Peter Bart: After ‘Top Gun: Maverick’s Setbacks And Delays, Its Star Is Back In Cruise Control

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It was an intimate cocktail party. Tom Cruise wore a cheerful smile so I couldn’t resist the opportunity to test it. “For someone who’s just been fired, you look very happy,” I said. “Sumner Redstone figured you would be angry by the press release.”

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“I’m not really fire-able, if that’s even a word,” Cruise replied, his smile intact. “Besides, prods from CEOs never anger me.”

The media briefly fed on the studio press release, but as it turned out, Redstone and Paramount went into retreat mode within a week. Paramount’s long-standing deal with Cruise’s production company had elapsed a month earlier, but the CEO forgot to check his facts before issuing his statement, so Cruise looked smart in ignoring the Hollywood rhetoric (details below).

The incident took place 15 years ago, but I was reminded of it this week as Cruise was again winning some important battles on his latest, much delayed, movie. Top Gun: Maverick would be destined to “own” Memorial Day weekend with a guaranteed, much extended theatrical run pre-streaming. In addition, two further Mission: Impossible sequels were positioned for lavish takeoffs.

With the New York Times christening him “The Last Movie Star,” Cruise’s four-day opening in North America may reach $100 million in 4,732 locations and perhaps hit $200 million internationally.

So that cheerful smile was still implanted on Cruise’s youthful 59-year-old face last week as he skillfully leveraged his simultaneous publicity blast-offs, one from the zealously self-protective Cannes Film Festival, the other from the British Royal Family. This was an historic PR coup: With war jitters raging, the startling image of eight fighter jets streaming red, white and blue across the Euro sky seemed at once defiant and disturbing.

Cruise’s promotional perils over the years have been matched by the physical stunts that he has orchestrated in defining his past films; his death-defying mountain climbs in M:I – 2 likely worried his studio and insurance carriers more than his feats on Top Gun: Maverick. All represented well-calculated adventures in Cruise Control, designed to nurture his continuum of pre-ordained tentpoles.

Cruise hanging out in 2000’s “Mission: Impossible – II” - Credit: Everett
Cruise hanging out in 2000’s “Mission: Impossible – II” - Credit: Everett

Everett

Also reflected in Cruise’s pursuit of peril has been his idiosyncratic choice of roles, both starring and supporting: Tropic Thunder, Magnolia, Born on the Fourth of July, Rain Man, etc. “His filmmaking friends understand that Cruise gets more excited about playing assholes than heroes,” says a director who has worked with him but doesn’t want to be quoted. “No other star has the guts to satirize both studio chiefs and porn freaks.”

Once he has signed on, Cruise is dauntless about seeing them through, he adds.

On Rain Man, Cruise remained committed to a challenging script even though filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Sidney Pollack and Martin Brest had all committed then backed out. Barry Levinson finally directed the award-winning film, in which Cruise played the younger brother of a severely autistic Dustin Hoffman, linked together on an emotional cross-country journey. In Jerry Maguire, Cruise was cast as a ruthless hustler who was unrelentingly chasing the big bucks, but Cruise turned him into an empathetic figure.

There were also failed ventures, such as Cocktail, Vanilla Sky or The Mummy.

A decade ago, when Cruise and his long-term manager Paula Wagner took control of United Artists, they had the option of pursuing the tentpole route or a more demanding slate. They took the latter path, marshalling a political thriller titled Lions For Lambs. with Robert Redford directing Cruise and Meryl Streep. The ill-fated project ran into a recession, a writers’ strike and financing setbacks for MGM, UA’s parent company. After a succession of disappointments, Cruise seemed grateful to return to the Mission franchise.

‘Top Gun: Maverick’ Review: Tom Cruise Is Back Soaring In What May Be The Role Of His Career

What will be his future scenario? The Top Gun: Maverick launch demonstrated anew his skill at commanding the younger movie audience — the Mission films alone have totaled $3.6 billion in global box office. But the present challenges are real: The army of teenagers who liked Top Gun are pushing 50 now, a difficult demo to conquer.

Surveys indicate that more than half of the 45-and-over crowd haven’t been to a movie in over a year compared with 20% of the 18-24 demo. Cruise’s battle to gain a 45-day-plus window for theatrical release thus will likely prove pivotal — the older audience waits for reviews and word-of-mouth.

So will Cruise ever, in fact, be “fired”? There were conflicting reports 15 years ago over what precipitated Sumner Redstone’s outburst. One of his top aides confided to me that his boss had become grumpy about first-dollar gross deals in general. Why should select stars have major paydays before the studio had recouped?

I finally asked Redstone directly two or three weeks later, when we were dining at Dan Tana’s restaurant. “Why did you aim your rant at Cruise?” I asked. “Under his deal he took no money up front. Not even scale?”

“I understand all that,” the CEO snapped. “I’m closing a new deal with him next week. Same terms.”

“Good. Then you’re biting the bullet, right?”

Redstone grunted. “He is still overpaid. And I can still fire him.”

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