Friday, July 3, 2015

Birthday Take: Tom Cruise in "Magnolia" (1999)

Tom Cruise in Magnolia
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Tom Cruise
Born: July 3, 1962 (53 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actor in Magnolia (nominated) as Frank T.J. Mackey

The Take

Here's an honest question: based on recent work, does anyone think that Tom Cruise is a great actor? This isn't to say that he compliments spectacle very well or that he makes compelling blockbuster films. The simple question is: is he a good actor? Maybe it could be that his Scientology moniker has soured some to his bizarre antics. However, he also hasn't really done much in recent years that has necessarily wowed audiences. Yes, he is very watchable and can get you to see whatever Mission: Impossible movie they are up to. Yet, when it comes to acting nominations, there doesn't seem to be much faith. While he has fared better than most Scientology actors, he still has an astigmatism to it all that can be problematic.

This is mostly because with the right material, he is very good. Not just compelling on the level that most competent actors can be. He actually is dedicated and intense. He brings a gravitas to the third act of A Few Good Men that is still astounding and memorable. He even played a bratty person in Rain Man with some charm. There's so much about his early career that is compelling that if there's anything we should be saddened by Cruise for, it's not providing us with meatier and more interesting roles such as the one that he brought to Magnolia; a film that may see him playing into machismo stereotypes, but does so with a certain vulnerability.

Magnolia itself is a fascinating movie by director Paul Thomas Anderson because of its depiction of various characters throughout the Los Angeles area. It is a film in which a lot happens with various subdivisions that its long running time isn't as problematic as one would think. Yes, it is a film that does have a certain rawness to it, but it is also poetic in spades, a unique film that feels very personal. It is a story about searching for acceptance among peers. It may not always work out, but at least the director knew how to make it engrossing.

Which likely explains why Cruise's performance is so magnetic. He may be too cocky for his own good, but it is all a charade for his personal life. What is behind the scenes is more complicated and lonely. For the film's love affair with self-indulgence, it still manages to create a portrait of a man whose life is defined by lies, or at least insecurity. While there's debate on if it is more reflective of Cruise, there's something more to the performance that transcends it. He has an aggression and believable notion to it all that makes it all feel okay. It is a performance of an actor who wants to impress you, even with arguably narrow-minded material. It is the magic of Cruise, and something that has since dissipated.

For those wanting to write off Cruise as just being an action star, just know that he did so much more prior to the past 15 years. Magnolia was counterbalanced by Eyes Wide Shut in 1999 and produced some of the actor's best work. Along with films like Jerry Maguire, he made a name for himself as someone to watch. Maybe now that he had that, he doesn't need to convince us of that. All we have left is to watch the spectacle and embrace whatever crazy scheme he can run his way through this time around. So, is he a great actor? That is highly debatable. However, the question as applied to a potential "was" is more cemented in stone as a yes.

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