Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Tom Cruise Theory of Acting


I have this theory, okay? I watch a lot of movies and I think about a lot of things relating to movies, and I have this theory.... I call it The Tom Cruise Theory of Acting, because it relates to good ol' Tom Cruise.

This morning, while I was waiting for something, I popped in
Magnolia into the DVD player and watched the first 30 minutes of that flick. When I first saw that movie back in the day, I was blown away and thought it was the cat's pajamas. Now, I'm finding problems with it, including Anderson's obviously crafted-sounding "naturalistic" dialogue and over-the-top narration from Ricky Jay.

However, the movie still stands thanks to Anderson's kinetic camerawork and the top-notch acting from Jason Robards, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H Macy, John C Reilly, etc etc etc. Most notably is Tom Cruise who plays a self-help motivational speaker whose angle is "seduce and destroy". This was the movie that really catapulted Cruise into the realm of real acting and many critics took notice. And I know why.

It's not because of Cruise's acting skills. I'll just put it out there. Cruise isn't that great of an actor. He's charismatic and fun and really good looking back in the day. But today, his skills are overshadowed by his personality, his fame, and his personal beliefs. So let's just file him under the category of not an acting behemoth. Let's agree that he's satisfactory.

But why is his performance in
Magnolia and Jerry Maguire so much stronger than performances in Top Gun, Days of Thunder or Interview With The Vampire?

Well, The Tom Cruise Theory of Acting supposes that any strong performance from Cruise is directly related to the character arc, in that the character must specifically start at rock bottom emotionally and rise out of that, ending with redemption.


For example, in
Magnolia, Frank T.J. Mackey is at the bottom in terms of his emotion and his relationship to his father. He hides behind a mask of bluster and misogyny, searching for faceless women to fill the emptiness in his life. But at the end, when he and his father are reunited, it's the best scene in the whole movie. Frank's life was ruined by his father, but when he watches Earl die, it brings him back to whole and he can begin healing again. He is redeemed.


That's the perfect example of The Tom Cruise Theory of Acting in action. Another excellent example is
Jerry Maguire, in which the title character is all bluster and action and independence but when he realizes that he needs Dorothy. He's all arrogance but he falls apart without her.

The Tom Cruise Theory of Acting needs the character to fall from grace and then to be redeemed. Now why is this?

Perhaps it's because that's how Tom Cruise mines for emotions, in seeking the most bottom rung of feeling. When he plays a rock star, like in Top Gun, he's not actually acting, he's just being.

The answer might be as simple as he gets to stretch his acting muscles better.

I think not. I believe it's because the audience wants to punish Tom Cruise. Because he's so pretty and successful and rich and famous, we want to see him fail, and since we're too dumb to separate character from actor, we transfer the fall onto Tom Cruise himself. We get a sick enjoyment out of watching Cruise/Cruise's character fail. It's the same logic as the slasher film genre. We want to watch them die. It's how we appreciate the opposite and make us feel more alive. We watch Cruise fail, and it makes us feel better about not being famous or rich.

Now, The Tom Cruise Theory of Acting can be extrapolated to any big name actor. Watching somebody fail and be redeemed gives us hope. But I feel it's more pronounced thanks to Tom Cruise's superstardom.

I've been thinking about this for years, and it's become more apparent as Cruise becomes more famous for being famous. From the couch-jumping to the suspect beliefs on psychology, Cruise is becoming less of a person and more of a caricature.

What to look forward to is his role in Bryan Singer's Valkyrie. He plays a Colonel in the Nazi army who plans to assassinate Hitler because of the Fuhrer's crimes. On the surface, this appears to be a redemption story. To atone for whatever sins he has committed, and for the glory of Germany, he will kill Hitler. But the trailers seem to play it as an action film. It also doesn't help that the movie is stacked with big acting strengths such as Kenneth Branagh, Eddie Izzard, Bill Nighy and so on and so forth. Cruise seems outclassed.


I still look forward to the movie. If anything, it's a Christopher McQuarrie-Bryan Singer collaboration. It's got to be decent.

Once I see it, I will weigh The Tom Cruise Theory of Acting against it and we'll see it if stands.

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