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The Best Tom Cruise Year Is ...

… maybe not the most obvious one. But when Cruise made ‘Cocktail’ and ‘Rain Man,’ he unlocked a new side that would define the quintessential movie star’s career for decades to come.

A watercolor-style illustration of Tom Cruise Ringer illustration

You’ve probably already heard the stories about Tom Cruise’s preposterous level of effort in the new Mission: Impossible—Fallout, in which he plays the role of Ethan Hunt for the sixth time in 22 years. Of course the aggressively ageless 56-year-old performs his own stunts. At one point, he broke his ankle after slamming into the side of a damn building—and then pulled himself up, and ran across the roof. And then there’s the spectacular helicopter chase sequence, for which Cruise (again, of course) learned how to really pilot a helicopter. Elsewhere, when he’s not risking life and actual limbs in Fallout, he is doing that rigorous, purposeful Tom Cruise sprint, like Jim Fixx on a Red Bull bender.

That’s the one thing everyone — fans and critics alike — always says about him: Tom Cruise works hard. Working hard is his brand. He’s, well, worked very hard to make it so.

But what if he didn’t work quite so hard? Not to suggest that Tom Cruise has ever coasted, exactly. But what if he let himself lay back just a little bit and allowed the centrifugal force of his one-in-a-billion movie-star charisma propel him forward? Is it possible that this would make the longest-tenured A-list movie star since Clint Eastwood even more watchable?

Almost 30 years ago to the day, millions of people lined up to see the latest Tom Cruise movie, and the stakes couldn’t have been lower. The mission was not impossible; it was impossibly mundane. What mattered were dreams … and cocktails … Cocktails & Dreams, if you will. And people were fine with that! All it took to put butts in seats was this simple log line: Tom Cruise plays a sexy bartender. That’s it. Nothing else was required — no special effects, no elaborate cinematic universe, and certainly no broken ankles.

This is not to say that Tom Cruise sloughed off in Cocktail, one of the more popular, and least reputable, films in his oeuvre. He tossed bottles in synchronized motion with costar Bryan Brown. He rode horses on the beach with love interest Elisabeth Shue. He resisted the string-bikini’d bod of Kelly Lynch. He reacted with appropriate pathos to one of the all-time left-field suicide scenes. He put in work.

When was the last time you watched Cocktail? Oh, you’ve never watched Cocktail? Wow … I really don’t want to spoil this one. I’ll run down the essentials: Cruise plays Brian Flanagan, a wannabe business tycoon and military veteran (!) who moves to the big city in order to get rich, and then becomes a bartender at a TGI Fridays. And that’s basically all you need to know.

What Cocktail is really about is the desirability of Tom Cruise circa 1988. Put another way: Everybody in this movie wants to fuck him — Shue, Lynch, even Brown, kind of. Women literally paw at his legs when he stands on a bar top to recite tavern-inspired poetry. (This is also a thing that happens in Cocktail.) He is, in no uncertain terms, a sex object.

“Doug says you’re incredible with women — a real lady-killer,” Lynch drools near the end of Cocktail as she corners a semi-willing Cruise. “What’s your secret weapon?”

“Well,” Cruise says, flashing his trademark toothy grin, “what you see is what you get.”

He’s not lying.

Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail’
Tom Cruise in Cocktail (1988)
Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images

Cocktail played a pivotal role in consolidating Cruise’s burgeoning stardom, a star vehicle built on the flimsiest of premises that grossed $78 million domestically (and another $93 million around the world), good for the ninth-best box-office haul of 1988, an achievement that could only be attributed to Cruise’s mega-watt marquee appeal. But it never fully registered as a career triumph. Not long after Cocktail unleashed so many dubious fads on American pop culture — including two of the era’s most grating pop hits, the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” to say nothing of acrobatic mixology — Cruise distanced himself from the film.

“It’s painful as hell,” Cruise says of watching Cocktail in a 1990 Rolling Stone profile. “I mean, I worked my ass off on that movie.” Again with the work ethic, Tom.

Defenders of Cocktail have tried to couch it as a “secretly dark” look at ’80s “greed is good” culture, a depiction not far off from the eccentric barfly novel on which it is based. Screenwriter Heywood Gould, who also wrote the book, later claimed that the script went through 40 different iterations, with the film’s studio, Disney, constantly pressing to make Flanagan younger, more likable, and, ultimately, more Cruise-like. But even after all of those revisions, Cocktail was still watered down further during production.

“It was a much darker movie,” Lynch told The A.V. Club in 2012, “but Disney took it, reshot about a third of it, and turned it into flipping the bottles and this and that.”

When I revisited Cocktail recently, I could see traces of the more biting film it might have been. Flanagan is a prototypical working-class stiff who is twisted by capitalism into a money-obsessed douche, lending his blandly handsome bro-ness a faintly tragic lilt. But I prefer to accept Cocktail on its own compromised, cheesy terms. Forget the Reagan-era subtext. This is an enjoyable dumb movie, and it is best appreciated as a superficial confection. What you see is what you get.

And it deserves better. Cocktail isn’t any campier than Top Gun, with its slow-motion volleyball action, overwrought “Take My Breath Away” love scene, and Val Kilmer’s playfully unrestrained homoeroticism. So why is Cocktail the movie that Cruise has to live down?

Tom Cruise and Elisabeth Shue in ‘Cocktail’
Tom Cruise and Elisabeth Shue in Cocktail (1988)
Touchstone Pictures/Getty Images

In May, Cruise started filming Top Gun: Maverick, which is currently slated to arrive in theaters around this time in 2019. Cruise started teasing the possibility of a sequel to the 1986 film two years ago, on Jimmy Kimmel Live! He is, as always, committed to the enterprise, even if it is wholly unnecessary. But the closest Cruise will likely ever come to reviving Cocktail was a career-spanning bit with another late-night host, James Corden, on that same 2016 press cycle. This is a shame — I would rather watch a prequel delving into Flanagan’s mysterious Army background than a movie about Maverick’s kid. Call it Cocktail: First Blood. (I will nevertheless watch the movie about Maverick’s kid.)

This willingness to revisit Top Gun, and reticence to embrace Cocktail, presumably boils down to one thing for Cruise: He had to train in an F-14 to make Top Gun, whereas Cocktail only needed that dumb hook — Tom Cruise plays a sexy bartender — to be a success. He worked hard on Cocktail, but he didn’t have to work hard. He just had to be Tom Cruise.

But he didn’t want to be that Tom Cruise anymore. And he wouldn’t be ever again.

For millennials and Generation Z, there’s never been a world in which Cruise wasn’t among the most famous people on the planet. (August 5 marks the 35th anniversary of Risky Business, Cruise’s big breakthrough, released one month after his 21st birthday.) He’s practically an elemental property at this point.

But there have been oscillations in his fame. You might remember them, the way you can recall down seasons for a dynastic sports franchise. Like in the mid-’00s, during that disastrous press cycle for 2005’s War of the Worlds, marred by the Oprah Winfrey incident and that time he got testy with Matt Lauer. (When does Cruise get awarded his revisionist history bonus points for the last one?) The past few years have been another struggle: 2016’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and 2017’s The Mummy were widely derided duds. But his late-’10s period hasn’t been as down as you might think: Last year’s American Made, while not exactly great, is awfully hard not to watch when it pops up on airplanes or HBO.

Cruise has been around for so long, all while working steadily and prolifically, that you can break his career into notable eras, or even memorable years. Many of his notable films come in bunches. There’s 1986, the year of Top Gun and The Color of Money, his first movie to gross more than $100 million and his first “adult” drama. There’s 1996, the “blockbuster” year, distinguished by Jerry Maguire and the first Mission: Impossible, which combined grossed more than $731 million worldwide. (That’s about $1.2 billion in 2018 dollars.) There’s 1999, the “prestige” year, with Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, neither of which nabbed him that elusive Oscar. And then there’s the opposite of a prestige year, 2012, marked by late-career guilty pleasures Rock of Ages and (the pretty good!) first Jack Reacher film.

But if I’m picking my favorite Tom Cruise year, I’m going back to 1988, his “transitional” year, when he released Cocktail at the end of July and Rain Man, his road movie–buddy picture with Dustin Hoffman, one week before Christmas. Between the release of those radically different movies, from October to December, he filmed Born on the Fourth of July with Oliver Stone, playing the paraplegic Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, which garnered him his first Oscar nomination.

Rain Man was even more successful than Cocktail, tallying a worldwide gross of nearly $355 million and four Oscars. (It was no. 1 at the American box office that year, which seems all the more incredible in these franchise-saturated times.) Cruise undoubtedly was a primary reason for the former, though he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. But Rain Man gave him something far more valuable — a pathway to the “mature” second act of his professional life, to the success of Born on the Fourth of July and beyond.

When you look at the best years of Cruise’s career, there’s an obvious yin-and-yang quality, typically balancing an action tent-pole like Top Gun and Mission Impossible with a “smaller” film such as The Color of Money or Jerry Maguire. This contrast is starkest in ’88, between the disreputable camp classic and the award-winning family drama.

An oft-repeated complaint about Cruise’s recent filmography is the loss of that balance. It’s been this way for about 15 years. In the early ’00s, he made two risky sci-fi films, 2001’s Vanilla Sky and 2002’s Minority Report, and his overall best movie of the 21st century, 2004’s Collateral, along with requisite business-minded ventures like 2000’s Mission: Impossible II and 2003’s forgettable but very profitable The Last Samurai.

Cruise hasn’t made a movie remotely like Collateral since then. In the past decade, he has tilted heavily to tent-poles with astronomical budgets, including four more Mission: Impossible films. Then again, Hollywood has also abandoned yang in order to focus solely on yin. And Tom Cruise and Hollywood are nothing if not symbiotic. You don’t get to your 35th year as a movie star without always adapting to the present climate.

Cruise has been a rare constant in Hollywood since the early ’80s. But neither Cruise nor Hollywood has stayed the same. There have been several reinventions for both American institutions along the way.

Time, for one, moved much slower in 1988. A lot could happen in six months. The Tom Cruise of Cocktail is not the Tom Cruise of Rain Man. When you toggle between those films, you get the rare opportunity to witness an iconic actor grow up in real time.

Tom Cruise in 1988 is like U2 in 1983. In the video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” filmed live at Red Rocks Amphitheater outside of Denver, Bono is still an awkward kid — he has a mullet, a sleeveless shirt, knee-high boots, and an abundance of spirited high kicks. He’s not really the stadium-rock Bono yet. But every so often you catch a glimmer in his eyes that says, I think I know how to own these people. I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way. Cruise similarly came into his own as a grown-up star in the transition from Cocktail and Rain Man. Though Bono didn’t completely lose the mullet for another four years, Cruise’s transformation was far more condensed.

If Cocktail truly is a failure — I don’t think it is, but Cruise does — it is first and foremost a failure of career planning. It’s a little like Bono briefly reverting to his Under a Blood Red Sky guise between The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Cocktail was a throwback to the early ’80s Tom Cruise of Losin’ It and Legend, before he got his act together and became the Tom Cruise, a movie star who transcends time, generations, and bodily harm. Cocktail feels out of place between The Color of Money and Rain Man in Cruise’s catalog, in the midst of his “apprenticeship” period, when he dutifully shared the spotlight with respected elders from the ’60s and ’70s like Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman, on the way to becoming an elder himself. (This continued with Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder, Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, and Gene Hackman in The Firm, culminating with Stanley Kubrick and Eyes Wide Shut.)

Standing next to distinguished gentlemen makes you look distinguished. In Cocktail, Cruise resembles a man in his mid-20s who still lives with roommates and sleeps on a mattress on the floor. In Rain Man, he’s that same guy after he’s settled down with a nice girl and an IKEA charge card. This shift from innocence to experience defines the crux of Cocktail and Rain Man. After Cocktail, a cinematic mullet if there ever was one, Cruise would never be so guileless again on screen.

Rain Man made Paul Thomas Anderson realize that he loves Tom Cruise more than most people.

“He’s funny too!” Anderson raved last December to Bill Simmons. “Cruise is funny. When you see Tom Cruise on screen, name me anyone else that can do that right now.”

Cruise’s portrayal of Charlie Babbitt — luxury car huckster, mocker of his disabled brother, impatient clapper when people aren’t moving fast enough — helped to inspire Frank T.J. Mackey, the role Anderson created for Cruise in 1999’s Magnolia. You don’t need to squint hard to see the parallels. Charlie and Frank are unlikable assholes nursing wounded hearts and troubled relationships with their fathers. They abuse people as a way of keeping the world at arm’s length, the ultimate form of self-abuse. And when they achieve catharsis, they aren’t redeemed — their souls have thawed, but they haven’t stopped being assholes.

They are also, like PTA says, very funny characters, mostly because they are excuses for Cruise to launch into prolonged mental breakdowns. Is there anything better than Tom Cruise huffing, puffing, gesticulating, becoming unglued, yelling, and finally losing his freaking mind?

For years, distinguished directors lined up to run Cruise through the wringer: Scorsese, Levinson, Stone, Pollack, De Palma, Crowe, and Kubrick all delighted in driving him absolutely wild. What fresh torture can we inflict on Tom Cruise this time? Put him in a wheelchair! Strip him of his lucrative sports-agent career! Send him on a metaphorical “journey into the night” that doubles as a rumination on the compromises inherent to any marriage! Now, step back and watch the glorious madness commence.

Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in ‘Rain Man’
Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise in Rain Man (1988)

During the prelude to the 61st Academy Awards, Hoffman was the favorite to win Best Actor for Rain Man. He did just that. (The other nominees that year included Tom Hanks for Big and Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver, both of whom seem leagues better in retrospect.) At the time, Hoffman’s performance was widely admired as a landmark in the portrayal of a disabled person on film. But since then, Hoffman’s stock has plummeted and Cruise’s has skyrocketed. It’s now become a cliché to talk about how much better Cruise is than Hoffman in Rain Man, even though he supposedly has the less showy role.

This is only half true. Cruise is indeed superior to Hoffman’s mannered, dated performance as Raymond Babbitt, which now seems like a cartoonish caricature of a person with autism. But Cruise’s work in Rain Man can’t really be described as not showy. While Hoffman exists as a static irritant, Cruise is reactive to the extreme. He’s big and bombastic, and he dominates the film’s dramatic arc. He’s the one the audience relates with, the one who changes from the start of the story to the end — not much, but enough. It’s dazzling to witness. Rain Man is the greatest breakdown of Tom Cruise’s career.

If Cruise’s role was merely to support Hoffman’s campaign to win a second Oscar, he doesn’t act like it. He knew how good the role of Charlie was. He spent two years working on the script, starting back when he was promoting Top Gun in 1986. “What I gave him is the thing that he hasn’t often had the opportunity to do: work with a full character,” Levinson told Rolling Stone in 1989.

As Charlie, Cruise is a man constantly reminded of how he falls short, and there is no guarantee that he won’t carry on making the same mistakes after the credits roll. It is a complicated depiction of adulthood, whereas Flanagan’s magical turnaround in Cocktail — he marries Shue, agrees to be a father to his unborn child, and opens his own bar — is a child’s fairy tale.

If it’s been a while since you watched it, or you’ve never seen Rain Man, go do it now. My wife and I revisited it last week, and we barely noticed Hoffman. Meanwhile, we couldn’t stop laughing — or cringing — at Cruise. We hadn’t seen it since our two kids were born, and now it was impossible not to watch Rain Man as an allegory about the frustrations of parenthood. Charlie is not a parent; he’s merely tasked (by his own greed and resentment over essentially being cut out of his father’s will) with taking care of his brother. But his rage over, say, not being able to get his brother to board an airplane, in spite of deploying simple logic and facts, felt extremely familiar.

The central struggle of taking care of a person who can’t take care of themselves is over control. The dance between caregiver and care-receiver requires the giver to convince the receiver to acquiesce; this means the receiver is actually in the power position at all times, even when it appears that the opposite is so. No matter Rain Man’s other deficiencies, particularly when judged according to modern sensibilities, the way the film depicts that dance still feels true.

Charlie Babbitt is Patient Zero for Cruise’s strongest subsequent performances, which all concern power in some way. Cruise plays men who want to command their surroundings, and can’t, thus causing all that imminently watchable turmoil. Ron Kovic can’t control his body. Cole Trickle can’t control his emotions behind the wheel. Lt. Daniel Kaffee can’t control his court case. Mitch McDeere can’t control his own life once it is infiltrated by the mob. Jerry Maguire can’t control Rod Tidwell. William Harford can’t control his wife’s sexual desires. Frank T.J. Mackey can’t control the TV reporter who is about to expose him.

And that need for control clearly resonates with Cruise in his real life. What could be the cause of his fixation on hard work? Could it be a desire to account for every possible outcome, to ensure that he never falls from his perch? Either way, all of that planning and plotting and persnickety obsessing has clearly paid off. If you can will yourself to run on a broken ankle, or carry on each time news breaks about the weirdness of your personal life, you can accomplish anything.

But nobody is perfect. For Cruise, Cocktail represented a loss of control — he couldn’t change the final product or prevent the short-term damage it caused to his reputation. But with Rain Man, he was able to channel his control-freak tendencies into a character who must accept that the arc of the universe is long but bends toward accepting that Wapner must be watched in five minutes.

By the end of 1988, Tom Cruise showed that he could sublimate himself on purpose. He turned powerlessness into a superpower.

Steven Hyden is the author of two books, including Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock, out now from Dey Street Books. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Billboard, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Grantland, The A.V. Club, Slate, and Salon. He is currently the cultural critic at UPROXX and the host of the Celebration Rock podcast.


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