Tom Cruise and ‘Tropic Thunder You can find few things as intangible and fluid as a celebrity, a concept the fickle public agrees on until it doesn’t. That the film industry is created upon and upheld by the thought of fame is a dozy. In-demand stars use their popularity to push their careers forward, establishing mainstream appeal and acceptance and history of bankability, and then they’re suddenly elevated to Movie Star status. It is a tenuous position that’s carefully earned but can so easily be lost.
After having a disastrous streak of bad PR in the mid-2000s, a rebound for the actor seemed such as an impossible mission indeed, yet this small supporting role helped redeem him. Cruise’s character, Les Grossman, emerged as a scene-stealing, vulgar burst of rage; his behavior might have echoed. Cruise’s own internal fury fond of a Hollywood system that had raised him up and then torn him down. The performance had former naysayers back on his side. However, a decade later, the part carries with it a whiff of irony—Tropic Thunder was both a lifeline for Cruise and his brand and a project he would not touch today.
It’s fascinating that Cruise was in good graces after Tropic Thunder and occasionally hilarious movie that veers, or even leaps, into offensive territory. In a spoof of method, actors like Russell Crowe, Robert Downey Jr. play an overly severe and committed Australian Oscar winner who undergoes a controversial procedure to play an African-American sergeant in the film’s war movie within a movie. It was a roundabout method of putting blackface in an important studio comedy. It’s problematic on multiple levels, yet Downey Jr. still earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination at that year’s Academy Awards. (Then again, the Academy could never be accused of being
Tropic Thunder can be misguided in its depiction of Southeast Asia and the mentally challenged, painting the former as a damaged drug den of stereotypes and showing Stiller tackle the latter for cheap laughs. Watch it now, and the film is just a mixed bag of crude humor hurled at those who’ve been historically mocked. Yes, it’s funny at times. However, it lacks any empathy for its targets; surprisingly, we weren’t more put off at the time.
Taking a risk like this today would threaten Cruise’s marketability. There is a reason the actor has primarily stepped far from the severe dramas and Oscar bait that helped define his career in the’80s and’90s. Within the last decade, he’s leaned almost entirely on action blockbusters, the type of innocuous output that keeps him squarely in the theater. There’s nothing wrong with that—Mission: Impossible-Fallout is spectacular—but his choices will be the Hollywood exact carbon copy of coloring within the lines.
So how and why did he choose to appear in something so out-there and potentially hazardous in 2008? Because around enough time of Tropic Thunder, Cruise’s stock was trading less than MoviePass’is today. His infamous couch-jumping on Oprah in 2005, an earlier YouTube phenomenon and ancestor of the viral meme. As The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs noted, “People hated it. Most importantly, they loved to hate it. Above all, they loved to speak about hating it.” It was followed by a public feud with Brooke Shields, where he did dismiss the notion of postpartum depression. Later, Cruise made some regrettable comments in regards to the field of psychiatry. And along with all this, he was becoming increasingly vocal about his controversial Scientology beliefs.