Tom Cruise in the '80s: Birth of a Star

Tom Cruise in the '80s: Birth of a Star

Nowadays Tom Cruise is one of the biggest Hollywood stars on the planet, but like most megastars, he had relatively humble beginnings. Starting out with bit parts during the early 1980s, he quickly shot into the stratosphere with blockbuster after blockbuster. With this weekend's release of American Made, which takes place in the '80s, we here at Talk Film Society thought it would be a great time to highlight some of those early films.


The Outsiders (1983)

In The Outsiders, Cruise plays Steve Randle, a greaser who works down at the gas station with his best friend, Sodapop Curtis (Rob Lowe). His part isn’t big, he’s just one of several young actors in an ensemble cast, including Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillion, Ralph Macchio, and my first real crush on a movie star, C. Thomas Howell. If you’ve seen the movie, based on S.E. Hinton’s 1967 novel of the same name, you know it’s really about Ponyboy Curtis (Howell) and the class warfare going on in Tulsa, Oklahoma between the Greasers and the Socs. Francis Ford Coppola’s movie is very teen angsty and, although beautiful to look at (thanks Stephen H. Burum!), it can be rather over the top at times. I’m looking right at you, Matt Dillon. Cruise is fine as Randle, I’d definitely want him on my side the next time I’m in the rumble. Shout out to William Smith as the clerk Dillon robs towards the end. If you blink, you’ll also miss Tom Waits. I wanted this movie to be included in this Tom Cruisapalooza because I think it was one of the break out films for Cruise (and everyone else) and it’s certainly worth a watch.

- Sarah Jane

Risky Business (1983)

Risky Business is iconically influential on how music would be used to tell stories in the '80s. It’s neatest trick is turning Bob Seger's ‘Old Time Rock And Roll’ into a cultural touchstone. It’s a moment in the film that defies the status of ‘iconic’ - Cruise expertly slides into frame, wearing nothing but a preppy fashionable shirt and his skivvies, and struts and sways in a way that makes you wonder what all you might see, with the kind of conscious self abandon that blurs the lines between Joel and Cruise’s guarded private persona. He’s accessible, immutable, and likable in a way that would make the movie going public trace his every moment for the decades to come.

Due to the iconicness of the ‘Old Time Rock And Roll’ scene, the rest of Risky Business tends to be forgotten about. But it does an invaluable service to establishing the mood of the '80s, and setting the tenor for Cruise’s career possibilities. This subtle influence can still be seen today in films that evoke those non-genre pop culture moments of the '80s, and that charisma and movie star wattage in his smile can still be seen on Tom Cruise’s face to this day.

- Nick Issac


All the Right Moves (1983)

Unlike in The Outsiders where he only has a small role, All the Right Moves stars Cruise front and center as Stefen "Stef" Djordjevic, a football playing high school senior who wants to get out of Dodge, or in this case, Ampipe, Pennsylvania. He needs to get a scholarship to an engineering college and football is his only answer. His coach (Craig T. Nelson) has other ideas when Steph mouths off to him after the loss of an important game. He cuts Steph from the team and blackballs him to the colleges that were previously interested. Steph alternates his time between football and trying to get his longtime girlfriend (Lea Thompson) to sleep with him.

You can tell Cruise is really trying here. You can see the wheels turning as he has to emote. He’s not bad, though. He reminded me a bit of Wiley Wiggins in Dazed and Confused. There was a lot of putting his hands to the bridge of his nose. Chris Penn is the real star here. He’s on another plane as Steph’s friend Brian. He was bound for USC, that is, until he gets his girlfriend pregnant. His role isn’t big but damn, he’s great. I miss that guy. Also, I have to give a shout out to Leon and to Dick Miller. I think this movie gets overlooked because Risky Business (released a couple of months earlier) was such a breakout movie for Cruise. And, let’s face it, it’s a better movie than All the Right Moves. His work in all three movies is the genesis for his inevitable stardom in Top Gun.

- Sarah Jane


Legend (1985)

Ridley Scott's Legend is an interesting beast. Critically mauled upon its release in 1985, it's the rare fantasy entry in Tom Cruise’s filmography and also one that's gotten better with age. Famously an influence on Shigeru Miyamoto’s creation of the original Legend of Zelda in 1986, it concerns a story of good vs the ultimate evil as Tom Cruise plays Jack, a young man determined to stop the terrifying Darkness played by Tim Curry in one of his most memorable roles. A masterwork of the production design and meticulous detail that Scott has become known for throughout his career, Cruise is key here. He brings an earnestness to his performance, truly committing to the fantasy elements and proving that even at a young age he could lead an action film handily.

Darkness has kidnapped Lili, played by Mia Sara, and has put into motion a plan to permanently destroy the very concept of daylight. It's a fanciful story, much like most fantasy, especially in the original theatrical cut, which features a score by Tangerine Dream and a lighter tone. As Scott is known to do, he would later go back and edit a Director's Cut, featuring a much darker tone and doing a lot to make Cruise's motivations and performance stronger overall. It's the superior version of the picture and even though Cruise is still overshadowed by Curry, it's still one of the better early turns from the megastar actor.

- Matt Curione


The Color of Money (1986)

“Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, who won an Oscar for the role) is a long-in-the-tooth con man and pool hustler, whose vitality is rekindled by the arrival of Vincent Lauria (Cruise) into the pool room of his bar. Vincent strings along Eddie's in-house pool shark, and Eddie sees such potential that he takes Vincent under his wing to prepare him for taking the deeper pockets in a 9-ball tournament's practice room across the country. Along the way there, Eddie makes some strides to returning to his old form at the table.

Cruise plays Vincent with all the cocksure, “Yeah, okay, old-timer” dismissive nature you'd expect of someone who chases the short payoff, borne of easy wins and natural talent. Vincent is a toy shop clerk who plays at sharking pool games, in Eddie's mind, and it's easy to see that from how Cruise presents Vincent: absolutely carefree, playing with what he sees as free money, since he's so adept at taking it from anyone who lifts a cue. That ability is also his weakness, and what truly sets in stone Eddie's determination to prove himself, honestly. Cruise's scenes are jaw-dropping not only in his delivery of Vincent's lines but the fact that most of the pool tricks he pulls off are accomplished in-camera by Cruise himself, a dedication to character detail that's followed throughout his career.

- Sean Beattie


Cocktail (1988)

Tom Cruise’s biggest asset (aside from his devilishly good looks) is his charm, and who needs charm more than a bartender. In Cocktail, Tom Cruise and Bryan Brown play the best bartenders in New York City (and Jamaica for a short while) who are struggling to survive while trying to make their millions. The plot is all over the place, taking hard turns every half hour, but this is Cruise at peak charm. He juggles liquor bottles, sasses business professors, and recites improvised poetry with his trademark smirk. He’s a man of the people, a veteran from Queens who’s trying to make his mark on the world.

He’s offset by Bryan Brown, playing his jaded mentor whose goal is to marry rich, and Elisabeth Shue, playing a lovestruck patron who doesn’t want to play Cruise’s one-night-stand games. Both of these characters, at different points, remove themselves from Cruise’s influence, but are always brought back in by his charm. I felt the same way watching the movie. No matter what nonsense was happening with the plot, if Tom Cruise was having fun, so was I.

Coughlin’s Law: point a camera at Tom Cruise and your movie will work itself out.

- Mark Watlington


Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

With a lot of actors there’s always a divide in the performance range; with method players like Daniel Day-Lewis, or Robert DeNiro, we love it when they're wild as much as when they are exploring more restrained characters. But with Tom Cruise there’s no real divide, he’s always investing himself in his performances with everything he’s got; there are no half measures, or disingenuous moments in his filmography, regardless of the project, Cruise isn’t just invested, but he’s bringing something to the table.

I'd wager that Cruise is the best-managed actor of all time; considering the Rolodex of first-class collaborating directors. Oliver Stone came after Ridley and Tony Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Barry Levinson, there’s no weak link in the chain, but of his eighties era, his emotionally and psychically demanding role as Ron Kovic (which earned him his first of three Oscar nominations) is among his finest work. The transformation of this wide-eyed patriotic teenager to stalwart anti-war advocate is not only a dedicated representation of Kovic's life, but the ambitious narrative is emblematic of the socio/political upheaval that occurred in American culture from the mid to late sixties. Tom Cruise doesn’t get as much credit as a transformative performer, and with Stone’s dimensional epic he does more than become Ron Kovic but embodies the three-step evolution of the man before, during, and after the war.

- Alex Miller

So there you have it, the TFS Staff picks for the best of Tom Cruise in the '80s. Of course his career would only get more successful as time went on, working with even more great filmmakers, Paul Thomas Anderson and Stanley Kubrick among them. He's always been an actor who straddles that fine line between actor and star, and that trajectory looks to be a steady constant. So what say you? What are some of your favorite Tom Cruise performances in the '80s or otherwise? Let us know in the comments or over on Twitter.

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