Tom Cruise: The Actor in Magnolia

Back in the 90s when I was still some time away from the much awaited teenage years, boys and girls had hardly anything in common. If boys had their WWF stars to talk about, girls had all the time in the world to discuss MTV and their favorite nail polish color. It was also fashionable for the boys to dislike everything the girls liked (and vice versa). So, boys would laugh at Spice Girls while the girls would scoff at Schwarzenegger. There was one actor though who bridged the divide without much effort (not counting the charm and good looks here). That was Tom Cruise.

Every girl’s pin-up star whose pictures in the papers were stuff to gab about in the class next day. Interestingly, I never came across a guy who said he hated Cruise. Pierce Brosnan. Too gay. Nick Carter. Too girly. Keanu Reeves (before Matrix). Too lame. But Tom Cruise? Now, he was someone every boy wanted to be like and I can see why. At 5 feet 7, he is certainly not the ‘hunk’ women would fall in love with. Instead he just appeared as this unassuming cool chap who despite being aware of his drop dead good looks and effect on women, never acted as a douchebag. (Katie Holmes was still in school, I think and the couch act was still some years away). Boys wanted to grow up to be a guy like him. Someone who could melt hearts with a smile and look killer in Aviator glasses.  

The boy next door


As I grew up and watched him in his famous flicks, I felt his movies could somehow never tap his acting talent. Good looks, yes charm, definitely. But acting? Most of the movies he acted in had very little of the character he was portraying (barring Jerry Maguire, of course. Though that movie too harnessed every inch of his superstardom by making him ooze charm in every frame). He has always been Tom Cruise, the highest earning star in Hollywood, the man who sends hearts aflutter and who is perhaps more known for his personal life than professional work.

One movie though that attempted to give a glimpse into Cruise’s acting potential is Magnolia. Cruise plays a pickup artist, a really annoying guy who helps frustrated men hit on women and get them onto their beds. He has everything working for him, fans, money, fame; a perfect life.

The douchebag

You’d be pissed off by this know-it-all misogynist guy who seems to be doing quite well in his career. I was too but Cruise with his innate likeability kept me glued. Plus, the movie’s not about Cruise. It has other interrelated stories and he’s just another character in the plot.

The movie progresses and Tom Cruise’s cocky, egoistical self-obsessed character meets his match in a mean TV interviewer. In a couple of minutes, she tears down the character’s veneer of love, success and perfection. We come to know about Cruise’s troubled childhood, his loss and difficult years while growing up in a broken home. In a flash, Cruise transforms his character and you can’t help feel sorry for him. A guy who had to watch his mother die, leave home, stay with some relatives and build everything from the scratch. He looks dazed as the interviewer starts tearing him apart and when she asks him what he’s doing, he simply answers that he’s quietly judging her. The words cave in and I imagine the tough road he’s had to take to reach wherever he is.

Much later, he reunites with his ailing father who’s on his deathbed. He is apprehensive, almost shaking as he enters the house and asks the nurse to stay close because he might kill him if they are alone. Finally as he sits next to the dying man, he gives in to all the pent up emotions that were choking him all these years. He cries out for him, screams at him and expresses his innermost feelings that he could not share with anyone all those years. It’s such a poignant moment that chokes you up when Cruise angrily demands his father not to leave him again. Loss. Abandonment. Pain.

The man dies and Cruise looks composed, as if he has accepted everything and can now go on to become a better man.

The performance is so heartfelt that I didn’t feel Cruise was acting in any of the scenes. As someone who keeps his past buried somewhere to create an image of success, Cruise is the veritable loner here. He doesn’t have a girlfriend or close friends, just an entourage in charge of polishing his celebrity status. In the end, you feel for him. You do, like I did.

The fact that Cruise himself grew up in a troubled house and his relationship with his father was far from being cordial perhaps brings that level of authenticity in the final outburst. I don’t know how much of himself he was playing in this one but the final scene broke down that pinup boy’s mirage. He was nominated for an Oscar and I honestly feel he should’ve got it. Not taking away anything from Michael Caine who received it that year.

Which is your favorite Tom Cruise movie?


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