If nothing else, Tom Cruise: Anatomy Of An Actor is a book with clear goals, which it all but bullet-points in its introductory chapter—goals it needs to fulfill in order to justify its existence, but, for complicated reasons that have more to do with style and mode than subject matter, it fails to accomplish.
The basic premise is right there in the subtitle. Anatomy Of An Actor is part of an ongoing series put together by the once-indispensable film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, wherein writers examine the craft and careers of Hollywood icons by focusing on 10 key roles. (Other entries include Meryl Streep: Anatomy Of An Actor and Robert De Niro: Anatomy Of An Actor, with books on Al Pacino, Marlon Brando, and Jack Nicholson forthcoming.) Anatomy is, in other words, a book about Cruise the hard-working, motor-learning actor, rather than Cruise the movie star—or at least it tries to be one.
This is the Cruise who practices dismounting from a wheelchair over and over until it becomes a reflex, the Cruise who learns to fly planes and do pool trick shots, the Cruise who could probably learn to solve a Rubik’s Cube in 10 seconds if a role called for it. This is Cruise as an artisan, if not quite an artist.
Ideally, books like these are hyper-focused products of obsession or passion. They resemble rabbit holes, luring the reader to go further and further into the writer’s private pop-cultural burrow, packed with detritus and totems that are presented as major or groundbreaking, but which betray eccentric personal and emotional investment.
The big problem with Tom Cruise: Anatomy Of An Actor is that it’s an almost compulsively bloodless, impersonal book, written in a soft, non-descriptive magazine-profile-ese that is as easy to read and as it is to put down, and which leaves a reader hungry for something to mull over. (Sample sentence: “Jerry Maguire is pegged as a romantic comedy, though it’s really more of a comedy disguised as a drama with a dash of romance.”) Words like “threequel” are used sincerely, Risky Business and Interview With The Vampire are described as “dramedies,” and Stanley Kubrick is noted as having been “one of the last living classic auteurs.”
As a whole, Anatomy is far more comfortable with undercutting the Cruise media narrative than with the roles and movies it’s supposed to be discussing. Author Amy Nicholson—whose spin-off LA Weekly long-read “How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star” is recommended for anyone interested in how star personas are managed and deformed in the digital age—is succinct and lucid when it comes to dealing with Cruise’s public image. His work, less so. Quotes and checklist-like rundowns of behind-the-scenes details (improvisation, preparation, script changes, etc.) are plentiful; analysis is scarce. Throughout, one gets the sense that Nicholson is avoiding making any statement that can’t be backed up by an interview, document, or a press release—anything that would put the onus of observation entirely on her.
The closest thing Anatomy has to a personal eccentricity is Nicholson’s decision to devote an entire chapter to Cruise’s bit role in Tropic Thunder. (Collateral, on the other hand, is mentioned only once, in passing.) For lack of a better term, this is Nicholson’s opportunity to let her freak flag fly. Instead, however, the chapter falls into a pattern—by this point familiar to the reader—of recounting production details and refuting tabloid stories. When it comes to the performance, the best Nicholson can muster are scene summaries heavy on positive adverbs.
There’s a case to be made for Cruise’s broad, occasionally lame cameo, but it probably doesn’t look like this:
But acting against the expected, Cruise delivers half of his lines with an offhand ennui. When he growls, “Why don’t you get the hell out of here before I snap your dick off and jam it into your ass?” he’s not angry, he’s bored—he’s been at this for so long, his rage no longer shocks himself. Even after Cruise allows Grossman to slam down the phone after yelling, “I am talking scorched earth, motherfucker. I will massacre you. I will fuck you up,” he deftly undercuts his rampage by neutrally asking, “Could you find out who that was?”
What makes Anatomy so frustrating, in the end, is the fact that Nicholson has a journalist’s talent for collecting, organizing, and sourcing relevant information. That might not sound like much, but it’s a tremendously important (and rare) skill for someone writing about Hollywood, where everything gets swaddled in mystique and tabloid spin. The problem is that this information is rarely used to do anything other than inform; the pieces are there, but they aren’t put together in any exceptionally meaningful way. A statement like “No one watches a Mission: Impossible movie and thinks, ‘Look at Ethan Hunt leaping over a car!’ They think, ‘Look at Tom Cruise!’” may be cogent, but it’s hardly a thesis.