For Tom Cruise…

This is an essay that I wrote in 2005 while doing my MA in Film Studies at Concordia. I had long nurtured a kind of gentle obsession with Tom Cruise, and so was quite pleased when I realized I could turn this obsession into a final term paper. I have long wanted to do something with this, but can never get my act together when it comes to submission deadlines. So in light of the recent demise of TomKat, and the 50 year anniversary of Cruise’s birth, it seemed the right time to share. It’s a longish work, so best settle in.

magnoliaThe first gesture that Frank T. J. Mackey makes after arriving for his interview with a female journalist is to drop his pants and remove his silk shirt, strutting around the hotel room like an over-sexed rooster, clenched fists resting on the back of his hips, chest out and legs thrust apart in the ready position, squatting and posing in a pair of white jockey underwear that seem just barely up to the task of containing that which is the source of his strength and pride – the albeit-clothed penis which nonetheless comes to dominate the centre of the composition. As portrayed by Tom Cruise, Frank Mackey is a mercurial tangle of latent sadness, fevered mania, and seething aggression cloaked in the strained bravura and ubiquitous smile of the always-promoting self-made man. He is direct in his speech, but only when performing; maintains eye contact with ferocious intensity, but only when hiding from the truth; and can be gracious and responsive, but only within the limits of his rigidly articulated mandate.

That Tom Cruise the actor so thoroughly embodies this character, and with such apparent ease, has been frequently noted in the critical reception to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, but what is of greater interest is the manner in which the Cruise persona concurrently infuses and counters the achievements of this portrayal.

Released over the course of several months in the winter of 1999 – 2000, Magnolia, the third of Anderson’s quartet of films set in and around California’s San Fernando Valley, is a multi-focalized narrative in the style of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, whose form is constructed around a series of sequential operatic movements that trace the lives of twelve emotionally- damaged individuals over the course of one twenty-four hour period. Linked thematically by their physical and spiritual isolation, these characters are spatially and temporally connected through the continuous forward movement of the ever-mobile camera, which tracks seamlessly across edits, circling through the different scenes and accumulating snippets of story information as it passes. In addition to this visual panoply is a striking soundtrack which slips effortlessly from popular music to orchestral score and back again, resulting in a prodigious melodramatic work that nevertheless manages to remain emotionally grounded in the dramatic.

Known for his love of actors and skill with directing performance, Anderson has thus far worked with the same core group of players, whose familiarity to audiences ranges from virtual unknowns such as Melora Walters, known primarily for her work in the Los Angeles theatre community, to more recognizable faces such as Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luiz Guzman, and William Macy, whose relative celebrity is due in part to their roles in Anderson’s small but not insignificant oeuvre. At the farthest end of the spectrum – and true for most films, not just this body of work – are the inarguably famous, who command the highest salaries and receive special perks. To all appearances incapable of disappearing into a role, they dominate the screen regardless of whether the subordination of the other actors is desired or not, as though powerless to control those aspects of their personality which set them apart. These are the super-stars.

In the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, there are few starring roles, but several notable characters portrayed by big-name stars such as Burt Reynolds as an over-the-hill pornographer in Boogie Nights, Adam Sandler as a self-loathing entrepreneur in Punch Drunk Love, and Tom Cruise as the professional lady-killer in Magnolia. That the structural template for feature-film budgets makes a categorical distinction between actor and star should not be overlooked, as it demonstrates that even in pre-production, the involvement of the star is marked and calculated in both financial and critical terms. Here the casting of such overt personas appears extremely self-conscious in its awareness of the traces these figures bring with them into the text: the cruel irony of Reynolds’ faded ex-Playgirl centerfold dwelling in the body of the lecherous has-been, Jack Horner; the volatile immaturity of Sandler’s comedic composite inhabiting the furiously disaffected salesman, Barry Egan; and the overwrought gestures and ersatz geniality incarnate in the contradictions of Cruise’s Adonis/Everyman persona, that finds its filmic manifestation in the mock grandeur and fragile façade of Mackey’s hostile pretensions.

With our extensive pop-cultural awareness, as garnered through the stocked magazine racks at the local depanneur, and the plethora of television programs devoted to bringing us the most up-to-date disclosures in the entertainment news, we are collectively able to identify and acknowledge the duality of these portrayals.


Historically-speaking, the contemporary Hollywood star system finds its roots near the close of the twentieth century’s first decade, when textual productivity shifted its focus from a pre-occupation with the cinematic apparatus and its “magical abilities… to reproduce the real,” to a discourse which “placed into the foreground the role of human labour in the production of film” (deCordova, 18-19). This relocation led to a consideration of other facets of the film-industrial process, such as cinematography, editing and distribution, before descending on what was essentially a new site of productivity: the actor.

Richard deCordova situates the creation of the star system, which tracks the development of the discursive body from actor to star, within the first thirty years of American filmmaking – isolating 1907 as the year in which the initial relationship between the cinema patron and the onscreen performer underwent an important transition. The creation of what deCordova calls the picture personality resulted from a substantial increase in audience attendance, combined with a heightened awareness, on the part of early cinema spectators, of the celluloid character as a figure whose personality was defined by its participation in a correspondent body of generic works. During this period, which lasted only a few years, there was little interest in the behind-the-scenes reality of the performers themselves, though the commodification of their names saw its earliest manifestation at this time, brought about through the introduction of contests such as Motion Picture Story Magazine’s “Popular Player Puzzle” (deCordova, 24). By the mid-teens, the star system as we know it today was already in place, negating the dominion of the two-dimensional picture personality through the merging of the private and the public, and the introduction of a wholly three-dimensional persona: the star.

Like Rock Hudson, Lana Turner, Clark Gable, and the multitude of other actors who came before him, Tom Cruise is a star. This is not a contentious point, but rather a notion so readily accepted that it stands as fact. But in making a statement of this nature, what information are we actually trying to communicate? For writers grappling with this thesis from outside the province of popular criticism, attempts to contextualize these ideas within the scope of film theory have focused primarily on the impact that actors such as Cruise, with their “already-signifying star images” (Dyer, 136) have had on the filmic texts in which they have appeared.

Richard Dyer’s Stars, which was first published in 1986 and endures in its 1998 reprinting as the seminal work on the subject, defines star images as “constructed personages in media texts” (88) distinct from that which we might categorize as the private attributes of the individual. Of interest here is the fluidity of these various mediated and unmediated texts and the movement that exists between them, an intertextual exchange in which the boundaries of the dominant narrative are vulnerable to the aggressive signification of the star image, which in the case of a problematic fit – that instance when the star image is so powerful that all signs must be distinguished in relation to it (Dyer, 120) – counters the ascendancy of the narrative (at the level of character) and transforms the diegesis into mimesis. But the meaning-making inherent to the intertextual relationship between the character and the star image, as embodied in performance, is not infrequently insufficient to satisfy the hermeneutic investigation, and so a third discourse must be introduced and engaged. What could be defined as an absent, or authentic text – that of the private, though its characteristics remain sequestered beyond the reach of our collectively prying eyes – is nevertheless constructed in the social consciousness of our celebrity-obsessed culture, and so lingers as an imaginable mode for explaining away the performative lacunae. This triangular schema, which takes its structure and function from the theories of Michael Riffaterre and his notion of a mediating intertext, will prove a necessary construct in our further exploration of that absent text which is suggested in the consanguinity of the Cruise-Mackey dyad.

Structured as it is with its overlapping narratives and circuitous temporal progression, Magnolia nevertheless manages to track distinct character-logical trajectories for each of its twenty-odd protagonists. The film proper, not including its extended prologue, begins with Frank Mackey and the broadcast of his Seduce & Destroy infomercial which acts a conduit, connecting the myriad spaces within the diegesis through the pervasive use of the television screen as a thematic and structural device. From this opening sequence, we revisit the Mackey story-line on seven occasions: beholding his onstage (and offstage) performances throughout the Seduce & Destroy seminar and interview, observing his response to the news of his estranged father’s impending death, and bearing witness to the death-bed breakdown and reunion.

Of particular interest in the bonus features offered with the DVD version of the film is the opportunity to view the infomercial in its original video format. As a pastiche of paid-programming cable advertisements, with its inferior production values and direct-to-viewer address, the sixty-second clip finds a comfortable fit within the aspect ratio of the television frame, though the same cannot be said of Cruise himself, who seems somehow too grand, and in possession of too much charisma – that “quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman… qualities” (Dyer, quoting Max Weber, 30) – for the human dimensions of the small screen.


Returning now to the opening moments of the interview, we find the half-naked Frank Mackey, tenacious in his white underwear, though positioned now at the feet of the female journalist, trying to maintain the upper hand through an overt show of sexuality – his hand on the back of her chair, bouncing up and down on his haunches, grinding his hips. Hyperactive and in constant motion, he walks her through his “one look, one hesitation, one gesture” strategy for winning “the battle of the bush,” then backward somersaults into a handstand before eventually calming down enough to pull up his pants and attach his microphone.

The definition of performance as elaborated by Dyer “is what the performer does in addition to the actions and functions he performs in the plot and the lines he is given to say” (125). Of particular fascination in this denotation is its positing of performance as an intertextual agent in the mediation between the written (screenplay) and the filmic text. Here we are able to acknowledge the labour of acting as that which “fabricates a relationship to, rather than a telling about, the characters,” creating a transtextual play which is extremely fruitful in its theoretical possibilities (King, 169). But there is another level of signification at work as well, and so we can embellish the triadic structure of the written-performed-filmed configuration with our original model in that performance is seen to mediate between star image and character, as well as functioning to transmit meaning from our as yet hypothetical absent text.

Cruise’s performance in the first section of the interview scene, described in The Village Voice as an “outrageous parody of the pumped-up roles he played in Cocktail and Top Gun” (Hoberman), reveals its emotional substance when viewed in slow-motion with the audio track muted. Now we have a greater sense of the spiritual centre of Cruise’s corporeal movements, channeled as they are through Mackey’s admittedly hokey appropriation of Eastern philosophy, but grounded through the physical manifestation of Cruise’s painstakingly controlled energy which travels down through his pelvic chakra and finds a solid grounding. Here the performance finds a meaningful resonance in its interpretation of Mackey’s “I live what I preach” philosophy, released from the outward machismo and somewhat opaque surface of Cruise at full speed. That this revelation seems to speak truthfully about Mackey’s personality and the feelings it evokes is part of what makes reading the triad of image-performance-character both challenging and exciting (Dyer, 116). For in this situation, we can never be entirely sure at which textual level – the fiction, the fictional real (persona) or the authentic (person) – knowledge is being produced.

For Barry King in “Articulating Stardom,” there is an important distinction to be made between impersonation, in which the “real personality of the actor should disappear,” and that of personification, which observes the actor as restricted to parts consonant with his personality (168). But what importance does this distinction hold for our analysis? That Cruise fits easily into the category of personification is in by no means a surprise. What does surprise, however, is how this categorization might speak to other incongruities in the film. Though Magnolia seems to find Cruise wearing the character as a perfect fit (Dyer, 120) there is a conspicuous rupture between the characterisation of Mackey and those of his more super-heroic incarnations in films such as Mission Impossible and Minority Report. Or is it simply a subversion of these archetypal  characters brought about by the increased presence of the subordinate discourses at the level of narrative? And through which signs do we come to recognize these latent texts?

Employing his interpretation of Peirce, King seeks to articulate stardom as a process of semiotisation through which “anything in the frame… is by that fact invested with meaning though the difficulty here lies in the suppression of those elements… that are not intended to mean at the level of characterisation” (173). With super-stars such as Cruise whose careers are of the degree that they appear in one or two films per year, the particular repertoire of gestures and intonations they establish can resonate from performance to performance with as much meaning as the inert elements of their appearance (Dyer, 133) – though this profusion of resonances in a single filmic text may not always be desired.

Despite his marketability and ongoing success as an action hero, Cruise has rarely been ascribed the commendations of a serious actor, a situation which may be predicated upon a number of conceivable factors. An analysis of his performative repertoire may prove the most conclusive in its revelation of Cruise’s tendency toward an extensive use of melodramatic expressions and gestures, which have been historically employed for their “immediate and intense expressive, affective signification” (Dyer, 128). From the clenched fists extended toward his antagonist, which attempt to restrain his emotions through a statement of earnest entreaty, to the pained grimace which responds to pain and is often accompanied by a long gaze skyward, these gestural qualities, which Cruise brings to bear in the majority of his roles, garner praise when employed in melodramatic texts such as Magnolia, or Born on the Fourth of July (for which he received his most consistently favorable reviews) but draw criticism when employed in the case of a “serious” drama such as Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. In this context, the unintentionality leads only to confusion on the part of the spectator and indictments of incompetence on the part of critics. But what King posits as troublesome here, this unintentional signification, need not be the case if we move our focus away from the singularities that may (or may not) exist on the level of the diegesis, and concentrate instead on the intertextual commerce within the manifold discourses. In doing so, these unintentional signifiers become productive rather than problematic, bringing new significations and new readings to a narrative heretofore demarcated as closed.


Mid-way through the film, we return to the interview sequence, during which the content of the conversation has moved from the public to the personal, and the exchange of dialogue is fraught with the alternations of a fragile balance of power. Capturing the scene in over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shots, Anderson sets the tone with a constantly moving camera that creeps slowly toward each character as they speak, isolating them from their surroundings to such an extent that the only space remaining in the frame is the narrow ribbon of air which separates them from each other. Of interest here is the interview itself, with its obvious parallels to the surfeit of press conferences and publicity junkets familiar to anyone who has ever watched an episode of  Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight. But here in the fictional realm, we are permitted to venture much deeper into the private sphere of Mackey’s personal history than the litigious Cruise and his entourage would ever tolerate in reality.

Mackey begins the film behind a “golden-boy carapace” (Maslin) which also protects Cruise – a seemingly impregnable narcissism whose gleaming shell can withstand the slings of accusing arrows, and the stench of bad reviews directed at both character and actor, and for Cruise alone, a full fourteen months in braces. But as the scene progresses, we discover that this carapace is not quite as impenetrable as was first surmised as Anderson locks in on a close-up of Cruise with the journalist blocked in the right corner, as the protective armor begins to crack and the heretofore interiority is revealed.

Barry King elucidates the hypersemiotisation of the close-up as the manner in which the actor, as removed from his or her surroundings, becomes the only signifier in the frame. In historical analysis, dating back to the work of Kuleshov and the Russian Formalists, knowledge was located not in the actor in isolation, but in the relationship between the actor and the other elements, through the use of montage, or in the collusion of performative and non-performative elements within the mise-en-scene. In examining the filmic text in detail, this hypersemiotising process is aided once again by the reduction of the film speed to 12 frames per second and the removal of the soundtrack.

Here the journalist launches her intrusive attack with pointed questions for which she already has the answers. Mackey seems determined, at least in the early stages, to maintain his composure, feigning indifference as though her queries are having no emotional impact whatsoever. At slower speeds (and as the interview progresses), Cruise’s head, which appears steady at 24 frames, is revealed to be in constant motion, hovering like a caged animal, refusing to break eye contact, but seemingly reluctant to meet the journalist’s gaze head on. In a matter of only a few seconds, we witness an astonishing array of expressions as Cruise moves from apologetic grin to wincing grimace. His eyes dart rapidly from side-to-side, there is a fierce glare and an eye-roll, a shudder of frustration, and a moment of pain during which tears seem destined to well, before he regains his equanimity and settles back on the clenched jaw and fixed stare seen earlier. Then suddenly, and without provocation, there appears a shit-eating grin that says you’ve got nothing on me. But unfortunately for Mackey, this is not the case:

JOURNALIST: See, it’s my understanding that the information supplied by you and your company and answers to questions I’ve asked are incorrect, Frank. And if I’d like to get to the bottom of who you are, and why you are, then I think your family history – you’re accurate family history… well, this seems important.

MACKEY: Are you asking me a question?

JOURNALIST: Well, I guess the question is this: Why would you lie, Frank?

Putting a finger on exactly what is happening in this scene, on the level of the textual exchange – requires an awareness of the discursive strata which are present and operational, both in collusion with each other and in conflict, bound up in the intentionality and desires of the character, the director, and the spectatorial body. Much of what works in the scene can be located in the dialogue, with its fearlessness and its intent to broach those core issues of family and home that are rarely addressed at anything other than a superficial level. As the conversation progresses, this nuanced performance, which on the surface appears as nothing more than the ticks and shrugs of a person squirming under a microscope, creates an impression of growing discomfort that is palpable in its realization. For supporters (and critics) aware of Cruise’s personal history and the suspected fabrications of its construction – the closeted homosexuality and conviction in the questionable tenets of Scientology, as well as the much-publicized and sudden dissolution of the golden marriage – the revelations of this interview are readable across the textual boundary between Cruise and Mackey. Here the Cruise carapace becomes slowly stripped away, but what is revealed beneath its exterior? Is it the vulnerability of Frank Mackey that is being exposed, or is it the authentic Tom Cruise, tricked by the appearance of a protective fiction into illuminating his private self?


In a pair of articles written almost fifteen years apart, John O. Thompson grappled with finding a methodology for applying the commutation test – that device which “allows us to grasp units which were previously invisible” (Screen, 57) – to the discourse of stardom. Originating as a linguistic tool, here the commutative principle seeks a replacement of that element which is generally seen to be irreplaceable – the actor. As opposed to theatre, where over the course of time a multitude of performers are given the opportunity to embody a particular role, in the cinema there is by and large only one occurrence. The result is that these portrayals, especially in the case of well-known stars, become so engrained in the collective consciousness of the audience that an alternate casting is almost impossible to imagine. But imagine it we must.

With his first endeavor in 1978, Thompson sought the commutation test as a means for exploring the gap in meaning left open in the relationship between the actor and the portrayed character. In his attempt to build a workable methodology for updating the literary model, he undertook a gathering of alternate star images with the hopes that by inserting them hypothetically into the chosen text, he would come to understand the specific signification that each star affects on the filmic work. But what grounded his early attempts and found him hopeful but apologetic at the end of his article, was the virtually limitless choices available when trying to organize a schematic group from the literally thousands of options.

In 1985, Thompson makes a second attempt to articulate the commutation test within this discourse, convinced of the methodology’s validity if only the practical kinks can be worked out. Here he moves beyond an examination of the shifting positivities of signification brought about by the replacing of one actor with another – say Cruise with Adam Sandler or Burt Reynolds – and instead introduces a diacritical approach through which the difference, rather than the representativeness of the individual choice, becomes the site of productivity. That Thompson never really succeeds with this modality is indicative only of the ongoing problematic of how to work with these performative indexicalities in the text, but there is no denying that the casting of films, which though unstated is essentially the first marker in the practice being addressed, has an affective relationship to the hierarchy of meanings brought to light in the performance. There is little doubt that if Adam Sandler or Burt Reynolds were to have been cast in the role of Frank Mackey, his actualization would have been perceptibly different, but what does this difference disclose? Though this paper seeks conclusions other than those achieved through this commutative proposition, what a wide-ranging consideration of its possibilities returns us to is the suggestion of this ever-present, yet absent authentic text.

Because stars have an existence in the world independent of their screen appearances, it is possible to believe… that as people they are more real that characters in stories. This means that they serve to disguise the fact that they are just as much produced images, constructed personalities (Dyer, 20).

In his review of Eyes Wide Shut, Charles Whitehouse describes Cruise as trying to bring the intensity he won in Born on the Fourth of July to the later film, but that what gets in his way is the “keen boy charmer just itching to show us his somersault” (Sight & Sound). Though this paper has not addressed Anderson’s intentions in the casting of Tom Cruise as Mackey, nor explored any industrial or press materials in terms of the techniques he may have made use of in directing Cruise, what is suggested by the performance, and hard to overlook, is the vision which foresaw how productive this dyadic relationship might become, manifesting itself in a performance in which the blustery surface of Cruise’s golden-boy persona provides the foundation for the Herculean Mackey, and the authentic text, which exists only in our imagination, serves to substantiate the revelation of Mackey’s interior self after the news of his father’s illness. Here we have the overwhelming sense that we are looking into something deep within Cruise, rather than just the character, and it is this nagging sensation which makes the portrayal, despite the redundancies of Cruise’s trademark gestures and performance gaffs, so provocative and resonant.


deCordova, Richard. “The Emergence of the Star System in America.” Stardom: Industry of Desire. Christine Gledhill, ed. Routledge, London: 1991. 17-29.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. British Film Institute, London: 1998.

Hoberman, Jay. Rev. Magnolia. Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. The Village Voice. December 15-21, 1999.

King, Barry. “Articulating Stardom.” Stardom: Industry of Desire. Christine Gledhill, ed. Routledge, London: 1991. 167-182.

Magnolia. Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson. Perf. Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore. 1999.

Maslin, Janet. Rev. Eyes Wide Shut. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. “Eyes Wide Shut: Danger and Desire in a Haunting Bedroom Odyssey.” The New York Times. 16 July 1999.

Riffaterre, Michael. “Syllepsis.” Critical Inquiry (Summer 1980): 625-638.

Terdiman, Richard. Discourse/Counter-Discourse: the Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in 19th Century France. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985: 149-226.

Thompson, John O. “Beyond Commutation: A Reconsideration of Screen Acting.” Screen vol 26 no.5 (September/October 1985): 64-76.

———“Screen Acting and the Commutation Test.” Screen vol 19 no.2 (Summer 1978): 55-69.

Whitehouse, Charles. Rev. Eyes Wide Shut. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Sight and Sound.  September 1999. <;

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  1. Pingback: The Wire Club… | Stacey DeWolfe

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