And dare I say it? For the first time in what seems like forever, people are actually excited about a Tom Cruise project that's not a testosterone showcase and/or a Mission: Impossible sequel. That movie would be Rock of Ages, the Broadway musical-based film in which Cruise stars as Stacee Jaxx, the lead singer of the rock band Arsenal, opening June 15. (Personally, I'm more excited to see costar Catherine Zeta-Jones step back into her bitch heels in a musical, but that's just me.) I guess one could call it as a full-circle role for Cruise, who's gone from a kid miming a rocker to a middle-age man impersonating one.
Seven years ago, when he was jumping up and down on Oprah's couch declaring his love for Katie Holmes, who would have thought Cruise's comeback possible? Thirty-one years ago, when he made his film debut playing sixth or seventh fiddle to Brooke Shields in Blue Lagoon, who would have thought Hollywood domination possible?
The secret to Cruise's success? Then (the '80s, when his star was launched) and now, the source of his X factor is hard to pinpoint. He lacks the old-school Hollywood charm of George Clooney; he's never been the sexiest man alive, like Brad Pitt (too short?); and he's too Hollywood slick to be the superstar next door, Big Willie (Smith) style. His celebrity always has been more about his onscreen brand (square-jawed hero) than any standout personal qualities (pre-Oprah, he was the blandest of interviews, revealing blindingly white teeth and not much more), putting him more in line with the Harrison Fords and the Mel Gibsons of Hollywood.
But while those once-brand-name action stars have plummeted to the B and C list, Cruise, who turns 50 on July 3, remains solidly A-minus. It's hard to think of another '80s icon this side of Madonna who remains at the forefront of the collective public consciousness.
Unlike Madonna, though, Cruise didn't stay on top by constant reinvention, but by the opposite. He found his screen calling early on -- that aforementioned square-jawed action hero -- and he's spent the bulk of his career offering variations on that theme. He could have played Ethan Hunt, the character he reprised for the third time in last year's Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, at any point in his career, and pretty much did in 1986’s Top Gun, soon to be reprised in a sequel.
That's not to say he hasn't thrown the occasional curveball. Yes, it took cojones to play the bad guy in Magnolia and Collateral Damage and to send up his jock-ular image by sporting a pot belly and bald spot in Tropic Thunder.
Over the course of his stardom, however, Cruise has been most controversial offscreen. Rumors about his sexuality have dogged him for nearly his entire career, and his credibility has been challenged by his unwavering devotion to Scientology, the religion to which he reportedly was introduced by his first wife, actress Mimi Rogers, six years his senior.
His 10 year marriage to Nicole Kidman did more for her career than it did for his, but during the ‘90s, Cruise hardly needed a professional boost. With the exception of Eyes Wide Shut, his 1999 Stanley Kubrick-directed duet with Kidman, and 1999’s Magnolia, for which he received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor (in my humble opinion, it was his second-best performance, after Rain Man, for which Dustin Hoffman got all the credit -- and the Oscar), every film Cruise made from their 1990 marriage to their 2001 divorce, was a $100 million-plus box-office hit. So was Vanilla Sky, the 2001 film on whose set he met Penelope Cruz, the costar who would become his girlfriend of three years following his still-mysterious-after-all-this-time split with Kidman.
Next up: Katie Holmes, for whom he nearly destroyed his image, and not because she was a lowly former TV star who was 16 years his junior. Not content to have one of those hush-hush Hollywood romances, Cruise had to bare his heart and soul publicly. His over-the-top public display of affection in front of Oprah Winfrey derailed his career for several years: His three starring vehicles between 2007 and 2010 – Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie and Knight and Day – each grossed less than $100 million at the North American box office.
Though only the first of those films was a total commercial disaster, his return to near-bankability was somewhat unexpected -- at least by me. Following the success of Ghost Protocol, which outdid the three other films in the series, Cruise probably could have coasted for a few years, but with Rock of Ages, he's taking a bigger risk than playing a baddie. I mean, who ever thought they'd see Cruise in a musical? The movie's director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) calls his character a “brilliant mashup” of Axl Rose, Keith Richards and Jim Morrison, which is probably not the role anyone would have expected to find him playing at this point in his career.
But can Cruise sing? “He actually has a fantastic voice,” Shankman said, sounding kind of surprised. Frankly, so am I. Not because Cruise can sing, but because he's pulled off such an unlikely comeback. Oh, and he's about to turn 50. Maybe it really is the new 30 -- okay, 40 -- after all.