, the Cruise-Holmes divorce cracked open the door of Tom Cruise Scientology stories. A host more came pouring out — and not just in the tabloids, but in legacy print magazines and prestige cable shows: Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, the Village Voice, HBO.

Headline: KATIE DUMPS TOM. And she wants Suri.
The Daily News’ front page on June 30, 2012.
NY Daily News via Getty Images

According to former Scientology officials, the Church has continued to manage Cruise’s life. Reportedly, it’s granted him the full benefits of its more unsavory enterprises, including the Church’s alleged use of slave labor.

Former Scientologist John Brousseau says the church has custom-built luxury vehicles and sound systems for Cruise and provides the staff who manage his many homes. Because this labor is provided by the Church, it’s done through Sea Org, the Scientologist association that’s been accused of human trafficking and forced labor. (The Church has described these claims as “both scurrilous and ridiculous.”) According to Ortega, Sea Org members who worked on Cruise’s property “were paid only about $50 a week by the church, even though their hours could reach 100 a week.” Cruise has a net worth estimated at $600 million.

The picture painted of Cruise by former members of the church is not flattering. They tend to describe Cruise as a well-meaning man who, fundamentally, is not curious, and who is happy to have beautiful things handed to him without looking at their cost. Scientology is attractive to Cruise, in this account, because it makes his life easier while simultaneously flattering his ego with the belief that he is a hero.

But as damning as those stories are, they have largely faded out of public memory. In the 10 years since his divorce from Katie Holmes, Tom Cruise has been working hard to change the narrative.

A black-and-white-picture shows Tom Cruise, looking suave in sunglasses and a tuxedo, posing in front of a billboard for Top Gun: Maverick.
Tom Cruise attends the UK premiere of Top Gun: Maverick in London on May 19, 2022.
Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

Can Tom Cruise save Tom Cruise?

“People can create their own lives. … I decided that I’m going to create, for myself, who I am, not what other people say I should be. I’m entitled to that.” Parade, 2006.

Cruise is currently experiencing a late-career renaissance. Cannes Film Festival feted him in May, awarding him an honorary Palme d’Or and marking the occasion with a red carpet air show. The press loves him again. Top Gun: Maverick is a major success, and the next slew of Mission: Impossible films are bound to be as well.

He’s even rumored to have a new girlfriend. If, as the tabloids claim, Cruise actually is (or was) dating his Mission: Impossible co-star Hayley Atwell, she would be his first public girlfriend since his divorce from Holmes 10 years ago.

So did he do it? How did Tom Cruise go from America’s 197th favorite celebrity to a bankable superstar once again?

The answer seems to be deceptively simple: He kept working, and he stopped talking — about Scientology, and about almost everything else too.

Cruise’s PR nadir came during a period of oversharing. Since then, he’s become known for his intense desire for privacy. “When was the last time paparazzi captured Tom Cruise on the street or anywhere but a film set or premiere?” wondered the New York Post in May 2022. He heavily restricts the questions journalists are allowed to ask him before he agrees to an interview, and both his religion and his family life tend to be off-limits.

Meanwhile, Cruise has kept making movies. Tropic Thunder in 2008 and Rock of Ages in 2012 together proved he had a sense of humor. Edge of Tomorrow in 2014, which saw Cruise ceding much of the spotlight to co-star Emily Blunt, proved he knew how to share the screen with another star. And the Mission: Impossible franchise has churned out hit after reliable hit. “I can attest that I am alarmed at the extent to which I suddenly love Tom Cruise,” admitted GQ entertainment editor Ashley Fetters in 2015, as Cruise publicized Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.

Cruise has also benefited from the current cultural shame surrounding the tabloid culture of the 2000s. As the world agrees that tabloid targets like Britney Spears were hard done by in the heady, tacky days of Y2K, everything from the era has been painted with the same shade of remorse. Vilifying Tom Cruise for jumping on Oprah’s couch can feel like the same toxic impulse that led to a decade of mocking Spears for having her mental breakdown in public, even though what Cruise has been accused of abetting within the Church of Scientology is far worse than anything Spears has ever been accused of.

In most ways, this strategy has been successful. The tabloid spectacle of Tom Cruise, Scientologist has been covered over by four decades of hard work from Tom Cruise, one of the last great movie stars.

But it’s not clear that Cruise can ever again reach the heights of public adoration he enjoyed in 2003. There’s a persistent strangeness around Tom Cruise’s image that has never quite resolved itself, a sort of falseness that he’s never been entirely able to weed out. It’s a falseness that’s rooted not in his Scientology but in his movie star core. From the beginning, the world has refused to believe Tom Cruise when he breaks out his giant movie star smile. It especially refuses to believe him when he laughs.

Cruise smiles big in the climax to Risky Business (1983).
Warner Brothers/Getty Images

In an early pan of 1983’s Risky Business, Cruise’s breakout film, New York magazine took aim at the young star’s mannerisms. “Cruise has a slight, undeveloped voice and a nervous smile, which he relies on whenever the script reveals one of its innumerable holes,” the review ran.

In HBO’s Going Clear, footage of Tom Cruise laughing in his Scientology recruitment video plays while one ex-Scientologist declares, “Scientologists are all full of shit.”

A 2004 Rolling Stone profile devoted paragraph after paragraph to the oddness of “the famous Tom Cruise laugh.”

“It comes on just fine, a regular laugh by any standards. You will be laughing too,” wrote Neil Strauss. “But then, when the humor subsides, you will stop laughing. At this point, however, Cruise’s laugh will just be crescendoing. And he will be making eye contact with you.”

It’s as though there’s a hollowness at the center of Cruise’s image, some sort of vacancy that he is forever restlessly seeking to fill. As though if he can only save enough people, enough industries, enough worlds — maybe then, at last, he can finally be whole. But can anyone, even Tom Cruise, do that much saving?


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