And then, in 2005, he went on Oprah to promote "War of the Worlds" and introduce his new girlfriend, Katie Holmes.
Though not in the same league as, say, slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, Cruise's couch-jumping insistence that he was really, truly, with-sprinkles-on-top in love was, and remains, completely bizarre. Like the moment when the first Stepford wife glitches, it forced the world to suddenly wonder, "What is up with this guy?"
Well, Scientology is one of the things that was up with this guy, and as the organization faced increasing scrutiny, so did Cruise.
No one would argue that he stopped being a movie star that day — half of the "Mission: Impossible" and all of the Jack Reacher movies lay before him, along with "Valkyrie," "Edge of Tomorrow," a perfectly hilarious performance in "Tropic Thunder" and, of course, "Top Gun: Maverick." (We will draw a veil over "Knight and Day" and "The Mummy.")
But he stopped being the kind of movie star he had been. Gone were the complex character-driven hits, replaced almost completely with action pics and sequels.
Partly it was the slow fade of midlevel movies, which had begun long before. But while folks like George Clooney and Meryl Streep struggled to keep them alive, no one looked to Tom Cruise for help.
By 2012, when his divorce from Holmes was followed by a Vanity Fair cover story about the role the Church of Scientology played in his life and marriages, Cruise was not making the Hollywood power lists. He had already become more supersoldier than superstar, playing men who were charming and highly competent but isolated, consumed by their work and fixated on the next mission.
Some of which appeared to describe Cruise as well. Every "Mission: Impossible" was now heralded by news about the actor doing his own increasingly difficult stunts. During the sixth film, he broke his ankle jumping from one rooftop to another and still pulled himself up and got the take.
And an entire publicity tour based on the incident.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cruise seems completely uninterested in characters facing down middle age or parenthood or even the pain and wisdom that come with time. In "Top Gun: Maverick," Cruise's title character is continually reminded that he is too old for his fighter-pilot job, but he cannot move on and the story doesn't want him to.
Because he is needed right where he is.
Which is where Cruise finds himself right now, determined to prove there's life in the old movie industry yet.
It's important to remember that Cruise is not the only — or even the biggest — audience draw at work. "Top Gun: Maverick" is a long-awaited sequel to an iconic film; people want to see the jets as much as the leading man.
To be fair, these particular jets wouldn't exist without Tom Cruise. So even if he isn't the last real movie star, he could be the one who helps remind people that movies don't need a multiverse to be big and loud and superfun.
That sometimes a killer smile is all the superpower you need.
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