Illustration by Tim Bower
Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie are as close to old-fashioned stars as anyone in movies today, and both have more at stake in their blockbusters this summer than at any time since their careers began. The two are separated by a decade—a generation in Hollywood years—and if Cruise already is on Mount Stardom’s other side, his fingernails furrowing grooves in the face of the rock as he tries to arrest the downhill plummet, Jolie is still scaling the peak, or attempting to. The most recognizable woman on the planet, she has yet to prove she can carry a picture unassisted by a male lead or a video game’s popularity. In her spy film Salt, Jolie plays a role that originally belonged to Cruise before he switched to his spy film Knight and Day. Banal concerns of gender, in other words, are secondary to the comparable magnitude of their box office megawattage.
Alchemizing the formula of image, chops, glamour, and public fascination, Cruise and Jolie have struck the balance that stars strike. They’re entirely familiar, even inviting, while utterly remote, even unknowable. Because they’re fabulously good-looking—Cruise in his way that’s so all-American and Jolie in hers that’s otherworldly—sex is a component of our connection with them, even as it’s difficult for most of us to imagine sleeping with either. The acceptance of vulnerability that sex involves seems impossible with them. A rejection of vulnerability is not only what Cruise and Jolie have in common, it’s what got them where they are. Cruise is emblematic of a decade (the ’80s) that believed empathy is for wimps, and Jolie of a postfeminism that demands new possibilities; until now, vulnerability has been a luxury that neither could afford. However fair it may or may not be, Cruise has been distinguished by a determination perceived as ruthlessness. He came along when there were lots of young actors, from Mickey Rourke to Matt Dillon, who were handsome and talented and winning in varying degrees; but in the manner of Maverick in the ’86 smash Top Gun, and with the zealous resolve of the Catholic priest he aspired to be as a kid (no doubt abandoning that vocation when he judged the job of pope out of reach), Cruise set his sights above the rest of the pack. Accordingly he made the smart choices, taking second billing in movies when they were directed by Martin Scorsese or Barry Levinson, when it meant acting with Paul Newman or Dustin Hoffman.
Whereas Cruise’s stardom seems an act of will, not unlike Joan Crawford’s or Humphrey Bogart’s in another era, Jolie’s looks inevitable, a force of nature like Greta Garbo’s or Cary Grant’s. Is there a more perfect or prophetic piece of movie trivia than that Jolie’s uncle wrote the song “Wild Thing”? It’s as if that screaming, opening chord by the Troggs split the earth and Angelina emerged fully formed, with her swarm of hair and knives and death tattoos and vials of blood. Before the quintessential wild-thing roles in 1998’s Gia and 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, she made her impact in a TV movie playing the wife to Gary Sinise’s segregationist governor George Wallace, and her presence was so much bigger than everything else that it threw the film out of whack. There was something too preposterous about her to call beautiful: the bombastic mouth, the cat eyes, the body that we think of as more voluptuous than it is. If beauty is measured by subtleties, what does it mean that nothing about Jolie is subtle at all? One of the striking things about the rash of Angelina magazine covers every couple of years is how quickly her look exhausts itself. Hers is a face that saturates perception, a kind of media Medusa’s that turns every sensibility into stone, before the impact wears off and then regenerates.
Jolie embodies the contradictions of her personality and our response to her. If you’re a man, she is at once sex symbol and feminist guerrilla; she would as soon beat you up as seduce you. If you’re a woman, she’s at once role model and worst nightmare, the mother of the century who will steal your husband. Both the bad and good Angelinas—by all accounts her philanthropy on behalf of refugees and orphans is intelligent, sincere, and dedicated—are equally convincing, and like enduring stars going back to Louise Brooks, she evokes something verging on the mythic. The last female star to so invade and command our awareness was that other husband-stealing, Oscar-winning, most-beautiful-woman-in-the-world humanitarian, Elizabeth Taylor, almost 50 years ago. Jolie’s admirable ambition to do vital work as an actress has become stardom’s prisoner; the skill and integrity she brings to the part of a hapless, anguished mother in Changeling or a long-suffering wife in The Good Shepherd can’t alter how those characters lie just beyond what we believe about the woman playing them. Maybe director Robert De Niro shrewdly cast her in the latter to show how around the bend CIA operative Matt Damon has gone. This is a company man so consumed by his work that even Angelina Jolie can’t get his attention.
From the outset Cruise’s charisma made it hard for people to take him seriously. Few noticed that without him Scorsese’s The Color of Money would be a grimmer, more joyless film, or that to the extent Levinson’s Rain Man works at all, it’s because of Cruise’s careful transformation from callow wheeler-dealer to grown-up brother’s keeper. But an episode surrounding the filming of Steven Spielberg’s ’02 futuristic thriller, Minority Report, reveals the psychic trap of both Cruise’s acting and stardom. As a renegade cop hiding from the police, in one scene Cruise submerges himself in a bathtub where a bubble escapes one nostril, floats to the surface, and pops, giving him away. Spielberg explained that the bubble would be created by computer, but Cruise assured the director that he could manage the bubble himself. This wasn’t method acting run amok, reminiscent of De Niro’s gaining weight for Raging Bull—Cruise’s character in this scene isn’t trying to blow a bubble—but epic control-freakery, and the problem is that great art at some point involves the surrender of control. It’s not an accident that Cruise’s most interesting performances are as men struggling with that surrender.
To be sure, as an actor Cruise takes more chances than most. He has played a quadriplegic shattered by war, a disillusioned doctor stumbling into an orgy, a homoerotic vampire (in the face of rumors about the actor’s sexuality), a sexual fascist estranged from his father (in Magnolia, an astonishing performance that tapped into the actor’s relationship with his own father). But even Cruise’s daring feels like part of a pathology intent on blowing that bubble, and during these last few years this obsession with control interjected itself into the phenomenon of his stardom. Tom Hanks or, at the other end of the psychotic extreme, Nicolas Cage jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa raving about a new girlfriend might have been endearing in its goofy way, but when Cruise did it, no one bought it. Instinctively people knew there was something fake about it, because the thing that’s transparent about Cruise is that he always has an agenda, whether it’s proving to us what a spontaneous guy he can be or that he likes girls or that he’s not just a theocratic megalomaniac lecturing postpartum women on how to treat their depression. Cruise’s couch-jump crossed a line in the contract between star and public, violated an unwritten clause of stardom, at which point the public realized there was something about him it had never really liked.
Since every generation responds to a different reflection of itself on the screen, every generation of moviegoers finds the next generation of movie stars underwhelming. Incontestable, however, is that stars don’t play the same role in a culture increasingly conscious of everything from who directed the picture to who did the 3-D. In the ’30s, people went to see a Cary Grant movie almost regardless of what the movie was; few today go to see a Tom Cruise movie. They go to see a movie that has Tom Cruise in it. The success or failure of Knight and Day and Salt won’t decide how strong or tattered is Cruise and Jolie’s connection with the public but how many zeros are in their next contracts, something the public cares nothing about. It may be that in his long career Cruise never actually has “carried” a movie. It may be that at the height of the military-infatuated Reagan era, any picture about dashing naval pilots with attitude that had tons of cool aerial shots and a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack was bound to make a star of whoever starred in it.
It’s reasonable for Cruise to assume that having willed himself to the top, he can will himself to remain there. As he demonstrated 27 years ago in Risky Business, he has a gift for the comedic; when he deflates himself, he’s at his most charming. Surrounded in Tropic Thunder by Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Steve Coogan, and Bill Hader, people who have made whole professions of being funny, Cruise’s repellent producer Les Grossman stole every scene that didn’t have Robert Downey Jr., and his reprise of Grossman at this year’s MTV Movie Awards was the show’s highlight. Recent reports have it that there will be a Grossman movie. It’s the canniest strategy yet by the Rommel of American movie stars. Meanwhile, the only woman anyone can envision playing James Bond—never mind Edwin Salt before he became Evelyn—will next play the ultimate siren, Cleopatra, which sounds like a pretty good move of its own. In case you’ve forgotten your movie history, Cleopatra was last played by Elizabeth Taylor. In five years Jolie will be that most dreaded and unjust age for actresses, 40, and she very much gives the appearance of a woman who can count; as it’s impossible to imagine Cruise ever giving up, it’s easy to imagine Jolie giving up all of it. She has other things to do. There’s an opening for United Nations secretary-general in 2012. Cleopatra ought to have finished wrapping by then, and who doesn’t want to hear the opening chord of “Wild Thing” on the General Assembly Hall sound system when the new secretary takes her seat?