The old adage “what goes up, must come down” is particularly relevant for the life of a Hollywood megastar in the fickle land of show business. One day you’re king of the world, the next you’ve found yourself down the entertainment foodchain, struggling to find that audience you once relied on to bring in the big bucks.

One of tinseltown’s big hitters, Tom Cruise, has found his stardom on the wane in recent years. More or less a sure thing at the box office during the mid 80’s and most of the following decade too, the film which was intended to reinvigorate his brand of perma-smile smugness (last summer’s action comedy Day & Knight) stalled the box office. Undeterred, he’s back in hero mode once more and currently filming the forth in the Mission: Impossible franchise (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol). Although it may seem like a safe option, it’s worth noting that while the previous entry was well-received critically, it still failed to break even at the domestic box office. It’s not just the wrong choice of role which has had an impact in his career either. Another contributing factor to his fall in popularity could also be attributed to his ill-advised Scientology comments a couple of years back, and the tabloids whisperings which followed.

Cast your mind back to the late nineties when the actor appeared in P. T. Anderson’s ambitious and much-anticipated follow-up to Boogie Nights. Magnolia was (and still is) an astonishing and audacious film, packed with award-worthy performances from a truly gifted supporting cast, but it’s Cruise who stands out in particular. As sex guru Frank T.J. Mackey, delivering his now-famous expletive-ridden mantra to a testosterone-fuelled conference room, it’s like watching a new, exciting version of the actor perform.

As impressive as this first sequence is, it’s the stripping away of his bloated and grotesquely self-assured façade during an interview where his past life is unearthed, where Cruise really shows what he’s capable of as an actor. Anderson must have tread where others had previously failed (or feared) to go, and talked to Cruise about bringing his own personal history of paternal estrangement to the character. It’s a theme throughout the film and one which occupies the latter part of his arc, when Mackey manages to do what Cruise couldn’t, and reach some kind of closure with his dying father. What we also see in the interview scene is the kind of meltdown which Cruise the person (before the notorious “couch-hopping” incident on Oprah a few years back) had strenuously avoided in his own professional career, achieved mainly by his reliance of a meticulously guarded PR team. Subverting public perceptions of him and free of his own self-enforced safety net, Cruise is mesmerising.

It’s not the only time he’s stretched himself as Born on the Fourth of July demonstrated ten years earlier. An attempt by Cruise to shed his poster boy image, he acquits himself extremely well in the role of paraplegic Vietnam vet Ron Kovak, although his efforts are undermined somewhat by director Oliver Stone’s overly-sentimental direction. Even his performance in Eyes Wide Shut was blighted by behind-the-scenes intrigue, critical disappointment and the unfortunate events which led to it being the final movie directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. All this overshadowed the solid effort by the actor. Frustratingly, Cruise’s follow-up role to Magnolia in the 2000 summer blockbuster Mission Impossible II saw him revert back to his usual narcissistic self – all slow-mo, ‘look at amazing me’ gestures, much to the detriment of the film.

He was fine as the villain in Collateral, but this character still hinged on the Hollywood archetype we’ve seen numerous times before. It would be far more interesting if Cruise ditched the more obvious leading man roles and concentrated on acting in edgier, independently-minded productions. Ironically, nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for Magnolia, Cruise lost out to Michael Caine – an actor who has embraced growing older and delivered some fine character performances in the later stages of his career.

A big problem with Knight and Day was his insistence on playing to a younger demographic, although fans (particularly female) of his earlier romantic/action films are now hovering around the 40 age mark, and his attempts at trying to pass himself off as a younger lead (he’s pushing 50 himself) in this type of disposable popcorn fluff doesn’t really work anymore.

Maybe recent reports of Cruise being offered a part in the film adaptation of rock jukebox musical Rock of Ages (another ensemble cast, incidentally) is an indication that he may be consciously choosing to work with the right directors and material to help jettison his ego-centric choice of roles (think more ‘Tropic Thunder’ than ‘Days of’) and the constraints they bring to his performance.

Looking back at his career, I’m sure he’d prefer the term maverick to be used in reference to his range and not just as the name of a past character he played in one of his first big hits, Top Gun – a title which now sounds like a dated reference to the actor’s once celebrated status.

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