By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist April 19, 2013 at 11:30AM
From tiny, acne-ridden, squeaky-voiced acorns, massive oaks of megastardom can grow. Not literally, of course, in Tom Cruise's case (obligatory height reference), but in every figurative way possible, he is an enormous presence in Hollywood, as a producer, as a celebrity and most importantly as a greenlight-giving, budget-busting, bona fide movie star. For better or worse, we've few enough left of those. For anyone who grew up watching movies any time in the eighties, nineties or even noughties, Tom Cruise is simply a fact of life: an immovable object; a mathematical constant like Pi, that we'll never quite get to the end of defining. His movies succeed, his movies fail (all judged on the warped power-of-n matrix of the tentpole), but Tom Cruise TM endures, and will be jumping out of a building on a movie screen near you very soon, if he isn't doing just that, right now.
But the ubiquity of his brand has its downside. Familiarity can breed contempt, and in between films, the rumor mill that surrounds Cruise -- his family life, his Scientology, his dating practices, the fact that there was a guy wheeling a heater along the red carpet behind him at a recent Dublin premiere -- gets on our nerves as much as anybody's. But a funny thing happens: as much as we may be irritated by Cruise's persona outside his films, between that Cruise/Wagner logo flashing up and the end credits rolling, for maybe just that 120 minutes, he almost always manages to remind us once again just why he's the biggest star in the world. Almost always.
A little in contrast to our fairly positive review, for this writer's money, this weekend's "Oblivion" is not the best showcase of Cruise's tentpole talents (we're excluding things like his highly atypical but totally brilliant turn in "Magnolia" for the purposes of this conversation). Even in poor films like "Knight and Day" we've found ourselves liking and rooting for the Cruise character because as self-serious and self-absorbed as he may seem to be in real life, Cruise can deliver charm onscreen like no one else. And aside from being a star, he's actually a good actor, so if he's given a character who's a gruff, sarcastic but noble loner ("Jack Reacher") or a serious but dedicated master-of-disguise superspy ("Mission: Impossible"), and a director engaged enough, that's exactly what you get. But in "Oblivion" he's given very little character, and what quirks he's allowed fall rather flat under Kosinski's direction (it's not so much that he has a directorial tin ear for these things as he seems simply uninterested -- he's more likely off with the production designer arguing over which white swatch is whiter).
Which is all our long way of saying that, noticing how "Oblivion" didn't work that Cruise juju on us, we started to think about the films that did, and about where it all started. So to mark the release of this $120 million sci-fi spectacular (that would never have gone ahead were it not for the star's heft behind it), here's our rundown of the paltry five films that Tom Cruise, seemingly destined like a rocket for the stars, made when he was a nobody.
"Endless Love" (1981)
Cruise has one scene in this mindblowingly mawkish, and actually super skeezy teen melodrama from Franco Zeffirelli, and it's notable for him already being shirtless (and otherwise only wearing sports shorts) and for his speaking, or should we say squeaking, voice. Complete with goofy high-pitched giggle, it is a voice that, while recognizably his, you can literally never imagine delivering "I want the TRUTH!" or "I feel the need..." or "You've never seen me very upset," let alone "Respect the cock. Tame the cunt" for anything but comic effect. Over the course of his next movies, he's clearly training his voice never to do this again and he totally retires that snicker, so we're glad this scene still exists, if only to provide hope for awkward adolescents everywhere. The film, oy vey, stars an unbelievably gorgeous, angel-faced Brooke Shields (her first role after "Blue Lagoon" which seriously rewired the prepubescent hormones of an entire generation) and Martin Hewitt (nope, no idea) as a sexually active 15- and 17-year old couple who are just super duper in love. So much so that when nooky is suspended due to parental interference he just can't take it and resolves to impress his way back into her bed by saving the family home from a fire that he himself has set. This is an idea he gets from a story told by the Tom Cruise character, incidentally. This foolproof plan goes wrong and he goes to prison for arson. When he gets out he is still super duper in love with Shields, but unfortunately kind of a little bit sorta also causes the death of her father and gets sent down again. News was it was going to be remade with Alex Pettyfer and Gabriella Wilde. Yay.
The same year as his "Endless Love" cameo, Cruise got a much more substantial role, and the first of many, many uniforms, in "Taps," a Harold Becker movie ("Sea of Love," "Malice") that's stood the test of time quite well. It makes a great study of the randomness of nascent stardom too, as Cruise is actually the second or third lead to equally early-days Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn, with Giancarlo Esposito in support. The story is rather ploddingly told, but it's a compelling tale of young men being taught militaristic ideals without having the wisdom to apply them properly, with tragic consequences. When their Academy is threatened with closure, and their Commanding Officer (George C Scott) hospital-bound after a shooting accident brings on a heart attack, the cadets, led by their newly-promoted Cadet Major (Hutton) decide to resist the authorities trying to shut them down, eventually taking up arms. Cruise's character is the hothead, while Penn's is the more thoughtful, but the film is really Hutton's, and watching it, then crawling under a rock for 30 years, you'd be sure that he would be the one with the bigger career right now. But if Hutton is subtle, delivering a very mature portrayal of misplaced honor and thwarted loyalty, Cruise is impressive even if his character is more one-note. And he does get to go briefly berserk at the climax, reminding us of those performances of his later career in which bloodlust or outright insanity lurk just below the surface. It's a "Lord of the Flies"-style allegory, so it's not exactly believable, and it takes too long to get where it's going, but in "Taps," we get the first glimpse of the Cruise of the future. And it's only his second film.