One of the earliest and most trenchant intimations I had of my own homosexuality came while watching Tom Cruise in the 1983 comedy “Risky Business.” I say this with a certain amount of embarrassment — because who, after all, wants to admit to being aroused, as a 10-year-old boy, at the sight of a barely-post-pubescent-himself movie star dancing in his snug white cotton underwear? Indeed, I’m not sure I should be mentioning this at all, for fear that I’ll undermine what I really want to say about Cruise, about how original and daring an actor I think he’s become.
But the problem is that I can’t seem to say the one thing without saying the other. My admiration for him as a performer is entirely bound up in my desire for him as a sexual persona. In fact, I don’t think Cruise can separate these elements either; whether he realizes it or not, he’s grown as an actor by exploiting the very things — a classic face, a perfect body, a predilection toward sexually ambiguous parts — that have also made him a gay icon. Is it any wonder, then, that in our impaired film culture, in which male sexuality is rarely addressed on-screen, and even more rarely addressed in film criticism, Cruise has had such a hard time gaining widespread respect? Or, to put it another way: Whether you’re gay or straight, until you allow yourself to be turned on by Tom Cruise, you can’t begin to see how very far he’s come. (I hope, and expect, this progression will continue with his much-speculated-upon performance in the soon-to-be-released “Eyes Wide Shut,” co-starring Cruise’s wife, Nicole Kidman, and directed by Stanley Kubrick.)
I can already hear the objections: from the one group of moviegoers cemented in their belief that Cruise will never be anything more than a transparent pretty boy, and from the other that will disapprovingly sneer, “When are you people going to give up? He’s not gay.” The former objections I will address in due time, but to those who would argue the latter, let me state this right away: I don’t care whether any of the rumors that have dogged Cruise from virtually the start of his career are true or not. It doesn’t matter to me. What does interest me are the rumors themselves, because in many ways they are a necessary starting point for a critical analysis of the actor’s work. Cruise has repeatedly — and vehemently — denied these rumors, including taking successful legal action against a London newspaper that called his marriage to Nicole Kidman a put-on. But still they persist — to the point where one wonders if the actor’s work isn’t feeding them. Has Cruise (consciously or unconsciously) been telegraphing gay signals that audiences (consciously or unconsciously) have been picking up on?
A scene in “Losin’ It” (1983), a crass teen comedy in which Cruise plays one of three California high school students who head to Tijuana to get laid, certainly suggests that there’s something more sexually complicated about him than anyone has ever acknowledged. Taken “upstairs” at a strip club, Cruise is led into a room of prostitutes where his buddies give him first choice. His gait hesitant, his hands lodged in the pockets of his pants, his face sweetly telegraphing the panic of a confident young man gradually losing his cool, he selects a much older woman. But the desire soon caves in on itself. Alone with the prostitute, he realizes that he won’t be able to perform — and he captures a quiet, lingering moment of sexual dejection.
Tom Cruise has played the role of confident, cocksure stud so many times — and so effectively — that most viewers tend to forget how many moments there are just like this one in the Cruise canon. In “Risky Business,” for instance, Cruise imagines himself home alone with his high school dream girl — the music swells, their shirts come off, they begin making out. And then sirens, flashing lights and a curious mob of neighbors outside interrupt them. The next shot is of Cruise lying in bed, with a sheet covering his lower body and his hand beneath that sheet. The joke is that this is a masturbatory fantasy gone awry — and yet Cruise doesn’t play it for laughs. When he bounds out of the bed and begins looking through an alternative newspaper for a prostitute — first enraged, and then sad and awkwardly tensed up — he limns a genuinely moving portrait of a young boy frustrated by how long it’s taking for him to become a man.
Yet, I’m not trying to suggest anything so banal as Cruise’s heterosexual failings in “Losin’ It” or “Risky Business” being symbolic of a latent homosexuality, in either the characters or the actor. (He does, after all, successfully lose his virginity in both of these films.) Instead, I think these moments convey something far more difficult — a state of almost constant sexual vulnerability. Few of Cruise’s talented contemporaries right now — not Denzel Washington, Tim Robbins, or even the swaggering Vince Vaughn or the sublimely vapid Keanu Reeves — are uninhibited enough to convey real sexual impulses on screen. The one or two who can, say Nicolas Cage or Sean Penn, do so through macho ferality — Penn violently finishing himself off in the woods after a tryst with Jennifer Lopez in “U-Turn,” or Cage lecherously placing his hand between Laura Dern’s legs as he follows her up the steps in “Wild at Heart.”
But when it comes to deeply lived-in portraits of human sexuality, Cruise is the most original talent we have — particularly in the way he so readily establishes his characters through heterosexual posturing and then strips away the layers of control. Watch the scene in Oliver Stone’s “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989) where Cruise, playing all-American jock turned paralyzed Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, lies beneath a Mexican prostitute. As she writhes atop him, moaning and kissing him, Cruise begins to shake with tears, slowly at first, but then almost violently — his character exhausted by an inability to feel anything below the waist, and yet still seeking some way back to masculinity. Here, and in so many other moments throughout his career, Cruise is unafraid to portray a man completely overwhelmed by his own sexuality. He can’t do it, but he can’t not try to do it, either — and within that contradiction he finds a fragility that is deeply resonant. And it’s here, too, that I think we locate one of the primary sources of a gay audience’s identification with him — as a man who can never divorce sexuality from self-consciousness.
In “Born on the Fourth of July” he’s playing a literal version of a common gay state of mind — the man paralyzed by sex. “Risky Business” and “Losin’ It” offer something similar — unable to control his impulses, and yet completely terrified to act upon them, he’s acting out emotions that just about every gay person has experienced firsthand. In these films (and in many others) he may be playing straight characters, but through his confusion, desperation, all-consuming need and occasional self-hatred, he winds up offering the closest thing we have to a homosexual sensibility in movies today.
There is, however, another important part of Cruise’s pull on gay audiences: the homoeroticism. At times, of course, his films have seemed like the worst sort of gay kitsch. “Top Gun” (1986), for instance, features so many rapt shots of towel-and-underwear-clad men lingering in locker rooms that it inspired Quentin Tarantino’s gay interpretation in the film “Sleep With Me.” (“Ice comes up to Maverick, and he says, ‘Man, you can ride my tail anytime!’ And what does Maverick say? ‘You can ride mine!’”) And then there is “Interview with the Vampire” (1994), featuring a blond-tressed Cruise joining with Brad Pitt to act out a bitchy Leopold and Loeb-style marriage in which every bloodsucking murder becomes a tableau of orgiastic ecstasy.
But there is more to this than a few Rock Hudson-style double entendres and gay camp moments; and to understand how deep Cruise’s homoeroticism goes, we need to pay attention to the Cruise image, to the body and face and how he uses them on-screen. Indeed, however attractive you do or do not find him, one thing is certain — the camera utterly adores him. Part of this, I think, is because his boy-next-door features — the high, even-tempered cheekbones, the just-too-big nose, the sparkling blue eyes — relax on screen instead of tensing up (see Scott Wolf or Freddie Prinze Jr., two current neo-Cruise boy stars), and so he draws you in, even when his face isn’t being terribly expressive.
And then there is the smile — the big, toothy, preternaturally bright smile that, in its ubiquity, truly seems to beckon to a homosexual audience. Indeed, the fact that it is a “heterosexual” smile may very well be at the heart of Cruise’s gay appeal — which is to say, the more that smile gleams at us, the more its possessor comes to embody an entire spectrum of homosexual desire and fantasy: from the forbidden older brother protector (“All the Right Moves”), to the dangerous carnal predator (“Cocktail,” “Interview With the Vampire”), to the straight-boy dreamboat who just might be willing to entertain sexual alternatives (“Top Gun,” “Jerry Maguire”). Cruise uses his body in much the same manner — as a fundamentally ordinary entity that has astonishing erotic range.
We first got a good look at that body in the opening scene of “All the Right Moves” (1983), a clumsy, touching melodrama about a Pittsburgh teenager trying to secure a football scholarship. Clad (once again) only in his underwear, Cruise gets out of bed and does a set of start-the-day pushups — and it’s immediately apparent that although he’s supposed to be a playing a football player, his body looks a lot more like a swimmer’s: lithe, muscular, perfectly smooth. Indeed, there’s something terribly prissy about Tom Cruise’s body — as if he spends too much time working on it, trying to make it look perfect. In lesser hands (Rob Lowe’s, say, or Emilio Estevez’s) such a scene might easily have degenerated into self-parody — the smoothed-out, muscled-up gay porn cover boy playing to the mainstream crowd, but Cruise made it work. And I think that’s because he can use his body so fluidly — and so ambiguously.
Take, for instance, the underwear dance in “Risky Business.” Cruise bounces around the room, half lost to the music (Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”), half self-conscious of his own outri exhibitionism. When he concludes by plopping onto the couch and throwing his body into a quivering frenzy, he manages the near impossible feat of making narcissism extremely sexy. In “The Color of Money” (1986), he does an even more glorious dance, this time at a pool hall to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” Cruise shuffles forward and back, eyeing the pool table and taking one perfect shot after another, slicing his cue stick through the air to the beat of the music — until he stops, ostentatiously runs his hand over his impeccably coifed pompadour and repeats the lyrics of the song, ” … and his hair was perfect.” If Tom Cruise had never done anything else in film, those two sequences alone might have made him a gay icon — because in both he gives gay viewers their ultimate movie star: someone half-repugnant, but still magnetic; the perfect embodiment of heterosexual desire, when he isn’t acting so gay.
So why has Cruise had such a hard time gaining critical respect? Granted, those early performances aren’t so much the product of a good actor as a promising talent; in Ridley Scott’s “Legend” (1985) and Brian DePalma’s “Mission Impossible” (1996) he is kept reined in by a director determined to be the star; and in Ron Howard’s “Far and Away” (1992) he is flat-out awful. But just at the point when Cruise gave his first completely fleshed-out adult performance in “Born on the Fourth of July,” he seemed to be written off for good. “Cruise has the right All-American boy look for his role here, but you wait for something to emerge and realize the look goes all the way through. He has a little boy voice and no depth of emotion,” Pauline Kael wrote at the time, pointedly summing up the criticisms that have stuck with him perhaps even more insistently than the gay rumors.
Again, maybe it takes a gay perspective to be able to see his career in the fuller light in which it demands to be viewed. His work can be divided into three distinct sections: the losing-his-virginity period (“Losin’ It,” “All the Right Moves,” “Risky Business”), the cocksure-stud-learning-about-the-world middle period (“Top Gun,” “The Color of Money,” “Cocktail,” “Rain Man”) and the grown-up man wrestling with impotency period (“Born on the Fourth of July,” “The Firm,” “Interview With the Vampire,” “Jerry Maguire”). And when considered together, these three sections make for a completely original whole — a chronicle of one man’s sexual life journey, a multifaceted portrait of innocence and corruption, assuredness and dysfunction, the ordinary and the taboo. But few viewers can acknowledge even this considerable achievement, because they can’t see Cruise as having made any progress at all; for them, he will forever be remembered for the posturing and mugging of his middle period.
To some extent, I agree. There isn’t much depth of emotion to Cruise in “Cocktail” or “Days of Thunder.” But those performances still seem right to me — and though I know it’s a dicey game to praise shallow acting by saying that an actor is playing a shallow role, Cruise has made the shallowness an essential part of his journey. His performance in “Jerry Maguire” (1996) is his first great one precisely because he’s playing off the shallowness, and using it to throw his audience off guard. In that film, he plays a vapid man — a sports agent with a hot-to-trot fiancie and an expensive car — who experiences a moment of gravity. His actions in that moment cost him his job, and send him on a new life path. The twist is that he spends the rest of the film trying to convince himself that he hasn’t made a mistake.
The joy of “Jerry Maguire” is that it becomes a summation of everything Cruise has done so far — a film about a young man inching toward sexual and emotional self-definition. The great triumph of Cruise’s performance is in his subtle acknowledgment that self-definition may never come — that it may be more than any American adult male living at the end of the 20th century has any right to expect or ask for. My single favorite moment in the film has nothing to do with sex, but in a way it expresses the ultimate Tom Cruise-ian sexual state. It finds the actor driving alone in his car, returning from what he thinks has been a successful business meeting. High on the moment, he wants to sing, but he can’t find the right song on the radio — until he comes upon Tom Petty’s “Free Falling.” That the lyrics of this song — “and I’m free, free falling” — are not quite appropriate for a man trying to avoid free fall himself occurs to Cruise in a flash, but he squelches such bad thoughts and keeps singing, laughing, trying to generate for himself a moment of good will and hopefulness. In other words, as a man (and as an actor) he’s learning that adulthood is all about playing through your vulnerabilities.
All of which brings us to “Eyes Wide Shut,” his three-years-in-the-making collaboration with Nicole Kidman and director Stanley Kubrick. The film is purported to be a psychological thriller about the sexual obsessions and fantasies of a married couple in New York City. Not surprisingly, the first images shown of the film were explicitly erotic ones: a 90-second clip shown to exhibitors in the spring, in which Cruise stands with Kidman naked before a mirror, kissing and fondling her to the insistently nervy beat of Chris Isaak’s “Baby Did a Bad, Bad Thing”; and a 30-second trailer, in which this kissing scene is intercut with other shots of Cruise and Kidman attending a swank social event. It’s impossible to know what’s going on in either of these clips, but credit Cruise with at least this much: He’s generated a mountain of hype by keeping audiences guessing about how twisted his next set of sexual adventures will be.
And credit him with a certain amount of bravery: It’s clear that Cruise is putting his neck out farther than ever before. He’s also opening himself to a whole new round of questions about his marriage and his sexuality — and this time, if the film is as explicit as it’s said to be, he may even have to answer them. Can he pull it off — the big role in the last movie by the great director? I have some doubts. Having watched him and liked him for so many years, I don’t want to see him stumble, and certainly not on such a grand scale. Then again, Cruise probably isn’t too concerned himself. He’s dared to take sexual leaps forward before, without knowing where he was going to land. And it’s probably the ultimate testament to his maturation as an actor that — if the odd, disturbing images of his naked groping with Kidman are any indication at all — this time he’s working without a net.
Christopher Kelly is a writer-at-large for the Texas Monthly.More Christopher Kelly.