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05.01.09

The Resurrection of Tom Cruise

Nearly four years after jumping on Oprah’s couch, Tom Cruise has slowly rehabilitated his image in Hollywood. Kim Masters reports on how he accomplished this impossible mission.

I have started to admire Tom Cruise. I think. Last week, Variety ran an article saying that Cruise was considering so many projects that he had “single-handedly propped up the script-doctoring biz.” (That is, various screenwriters have been picking up $250,000 a week to rework scripts that Cruise might pick for his next project.)

This article may have been a plant; some in the industry figured it came from CAA, an agency that not only wants to hype its star but to draw attention to the fact that its screenwriter clients are still getting top dollar in tough times.

But the story got me thinking about Cruise and how he seems to be getting a damaged career back on track—something that didn’t necessarily seem possible a couple of years ago.

“He’s had some hard conversations with a lot of people. He’s doing everything he can to be the best guy to be in business with.”

I’ve written a lot of stuff about Tom Cruise, notably a 2005 cover story in Radar magazine about the star’s relationship to the Church of Scientology. It chronicled Cruise’s slow-motion spinout in the days leading up to the release of War of the Worlds. (This was around the time that he was jumping on Oprah’s couch, chiding Matt Lauer for being “glib,” and criticizing Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants.) Whether Cruise was aware of the article I can’t say because, as a former Scientologist told me, members of the group are “kept in a bubble” and “never hear bad news.”

About a year later, I wrote another piece for Slate with the headline, “ The Cootie Factor.” A prominent agent used that telling phrase to describe the problem that was afflicting Cruise. It’s one thing to apologize for throwing a phone; it’s another to recover from the type of relentless scorn that was being poured on Cruise, from South Park to Scary Movie 4.

A source close to Cruise acknowledged then that he was “teetering on the brink of a certain kind of trouble that no star like him has ever been in before.” But this knowledgeable source said Cruise still hadn’t gotten the word. “You’ve got to be very careful in conversations with him," he explained. "Tom is not ever going to face facts."

Now it seems that he has—though perhaps only up to a point. Cruise has been rebuilding his image brick by brick. He did a comic turn in Tropic Thunder and a quirky commercial for Jimmy Kimmel that aired during the Oscars. Last May he allowed Oprah to interrogate him and in December he went on the Today show to apologize to Lauer.

The strategy was aimed at more than one demographic: Tropic Thunder and Jimmy Kimmel were for the Internet snarkers while Oprah and Matt drove up his approval ratings among older women—exactly the group that had been most turned off by the couch-jumping and Shields-bashing.

Sources in Cruise’s camp say that contrary to earlier predictions, the 46-year-old actor has faced facts. “He’s had some hard conversations with a lot of people,” says one who previously thought Cruise would never hear the truth. “He’s doing everything he can to be the best guy to be in business with.”

And it may be paying off: In December Cruise managed a $21 million opening weekend for Valkyrie and the movie went on to gross almost $200 million worldwide. (That feat is all the more impressive because the film wasn’t just a Nazi period piece with a downer ending, but because it was kind of confusing and a little boring.) Of course, those numbers constituted proof that Cruise is still a star.

The projects that Cruise is supposedly considering now include some thrillers: The Matarese Circle, based on a Robert Ludlum novel, might team Cruise with Denzel Washington in a film about two contract killers who find themselves under fire from a mysterious group, with David Cronenberg directing. The Tourist would co-star Charlize Theron as an Interpol agent who uses an American tourist to flush out an elusive criminal who's also her former lover. But the one that he’s said to want the most, the one that would further endear him to women who loved him as Jerry Maguire, is an action comedy.

Wichita is a Fox project about an undercover agent who meets up with a woman (potentially played by Cameron Diaz) who’s had a lot of man troubles. And that’s where the reinvention of Tom Cruise becomes a little muddled.

Like many stars—even those who haven’t gone off the rails—Cruise would not appear to be in a position to command his old rich deal: about $20 million or 20 percent of the box-office gross, whichever is more. These days, studios tend to insist on getting their money back before the star scoops up a big share of the profit. If any studio is likely to try to make that stick, it’s Fox. The studio is apparently willing to promise Cruise $20 million but it wants him to hold off on his gross participation until its costs are recouped. So far, Cruise’s representatives have responded that the star won’t do that. And that’s left some at Fox fuming that Cruise still hasn’t gotten the memo.

But a source in Cruise’s camp says he has indeed gotten the memo and read it carefully. The star’s representatives may have taken a tough stance, he says, but that’s because Fox is known for playing hardball. It’s just a negotiation, he says, and if Cruise decides that the script is working, the terms of the deal will not stand in the way.

Whatever project comes next, there’s no doubt that the large contingent of people who loathe Scientology will continue to berate Cruise for being part of a group that they consider to be a dark cult. But it might not matter. Cruise is one of the hardest working men in show business and it looks as though, just as L. Ron Hubbard promised, he might have another life coming to him.

Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.