"When I first met you, you were larger than life."
-- Charlie (Kelly McGillis) to Maverick (Tom Cruise) in "Top Gun" (1986)
One of the reasons they don't often let me speak to the youth of America anymore is because I tell them the truth.
I tell them if they have an unquenchable thirst to be the world's biggest movie star they probably should, this very minute, run away to Hollywood and start hanging about on the periphery of the movie industry, waiting tables and doing scut work between cattle-call auditions and feeding a constant stream of content to various social media accounts.
They need to put in their time sleeping on couches and scrounging for ramen noodle money. They should prepare to sell their bodies and their souls.
In the end, probably none of them will be struck by lightning, but the only chance is in braving the tempest.
All of them would be better off finding work they could train for, being smart about taking on debt, and finding ways to be happy that don't require millions of people to know your name. But if you want to be a movie star, that's your path.
It might be better to aspire to be a working actor, for that might be manageable, with a more predictable arc. You could go to school, be in student productions, make connections with like-minded peers and helpful professionals, work in local and regional theater, and act for free in movies made by aspiring filmmakers on weekends. Maybe, if you've got talent and luck, you can make a life of it, but be aware the world is no meritocracy, and most of us wouldn't benefit if it were.
I subscribe to the theory that a Tom Cruise is born, not made, and that the crazy light behind his eyes and animal twitchiness is a kind of evolutionary glitch. Having been in rooms with the man, I suspect he is not quite inhuman, but that his mutant power also manifests as a form of social autism; he can no more understand us than we can him.
He tries to connect--his imperative is to connect--but we are different enough from whatever he is that all his attempts at mimicking normality land awkwardly. Tom Hanks is--and Jimmy Stewart was--a star because they are completely relatable, idealized examples of the sort of people we know and love, full of foibles and endearments, projected on a wall.
But Cruise has always been a superfreak, a plainclothes superhero, large-featured and bigfaced, compact and super-competent and (probably) vain with a problematic religious philosophy and scant understanding of the way the world works outside his Hollywood laboratory.
Sometimes I have been dubious about stories spread about him. Did he really become so good at pool that he could have competed as a professional after training for "The Color of Money"? Can he really hold his breath for six minutes? Can he really repair anything mechanical, like a real-life McGyver? Of his famous running (the subject of an ESPN.com story last week and an impressive YouTube montage) he says he could once hit 17 miles per hour? Really?
(On the other hand, he did save French paper tycoon Jacques Lejeune, his wife Bernadette, and three others when their yacht caught fire in 1996.)
There are few things less interesting than celebrity, but every now and then Cruise's work, his manufactured dreams, coincides with what we want and need. That happened in 1986, when he starred in "Top Gun," a patently ridiculous movie about narcissistic fighter pilots preening homoerotically on beaches and in locker rooms. (Pauline Kael nailed it when she wrote "'Top Gun' is a recruiting poster that isn't concerned with recruiting but with being a poster.")
But movies can be more than one thing; as silly as it was (and "Top Gun" is really silly; next time you watch it pay close attention to all the ways Kelly McGillis contorts herself so as not to loom over her co-star) it was also a tonic, an invigorating summer movie no one had to think too much about. It sold the idea of Cruise as a kind of new, improved, more accessible Steve McQueen--an example of hyper-masculine action, now with 20 percent less brooding.
It sold a lot of Ray-Ban Aviators; the brand paid for the privilege of being featured in the film, in part because Cruise had rescued its iconic Wayfarers from extinction by wearing them in his 1983 breakout "Risky Business." (While the same model was featured a couple of years before in "The Blues Brothers," Bausch & Lomb was only selling 18,000 pairs a year before Cruise wore them in "Risky Business." After that, sales shot up to around 2 million pairs a year. It didn't hurt that Don Henley namechecked the model in his 1984 hit "The Boys of Summer.")
Now, after a couple of fallow years for movie theaters, Cruise and the "Top Gun" brand have returned with a movie that mirrors the beats and structure of the first, only with a protagonist on the cusp of 60. (Cruise was 56 when the movie was shot, he's now 59, and flying his own helicopters to press events.) After a relatively quiet (for him) decade, he's re-emerged with the biggest (and probably best) Hollywood summer spectacle in recent memory.
Sure, you can characterize "Top Gun: Maverick" as the biggest budget Cialis commercial, with Cruise planting a flag for every man slouching into late middle age (though it should be noted that his love interest is age-appropriate Jennifer Connelly). All hail Old Man Strength.
I've written before about how effective an actor Cruise can be. While his oversize persona does interfere with some roles--it took me a while to recognize that he's actually quite good in Stanley Kubrick's flawed but serious "Eyes Wide Shut"--only self-delusion can explain his decision to miscast himself as Jack Reacher. And he never allowed himself to seem sufficiently pathetic as Barry Seal. He's mastered the knack of playing variations of himself. His lane is wide enough, when he stays in it.
Last week at Cannes he said "art is skill," and I can go along with that, though I've always been bemused by the convention of referring to show people as "artists."
It seems imprecise and aggrandizing; acting, singing, playing an instrument, directing productions, writing and most species of painting and drawing are, as Cruise suggests, acquirable technical skills. There's nothing wrong with being a good craftsman, with producing work that people appreciate and need in their lives.
There are a lot of people I consider artists who prefer to talk about work and application over inspiration or any overarching philosophy about what the world might be.
We might agree that Cruise's highest accomplishment is the invention and maintenance of this rictus grinning monster, this forever boyish running man.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com.