Tom Cruise last movie star

Is Tom Cruise the last movie star? or: How I learned to stop worrying and support the strikes

“Tom Cruise represents a danger for studios. His success proves that audiences care about actors and stars, even ones that balance on a razor’s edge of controversy.”

Tom Cruise saved Hollywood, read headlines from earlier this year. Steven Spielberg made the announcement at the Academy Awards luncheon. In an Instagram video shared online, he said about the Top Gun: Maverick star, “You saved Hollywood’s ass, and you might have saved theatrical distribution.” With the release of Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One, Cruise stands to replicate last year’s success and, perhaps, stand alone as the last movie star.

Cruise made his big Hollywood splash 40 years ago with the lead role in Risky Business, just his fourth big-screen role. He’s since been in some of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of the past three decades. He’s done hard-hitting drama, light romance, insidious Illuminati fever dreams, a handful of comedies and, most recently, he has heavily leaned into his role as a death-defying action star. In a world where few actors can draw in an audience, Cruise rarely misses (The Mummy and Rock of the Ages are notable exceptions). 

Tom Cruise’s star persona is complex. He’s been famous for nearly half a century. He’s had his ups and downs, with large periods of his career overshadowed by his personal life and, particularly, his involvement in the Church of Scientology. After facing backlash over his over-enthusiasm on Oprah’s couch and subsequent fallout from his relationship with Katie Holmes, Cruise has shied away from the spotlight. It’s not that he doesn’t promote his films; he does, but without committing a single opinion to the public record. Much like Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible, he’s a ghost. 

Cruise also represents a danger for studios. It proves that audiences care about actors and stars, even ones that balance on a razor’s edge of controversy. Over the past two decades, we’ve seen a clear trend of major Hollywood studios shifting their attention away from movie stars, attempting to replace them with popular IPs (intellectual properties) and larger-than-life characters. Studios are trying to bank on the idea that people care more about Spider-man or Captain America than the actors who play them. With some bumps along the way, they’ve been moderately successful at shifting the attention towards IPs, hoping the audience doesn’t notice. We’ve even seen them smear actors who attempt to stand up for themselves. Scarlett Johansson, who sued Disney over a breach of contract, was inundated with negative comments. Disney called her lawsuit, a “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Though they eventually settled, the studios showed their hands: they hold actors (and, in fact, most workers) in contempt. 

There’s a long history of Hollywood engaging in similarly nefarious activities against some of its biggest stars. In the 1930s and 40s, actors had little to no control over the material they were given. They could not dictate what types of films or roles they would play. If they refused certain performances, they were suspended. In a world where you’re only as good as your last performances, and audiences are fickle and forgetful, the studios had enormous power. Even though it was star power fuelling most financial successes of the first quarter of the 20th century, the actors had little power over their image and career.

In 1943, at the height of her fame, Olivia De Havilland, best known for her roles in Gone With the Wind and opposite Errol Flynn at the time, wanted to take on meatier roles. Her studio, Warner Brothers, not only refused, they extended her contract, claiming that if she refused scripts and she was issued a suspension, they could extend the contract — keeping her locked in indefinitely. She sued and eventually won, putting the De Havilland Law on the books. The De Havilland Law afforded actors greater freedom to not only choose better roles but also to seek better compensation. It wasn’t long before she’d also win her first Oscar for To Each His Own

In the 21st century, the influence of cinema as the dominant popular medium has dwindled, and with it, the power of the movie star. The studios continue to rake in record profits, and executives receive outsized salaries and bonuses. Just yesterday, Bob Iger signed back as CEO of Disney at a salary of $27-million with the possibility of incentive-based bonuses (these incentives boosted his 2021 salary to $45.9-million). 

As SAG declared they’re going on strike to fight for fair compensation and to fight against AI, Bob Iger was quoted as saying the (potential) for a strike is “very disturbing to me. We’ve talked about disruptive forces on this business and all the challenges we’re facing, the recovery from COVID, which is ongoing; it’s not completely back. This is the worst time in the world to add to that disruption.” If Spielberg thinks that Cruise saved Hollywood, it’s clear Iger is trying to position the rest of the actors as its downfall. 

Part of the Studio’s AI proposal to SAG-AFTRA included scanning a background actor’s likeness for one day’s worth of pay and using their likeness forever in any form without any pay or consent. As streaming has already worn away at the option of any residuals, and the majority of SAG doesn’t earn enough to even qualify for health insurance, the proposition reveals an overall desire to not only downplay the autonomy an actor has but also their contribution to the overall project. The studios want us to believe that people and actors are expendable, not because they are, but because they don’t want to share any piece of the pie.

Tom Cruise, in his affable indefinability, will likely not come out strong for the strikes, but his box-office success represents an existential threat to the studios. People didn’t come back to the cinema to watch a new Top Gun movie, a sequel 30 years in the making — they came to the cinema to watch Tom Cruise. As audiences increasingly turn their backs on the subpar Marvel and other superhero movies, the studios are left scrambling, forced to reckon with the reality that the success of Iron Man was not because the IP was great, it’s because people loved Robert Downey Jr.

Cruise is not and should not be above critique, but it’s unquestionable that his success illuminates a core principle of Hollywood moviemaking: stars and actors matter. Most actors will never be Tom Cruise, but like most workers, they’re entitled to fair compensation and protections. What’s unfolding right now in Hollywood might seem like some distant fantasy world, unconnected from the lives of other workers, but it should be an inspiration to all of us. As Fran Drescher, president of SAG, said during the press conference announcing the SAG strike, “What happens here is important because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labour, when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority, and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run.” ■

Mission Imposible: Dead Reckoning Part 1 (directed by Christopher McQuarrie)

For our latest in film and TV, please visit the Film & TV section.