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Slant Review: Amy Nicholson's Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor

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In the tradition of the other various authors who've participated in Cahiers du Cinéma's Anatomy of an Actor series, Nicholson examines her subject through the lens of 10 "iconic roles." The author's first few choices aren't surprising, but they aren't debatable either, as Tom Cruise as we know him is pretty much unthinkable without Risky Business and Top Gun. Nicolson touches on familiar autobiographical details, acknowledging that they're familiar and highly manipulated by their progenitor, such as the dyslexia, the missing father issues, and the prodigious daredevil athleticism that would define virtually every performance throughout Cruise's career. More promisingly, Nicholson discusses Cruise's uneasy relationship with Top Gun as a macho military recruiting video at the height of the militaristic 1980s, and reveals that the actor was calculatedly and essentially apolitical, more concerned with portraying a personal transcendence than in delving into said transcendence's potential social reverberations.

Granted, Cruise was in his early 20s at the time, and his career prescience is remarkable, but that's also a telling observation that boils his success and its accompanying problems down to one element: His limitation as an actor is his self-absorption (his on-screen asexuality, which Nicholson also examines, springs from this), which also transforms him into a cartoon of everlasting endurance that taps his gifts as a superstar. This absorption partially explains why his performance in Born on the Fourth of July, also covered here with a degree of enthusiasm that isn't shared by this critic, doesn't work. You never feel that you're watching an approximation of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic because Cruise's performance is an audition for the legacy of great actor—substituting ghoulish gimmickry for empathy—that revels in the kind of narcissism that would be later parodied by Cruise and company in the surprisingly and gratifyingly vicious Tropic Thunder (also covered here). Nicholson is cognizant of that vanity, though she often appears to believe that it enriches the performances—a point of view that's especially evident, later, in her cataloguing of the actor's various tics in Magnolia.

Nicholson initially appears to be unresolved about the contrivances of Cruise's performances and unsure as to how to express that uncertainty. She occasionally accepts the actor's mythology with a straight face, and relies heavily on on-set anecdotes that fail to take us beyond the familiar image of Cruise as an eager Boy Scout forever striving to be a great actor. (There's a quote, in which Cruise says he isn't concerned with image, that's blatant enough to make even Joan Crawford blanch.)

But the book finds its footing at the halfway mark, perhaps because the films themselves grow more interesting and less discussed from a Cruise-centric point of view. For instance, Nicholson provides some of the best and most persuasive writing about Eyes Wide Shut that I've personally read, memorably claiming that it "isn't a movie about a human consumed with distrust and jealousy—it's a movie about distrust and jealousy that simply uses a human as its conduit." That's a terrific reading of that film, as well as a telling encapsulation of Stanley Kubrick's work in general, that invigorates Nicholson's confident read on the fascinating pairing of Cruise, a control freak who feigns humanist empathy, with Kubrick, the king of control freaks who wears his impenetrable sadism as an artistic (and sensationalistic) badge of honor.

His limitation as an actor is his self absorption?

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