By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 23, 2010 at 11:43AM
My latest career watch column takes on the fascinating case of one-time mega-star Tom Cruise, who has fallen on hard times in recent years and bids for a major comeback in the summer popcorn action comedy Knight and Day, which opens June 23. What will it take to turn this career around? Here's a taste:
Latest Misfire: After Viacom's mercurial CEO Sumner Redstone terminated Cruise and long-time producing partner Paula Wagner's 14-year Paramount deal in the wake of 'Mission: Impossible III''s disheartening box office -- which returned more cash to Cruise than the studio -- the power duo took over MGM's sister studio United Artists. They went on to release two back-to-back flops starring Cruise.
Even with director Robert Redford and Meryl Streep co-starring, the dead-earnest $35 million war drama 'Lions for Lambs' was a critical and audience failure in 2007 (grossing $15 million stateside and $63 million worldwide). UA pushed back Bryan Singer's $90-million World War II thriller 'Valkyrie' in order to do costly reshoots. Cruise was less than convincing as an American-accented German Army officer who joins a failed plot to assassinate Hitler, and UA's marketing campaign never recovered from portraits of Cruise in full military regalia and eye patch. After the film opened in December 2008, grossing less than $200 million worldwide, MGM parted ways with Wagner and sidelined UA.
Biggest Problem: Cruise, who will be 48 on July 3, has to be the smartest guy in the room. As long as he was repped by PR doyenne Pat Kingsley, Cruise was invulnerable, protected from overexposure -- and himself. But his desire to express his views on Scientology -- the religion introduced to him by his first wife, Mimi Rogers -- clashed with Kingsley's views, and they parted ways around the release of 'The Last Samurai.' After he hired his sister to do his PR, with no handler pulling back the reins, Mr. Know-It-All emerged. He advocated Scientology over modern medicine, disapproved of anti-depressant drugs, and expressed his ardent love for Katie Holmes by jumping on Oprah's couch. Five years later, that image still haunts him.
The same testosterone energy that fueled Cruise's perfectionist performances turned many fans away. Now, studios no longer offer Cruise $20 million against 20 percent of the first-dollar gross. Other movie stars land roles that were once packaged for him. Ignominiously, he saw his lead role in 'Salt' go to Angelina Jolie, and another movie fell apart that was set to star him as a U.S. president. Many moviegoers actively avoid Cruise, who has come to represent the worst excesses of the studio system. "Almost everything Tom Cruise ever does seems 100 percent forced and artificial -- phony -- to me," says one industry observer.
Biggest Assets: No matter how much audiences resist the real Cruise, he is still a formidable big-screen star capable of playing comedy, drama, hero or villain. His masculine presence, athletic prowess -- he fearlessly performs many of his own stunts -- and charm are all on display in 'Knight & Day,' James Mangold's send-up of summer action capers, in which he stars as a renegade spy who falls in love with every-girl Cameron Diaz. Although both stars are in fine comedic form, advance tracking was weak ahead of the film's June 23 Wednesday release, moved up to give the movie time to build good word-of-mouth. Weekend sneaks bumped the numbers, but the film, which at press time ranked 60 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, could open well behind Adam Sandler's latest, 'Grown Ups.' But Cruise remains a huge draw overseas.