For all the crazy aerial maneuvers and tricky stunts in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the most impressive one takes place on the ground.
Tom Cruise has piloted his way back into America’s hearts and made everyone forget his days as an unhinged Scientology ambassador with a penchant for jumping on Oprah’s couch.
The sequel – which was delayed multiple times due to the COVID pandemic – raked in a record-breaking $ 156 million its opening weekend.
Now 59, Cruise hardly looks like he’s scraping his sixth decade. He’s still performing his own stunts, showing off his impossibly ripped torso on-screen and flashing his trademark smile that seduced audiences early in his career. He’s been ubiquitous, working international red carpets in Japan and Cannes and even hobnobbing with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whom he helped up the steps at the film’s London premiere.
Cruise’s fingerprints are on every aspect of the movie, including the intense flight training for actors and pushing for an in-theater release – the timing of which couldn’t be more perfect. Moviegoers are even welcomed with a prerecorded message from the actor thanking them for making the trip to see it in theaters.
It’s been such a triumph and testament to Cruise’s enduring movie magic that it’s hard to remember the “Jerry Maguire” star had become almost toxic two decades ago and branded a wacky zealot.
While promoting “War of the Worlds” in 2005, the usually private star infamously stood on Oprah’s couch and proclaimed his love for then-fiancée Katie Holmes, whom he’d marry before divorcing in 2012. He then sat down with Matt Lauer of ” Today ”and lambasted him over the use of antidepressants, saying,“ You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do. ”
The damage to his reputation was amplified at a time when celebrity blogs and YouTube were coming into existence, allowing his bizarre antics to go viral. He also was increasingly seen as the face of Scientology, which was starting to endure a pr crisis of its own. (An embarrassing video in which Cruise extolled the virtues of Scientology was leaked in 2008.) It didn’t help that he had parted ways with Pat Kingsley, his hard-nosed, controlling publicist, in favor of his sister, Lee Ann DeVette.
However, that was only part of the story.
At first, what happened off-screen did not affect his big-screen appeal. In fact, the Steven Spielberg-directed flick opened to $ 64.9 million. But then, the following year, Viacom head Sumner Redstone briefly ended Paramount’s working relationship with the actor’s production company, citing his “unacceptable” fanatical behavior, which he said negatively impacted ticket sales for “Mission: Impossible III.”
The effect on Cruise was profound.
“It was like he came out in front of the curtain, and he had tomatoes tossed at him, so he closed the curtain. He made his world very small, ”Amy Nicholson, author of“ Tom Cruise: The Anatomy of an Actor, ”told The Post.
He dropped his sister for veteran publicist Paul Bloch, who passed away in 2018.
Nicholson said Cruise, who had previously taken support supporting roles in offbeat Oscar vehicles like “Rain Man,” instead opted for the safe blockbusters that continued to pull in money and adoration from the masses.
While he shut down any attention on his personal life, he used red carpet premieres to charm audiences across the world.
“I think Tom was always savvy about publicity. He was always that person who was going to do more country visits and more red carpets and set the template for the global star. Then Will Smith followed, ”said Nicholson.
Cruise has also pushed back against the trend of celebrities becoming accessible and relatable on social media – and it’s been to his advantage.
“There’s a lot of pressure to make pasta on Instagram Live,” Nicholson added. “Do you want to be people’s friends or a movie star?”
Even people like Smith, who was riding in his Cruise’s, joined in his wife’s salacious tell-alls – airing their dirty laundry and details about their open marriage – before slapping Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars. Add in Johnny Depp’s grotesque warts-and-all defamation trial against his ex-wife Amber Heard, and we’re watching the unraveling of our Hollywood A-listers in real-time.
According to Matt Belloni of Puck News, the “Top Gun: Maverick” premiere was highly controlled and media outlets were vetted to ensure they wouldn’t ask about Scientology issues.
“It’s almost exclusively TV, and outlets were informed they must use professional-grade cameras, no iPhone footage allowed. That’s unusual, but Tom is Tom, and Tom’s got to look great, ”Belloni said.
If shaky iPhone footage appears, it’s Cruise with a fan, said Nicholson.
“When you work with Tom Cruise, you know it’s going to be a first-rate event,” said a veteran publicist who has worked many junkets and premieres with the actor. “Everything will be buttoned up. He is very focused. ”
The publicist explained that he’s a singular force during the premieres.
“He’s genuinely a nice person to staffers, publicists and fans,” she said, recalling a junket in Vienna for a “Mission: Impossible” where it was roasting hot.
She wrapped up an interview, looked over at her and noticed she wasn’t comfortable. “He asked if I was OK and if I wanted to go stand in the shade. He is very aware of his surroundings. ”
And his controversial religion aside, he still has the clout of a bonafide Tinseltown titan.
“When you are in his presence, you feel like you are in the presence of a movie star,” the publicist said. “There’s not many actors I can say that about.”