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Fifteen Years Later: Tom Cruise and ‘Magnolia’

An exclusive excerpt from ‘Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor’

“It’s not just about picking up chicks and sticking your cock in. It’s about finding out what you can be in this world.”

—Frank “T.J.” Mackey

Shooting Eyes Wide Shut in England, Tom Cruise had time to kill. One evening, he and Nicole [Kidman] watched Boogie Nights (1997), the second feature from twenty-seven-year-old wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson, a writer-director and LA native son who had become the upstart of Hollywood after his first film, Hard Eight (1996), made a splash at Sundance. Cruise was struck by a bungled, drug-addled robbery scene set to “Jessie’s Girl” and called Anderson up with his congratulations. Anderson happened to be in London, and he gladly accepted Cruise’s invitation to visit the Eyes Wide Shut set. Noting [Stanley] Kubrick’s scant film crew, Anderson asked the director if he always worked on such a small scale. “How many do you need?” replied Kubrick. “I’m an asshole, man,” said the humbled young auteur, “I spend too much money.” But he was about to embark on the most star-studded and narratively complex film of his career.

Earlier that year, Anderson’s father, Ernie, had died of cancer. A late-night horror movie host who went by “Ghoulardi,” Mr. Anderson purchased a Betamax video camera for his son when the boy was twelve, launching the director on his path. Cruise understood. He, too, had lost his father early. But in truth he’d lost his dad — and namesake — Thomas Cruise Mapother III years before. After his parents divorced when Cruise was twelve, he’d only seen his father twice: at fifteen when his dad took him to the drive-in and on his deathbed. The elder Mapother never watched one of his son’s films.

“He tried going out to see Risky Business, but he was in too much pain,” said Cruise. In the first leg of his career, he was remarkably open about their relationship, as though the wounds were still so raw that it helped to say them aloud. “I hadn’t seen my father for a number of years. I heard he was dying, and I didn’t know where he was. He didn’t want to be contacted. He left and didn’t want to be contacted for years. I think he was tired of inflicting so much pain on other people that he just had to get away.”

“I spent some time with him. We talked,” he continued. “I think he made so many mistakes that it ate him alive. Even when I went to see him, he didn’t want to discuss what had occurred in the past. I said, ‘Whatever you want, Dad.’ But I held his hand. And I told him I loved him, and that I was going to miss him. He said when he got out of the hospital we’d go have a steak and a beer and talk about it then. He died before we could do that.”

His father did have time to give a few quotes to journalists who tracked him down. In 1983, he told a reporter that he had “made a personal decision to respect my son’s wishes, which was for me to stay the hell out of everything,” saying that they had gone over four years without communication (“a long time, at least to me”) until Tom and his sisters had come by his hospital after a cancer operation. When it was suggested to the elder Mapother that their visit had meant more than words could express, he began to weep. “A lot more, a lot more.”

Given where the two men were at that stage of their lives — Cruise undergoing Kubrick’s emotionally taxing two-year test and Anderson confronting his own father’s death — it’s likely they talked about their shared pasts. The evidence: when Cruise asked Anderson to write a part for him, his standard request when he met a new talent he liked, the filmmaker flew back to Los Angeles and turned up six months later with the part of Frank “T.J.” Mackey, a bitter stage performer who has a wrenching meltdown beside his dying father, Big Earl.

Well, not quite. Anderson’s original script was more sympathetic to Frank and Big Earl than in the final cut. In Anderson’s draft, the pair reconcile with the dad soothing his son: “You are not what you think you are.” But when Cruise played the role, there was no spoken redemption and only a glimpse of Mackey making peace with his pain. The final film is colder, more cutting, and closer to Cruise’s childhood than to Anderson’s bond with his own father — it’s so close, in fact, to Cruise’s own life that both he and Frank Mackey had lopped off their father’s surnames before becoming famous.

Cruise leaped into his three-week stint on Magnolia almost immediately after Kubrick said “Cut.” He was in a rush to squeeze in Mission: Impossible II (2000) that same year — he did, after all, have his own production company to think about, and it’d been starving to get him back on the big screen. Now fifteen years into his career and with an incredible run of five $100 million–plus hits in a row (Eyes Wide Shut wouldn’t flop until months after Magnolia wrapped), Cruise wielded his clout as a box office titan. He had the muscle to pick the best roles and, having already worked with most of the great directors, the might to invest in Hollywood’s next generation. P. T. Anderson was about to discover what Cameron Crowe had already learned: signing Tom Cruise made you the studio’s best friend and gave your film more money, more time, and more trust.

Still, Anderson was Cruise’s first younger director — a full eight years younger, in fact — and he knew he had to impress. Anderson created Mackey because the complex character was “un-turn-downable.” As he described, his philosophy when writing for actors is, “I want to be a genius to them because their opinions mean so much to me.” Mackey’s emotional arc with his father was in place. Now it was time to figure out the rest of the character. Said Anderson with a grin, “Something about Tom prompted a certain naughtiness in me.” Why not make Cruise a lascivious, woman-hating horndog?

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Seduce and Destroy     

Audiences who felt let down by the abandoned promise of seeing Cruise as a sex-mad therapist in Eyes Wide Shut — the prevalent preopening rumor — had their dreams fulfilled by Cruise’s first moments as Frank “T.J.” Mackey. Cruise had played lotharios before — in Cocktail, he bedded a woman just to win a bet — but Mackey was a whole new monster. Mackey isn’t just a lover. He’s a wicked psychologist, albeit uncertified, and he’s more interested in inflicting pain than receiving pleasure. Just think of his tagline: “Seduce and Destroy.” Seduce, sure. But destroy?

Cruise had never been a tabloid Casanova. He’d married Mimi Rogers at twenty-four, then married Nicole Kidman within a year of his first divorce. If anything, he was continually fighting rumors that he didn’t like women enough. He continually headed to court to defend his image. Within one short span, he filed suits against two sex therapists who claimed to have given him and Nicole lovemaking lessons, a tabloid that pronounced him impotent and sterile, a male wrestler who claimed they’d had a romantic affair, and a magazine that announced it had a videotape of the actor in a homosexual tryst. Every case was won by Cruise, settled, or dismissed. If Cruise’s sexuality had a reputation, it was that you spoke about it at your own peril.

The irony of Cruise’s Mackey is that it’s both his most sexual performance and one where he doesn’t even lay a hand on a woman. For all of Mackey’s swagger that he can make any babe his “sex-starved servant,” Anderson never shows the man in action. Anderson and Cruise actually filmed several video reenactments of Mackey bedding women — outtakes from his instructional guide — but cut them from the final product. Even fictionally within the film, we never see Cruise make good on his threat to “master the muffin,” which strengthens the idea that Mackey isn’t the smooth-talker he claims. Is it all bluff? Or does Mackey really believe his own hype?

Cruise is allowed scenes with only two women, and one of them is over the phone. In both, the women control him. His off-screen assistant, Janet, genuinely cares about his well-being. She’s protective of his privacy, peppering his father’s nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with questions to prove his credibility, yet also tender when telling Mackey the news about his dying father. But even she — a woman paid to do Mackey’s will — doesn’t take his orders. When Mackey shouts, “Do your fucking job!” she refuses to be cowed. Instead, she hollers back, “I am doing my fucking job!”

Mackey’s centerpiece male-versus-female showdown is another losing battle against television reporter Gwenovier (April Grace), who initially throws him — and us — off guard by acting submissive. Their interview is a teasing, fire-stoking combination where both he and she use flirtation as a tool. He wants to charm her and her camera; she wants to coo and smile until he drops his guard. Their dynamic is the distillation of every stereotype in the battle of the sexes: men using blunt chemistry to exert their power and women pretending to be impressed until they’re ready to wrest control.

Cruise gives the role a fascinating combination of confidence and insecurity. He comes on like a gorilla — literally — stripping down naked in front of Gwenovier and beating his chest. The nudity was Anderson’s idea. Cruise hadn’t flashed his underwear since Risky Business, and hadn’t gone fully nude since All the Right Moves. (The glimpse of his pubic hair has since been edited out of Moves.) On the day of the shoot, Cruise started the scene simply sans shirt, exposure he was used to. Then Anderson asked him to take off his pants. “I said, ‘What?’” recalled Cruise. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’ll be funny.’” To Anderson’s glee, Cruise disrobed. Gushed the director, “He’s like, ‘What do you want me to do, do you want me to stand on my head, do you want me to do backflips? I’ll do it, I’ll do anything you want.’”

With his manhood a tabloid fixation, all eyes were on his crotch. And the bulge in his briefs was distractingly large. Given Anderson’s previous use of a prosthetic penis in Boogie Nights, the columnist Michael Musto of the Village Voice launched a crusade to find out if “the garden hose is 100 percent real meat.” “I don’t know whether to be insulted or feel complimented,” joked Cruise, while Anderson was more definitive: “Tom Cruise is the biggest movie star in the world. Are you kidding? Of course he’s got the world’s biggest cock.” (Naturally, Cruise looked into a lawsuit against Musto.)

In just three minutes, the opening act of the interview establishes, then upends, Mackey and Gwenovier’s dynamic. Cruise starts the scene in full physical command. Defiantly pants-less, he rolls into a backflip — as Anderson asked — caps it with a strikingly graceful handstand, bounds into a chair, and starts panting like a dog in heat while blurting out nonsense: “Terrorists! Babes! Beauties!” Meanwhile, Gwenovier sits immobile with her back to the camera waiting for him to settle down. When Anderson finally cuts from Mackey’s face to hers, we realize that this woman isn’t under his spell — though he’s certain she is.

Suddenly, Mackey’s frantic ego-thumping seems naïve. Whether we’re excited or anxious to see her dismantle him depends on how much Cruise has made us empathize against our will with this sad, show-off child. To hint at Mackey’s eagerness to impress, Cruise exaggerates his movements, leaning so far forward in his chair that his skeleton looks apt to pop out of his skin. In response, Gwenovier purrs, “Calm down, take it easy, and be a good boy.” She talks to him like a naughty little child, and he cheerfully responds. “Yes, ma’am!” he chirps, buttoning his shirt as though he expects her to be proud of his fingers for moving so fast. Mackey mistakes her interest for flirting — which, in fairness, is probably part of her plan. Uncharmed, she subtly asserts her control by telling him that he missed a button.

Mackey’s immature need to impress isn’t written in the script, but it’s there between the lines. Like Cruise’s, Mackey’s father abandoned the family when he was a child. Like Cruise’s, Mackey’s father never called. Unlike Cruise, Mackey had to watch his mother die of cancer by his fourteenth birthday. He’s never grown past the pain — and in fact, underneath his adult braggadocio, Cruise clues us in that he’s never grown up at all. Playing Mackey with a teenager’s horny obedience speaks to his suspended adolescence — you see in him the age at which his maturity stopped. By giving us a glimpse of the broken boy inside, Cruise makes it impossible to hate Mackey, despite his unconscionable attitudes toward women. Wouldn’t let the rogue near our own daughters, but we believe that he, too, needs love — despite claiming he only cares about lust.

Cruise’s vulnerability is key to making Magnolia work. Without it, his sobbing scene at his dad’s deathbed would fill us with schadenfreude, not sadness. It also explains why with Gwenovier he’s determined to hide the truth of his origins lest she and her audience learn his secret pain. To assert Mackey’s feigned authority over Gwenovier — especially when her interview gets too personal — Cruise keeps his dialogue clipped and sharp, as though withholding his charm were punishment for her intrusiveness. He cuts off her questions by insisting that they’re a waste of her time and tries to shut her down with his restless disinterest — or, failing that, derail her with sexual innuendos. But look closely and Cruise transmits Mackey’s fear: his crow’s-feet quiver, he bites his lips, he nods overzealously, he glances over his shoulder at his assistant for backup. Gwenovier also sees through — or ignores — his alarm. Despite his lingering, clueless confidence that he can maintain control of the conversation, their interplay is like a river overpowering a dam: she gently flows past his obstructions.

Edit out the rest of Magnolia to allow the interview scene to play in real time, and the shift in Cruise is even more obvious. Just minutes after his exuberant backflips, her questions have hemmed him in so tightly that he can barely move. When he realizes Gwenovier already knows the truth about his childhood, Cruise takes us through an arc of angry resignation while barely appearing to react at all — Mackey wouldn’t want to give this woman the satisfaction. He doesn’t even blink. All he’ll allow is a change in his mouth, gradually collapsing from a grin to a forced smile to a pursed frown, which he holds, as stony as a sphinx. (“There are a lot of silent parts because I’ve always loved Tom Cruise silent,” said Anderson. “He’s a really good starer.’’) He won’t move, so Anderson does, pushing the camera so close to his face that we can see through his cold control — close enough to see him grinding his teeth. Without lifting a hand, Cruise creates a crackling air of violence. He doesn’t even raise his voice — in fact, his voice gets quieter and more controlled — but his silent fury triples the tension. In the climax, all Cruise has to do is stand, loom over the still-seated Gwenovier, and calmly call her a bitch, and she recoils like she’s been hit.

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How to Fake Like You Are Nice and Caring

Anderson plays with Cruise’s physical proportions throughout Magnolia. When first we see him onstage, as “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (a nod to his time with Kubrick?) rises on the sound track, we see him as Mackey wants to be seen: back-lit and poised like Superman. In theaters, the shot makes him appear both life-size and larger than life. In front of his champions, Mackey is a rock star — literally. Watch closely and Mackey’s performance is Cruise’s sharklike impersonation of Elvis Presley. Cruise doesn’t walk, he swaggers — and curls his upper lip in a sexy snarl. Though Mackey was born and raised in Southern California, Cruise gives him a Mississippi twang. He doesn’t say “Men!” or “No!” he says, “Men-naaa!” and “Noooo-aaaa!” and when really overheated drawls the word “sausage” out to three sweaty syllables, as in “Suck my big fat fucking saw-seg-geah!” (Did Cruise cut the original script line, “By the end of May, you will know I’m not gay,” because it cut too close to the rumors?) When he mimes humping a girl, his pelvis swivels dangerously enough to get him brought up on obscenity charges in Los Angeles — something that nearly happened to Elvis in 1957 when the Vice Squad accused him of getting too provocative with a stuffed animal while crooning “Hound Dog.”

Cruise is a big Elvis fan — he’s sung Elvis publicly on Jay Leno, privately in a karaoke session with the prime minister of Japan, and even snuck an Elvis bobblehead on the dashboard of his Bubble Ship in Oblivion (2013). In Magnolia, he’s bold about the Mackey/Presley connection, continually poaching Elvis’s windmilling arm swing to rally his crowd. (His swagger barely changed when Cruise played actual rock star Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages [2012], though instead of drowning in hate, he’s drowning in drugs.) The crowd hoots and hollers like they’re at a concert. Mackey isn’t giving a motivational speech, he’s giving a motivational performance.

And it’s all Cruise. Anderson thought T.J. Mackey was a nerd. He first wanted to dress Mackey in golf pants and polo shirts. Cruise asked him to reconsider. “I always saw him wearing an armband,” he insisted to Anderson, “those leather-wrist, masculine hero kind of things.” Cruise pointed to the script for backup: Mackey likens himself to a mythic figure, a modern day Batman and Superman. “I was just on it with the character,” said Cruise. “And Paul trusted that.” Convinced, Anderson allowed Cruise to transform the character from a cruel geek to a strutting, vest-wearing rock star. He’s even visibly vain — when the spotlights hit Mackey’s face, they highlight lavender circles of makeup under his eyes.

The golf pants had come from T.J. Mackey’s real-world inspiration: seduction Svengali Ross Jeffries, a former paralegal. (Which might be why men trusted him — in reality, wouldn’t Mackey’s paying fans wonder if his pickup secret was, well, looking like Tom Cruise?) Jeffries’s seminar series launched the pickup artist into the popular culture, and he took a trademark attorney along to Magnolia in case he had a lawsuit. “He lifted some stuff almost word for word,” Jeffries complained, but ultimately decided he liked the film so much he wouldn’t sue. (Not that he had much of a case.)

“What Tom Cruise doesn’t know is that he was playing a character that I created,” explained Jeffries. “I’m not Ross Jeffries — that’s a persona I put on in my seminars.” But Jeffries underestimates Cruise’s intelligent reading of T.J. Mackey. Cruise knew that Mackey knew his act is artificial. His smooth moves have the practiced look of a performer who’s done them hundreds of times in a hundred different hotel convention centers. Mackey is a self-made construct who comes to life only under the spotlight. Who naturally strides around with their arms akimbo and fists clenched to their hips? Underscoring Mackey’s control over his artificial persona, after the one-two disasters of his interview with Gwenovier and the news of [his] father’s imminent death, Cruise shows us how he switches back into character onstage as easily as putting on a mask.

However, during his final lecture (“How to fake like you are nice and caring” — ironic, as Mackey really fakes being a jerk), it’s hard to tell if — or when — Mackey strays off script. “Men are shit!” he yells, “We do horrible, heinous, terrible things!” That sounds like Mackey, but Cruise’s movements get crisper and angrier until the film audience alone — his in-person audience never suspects — spot the seething hate and pain. Cruise’s jaw twitches, his voice builds, and when he yells, “I will not apologize for who I am,” Cruise makes it deliberately hard to tell if he’s talking to the crowd or himself. Mackey claims he can control a woman’s mind, but can he even control his own emotions?

Cruise and Anderson couldn’t figure out how to cap his mini-meltdown. “We had tried ending the scene a couple of different ways,” said Cruise. With Anderson and the crew watching, the actor paced as he tried to seize upon an idea. “I went over [to] the table on stage for a second, it was in the take, just at the end of it, and I just really wanted to throw the table,” recalled Cruise. “I didn’t say anything, and I didn’t really make a huge move to it, but he came up to me right afterward, and he just walked over to the table and put his hand on it and sort of tapped it a little bit as if to say, ‘It’s okay, let’s do it.’” But the masterstroke is that flipping the table doesn’t end the scene. Instead, Cruise has Mackey immediately wrenching control of himself to snap back into his own character, ordering the crowd to open their white books before they clue into the emotions churning underneath his smooth surface.

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Fathers and Sons

Cruise has played Mackey loud and he’s played Mackey quiet. But he doesn’t show us the real Mackey until he visits his dying father, played by Jason Robards. Again, Cruise added his own input to the original text and convinced Anderson to cut back on the sentiment. “In the script, it said, ‘He gets to the door and he breaks down,’” noted Cruise. “And I said, ‘Look, I don’t feel that.’” Instead, when he gets to his parents’ house, Cruise can’t even be seen — he’s fully blocked by the door itself. The audience hears only his voice as he falls back on the trick he tried on Gwenovier: gaining control by demanding obedience. “I want you to come in with me, and I want you to stay away from me,” he orders his father’s nurse, warning that he’ll drop-kick the dogs if they come too close. (“I was looking for a way to make this guy human,” joked Cruise. “I thought it was funny that he was afraid of dogs.”)

“I didn’t know what was going to happen when I got to the house,” admitted Cruise. Was Mackey going to rage against his father, or crumple like a child? He does both. In a bravura single-take shot with Robards supine at the front of the frame and Hoffman, small and out of focus, watching from behind, Cruise enters the scene and stalks up to his father with exaggerated cheer. He reverts into his offensive position — the hands-on-hips macho stage pose — but Cruise lets his nerves slip: he’s breathing too heavy, baring his teeth, and tapping his foot loudly just out of frame. Then the hurt rolls in like a fog. Cruise puts his superhuman body control to work. His lips purse; he shakes imperceptibly and clasps his hands together so hard that the knuckles turn white. Just as he vows, “I am not going to cry,” Cruise tilts his head to the ceiling, perfectly placed so the light catches a tear seconds before it spills across his face. As he collapses into sobs, a vein pops in his forehead, his face turns painfully red, and by the time he hollers, “Don’t go away, you fucking asshole!” Cruise is heaving like a hurt animal. The whole arc happens in just under two minutes, and it’s arguably the best two minutes of acting in Cruise’s career.

“The whole time with the character, I was skating on the edge,” acknowledged Cruise. The personal parallels between him and Mackey were closer than he cared to admit. In a strikingly candid 1992 interview with GQ, Cruise described his final moments with his father and presaged the same struggles Mackey would face seven years later. “When people can’t forgive someone, my question always is, ‘What have you done in your life that you can’t forgive this other person?’” asked Cruise. “The things you’ve got to take responsibility for in your life, it makes forgiveness quite easy. And it also brought me a lot of understanding about him and the pain he was in.”

But by the time Magnolia earned him his third Academy Award nomination, Cruise had clammed up about his father. Back on the awards circuit, and this time all but certain that the Oscar was his, he wanted to build protective distance between himself and the script. And why risk voters thinking he wasn’t really “acting”?

Again, Cruise lost. He’d ripped his life open for a tightly crafted, stunningly raw performance. And it still wasn’t enough. Cruise was done chasing Oscars — now it was time to have fun. 

Amy Nicholson (@TheAmyNicholson) is the chief film critic for LA Weekly and author of Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor.

Illustration by Alex Robbins.

Filed Under: Movies, Tom Cruise, Paul Thomas anderson, Magnolia, Nicole Kidman, Stanley Kubrick

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