But the last almost-decade has been bumpy for the 46-year-old superstar: Big blockbuster turns in movies like the Mission: Impossible franchise and War of the Worlds and an almost too convincing portrayal of a sociopath in Collateral have been overshadowed by the very public perception of the private life of Tom Cruise: The A-list divorce, the salacious tidbits on his deepening faith with the controversial Church of Scientology and the recruiting videos that made their way to the Internet; the marriage to that young Dawson’s Creek gal; the infamous Oprah appearance, the Brooke Shields fight and the contentious Matt Lauer interview on Today. Things seemed to come to a head in the summer of 2006, after endless bad press, when there was a public fallout with Viacom’s chairman, Sumner Redstone, who sent a fairly clear message when he told The Wall Street Journal that it was the superstar’s erratic behavior that led to his and Viacom’s ending of the long-standing relationship with Cruise/Wagner productions. “As much as we like him personally, we thought it was wrong to renew his deal. His recent conduct has not been acceptable to Paramount,” he said. It wasn’t quite a public relations meltdown of the Britney Spears level, but it must have smarted for a man who had consistently been described as the consummate professional and an intense perfectionist.
Ben Stiller seems an unlikely savior. But according to an article in this month’s Men’s Vogue penned by Mr. Cruise, when the two men were introduced in 1992 by the actress Jeanne Tripplehorn on the set of The Firm, they hit it off immediately. (“We shared common ground in a love of cinema and a desire to tell stories and challenge ourselves and develop as artists,” writes Mr. Cruise.) In 2000, the pair joined up for the hilarious short-film spoof Mission: Improbable, which aired on MTV, in which Mr. Stiller plays Tom Crooze, Mr. Cruise’s supposed stuntman (funnily enough, The New York Times ended up using that very same pun as a headline for an article about Mr. Cruise’s business moves in 2007). Mr. Cruise has already signed on to work again with Mr. Stiller, this time as a co-star on The Hardy Men, due out sometime next year.
Could this be an era of a friendlier, gentler, funnier, less scarily intense Cruise? Or is it just another career calculation for a tightly controlled and disciplined star who has managed to stay on the top for over a quarter of a century, and to make films that have grossed over a billion dollars? Reportedly, the actor has instructed his CAA agents to seek out funnier scripts for him, and he’s taken more than one meeting with the ever-prolific Judd Apatow. (“He’s quietly one of the great comedic actors in the country,” Mr. Apatow told Entertainment Weekly in 2006.)
Whatever the motives, his performance in Tropic Thunder is sure to cause a stir similar to that of Magnolia. (What is it that makes it seem so wrong to hear Mr. Cruise curse like a longshoreman?) He uses that thousand-yard stare to hilarious effect—and just wait till you see his dance moves. “The first thing I thought of with the character of studio mogul Les Grossman was that I wanted him to dance,” Mr. Cruise wrote in his article. “I have no idea why. When you have these impulses, you’re not sure if it’s a good idea or maybe the worst idea in the world.”
Of course, Mr. Cruise is savvy enough to know that industry tongues will wag over him playing a crude and lewd studio head for Paramount Pictures; before the first industry screening of Tropic Thunder in April, Mr. Cruise made sure to have a public bury-the-hatchet lunch with Mr. Redstone. At that early screening, Mr. Cruise’s performance apparently brought down the house. Of course, Hollywood loves nothing more than to examine its own sickly white underbelly. But perhaps what they were also responding to, as they watch this typically steely figure don makeup, a prosthetic belly and do the bump and grind, is that Tom Cruise has managed to surprise us again. This time, thankfully, it’s in a good way.