Of all the crazy flying maneuvers and mind-bending stunts in Top Gun: Maverick, the most impressive one takes place on the ground.
Tom Cruise has flown back into America’s heart and has forgotten all his days as a wayward Scientology Ambassador with a penchant for hopping on Oprah’s couch.
The sequel – which has been delayed multiple times due to the COVID pandemic – grossed a record-breaking $156 million in its opening weekend.
Cruise, 59, hardly looks like he’s turning his sixth decade. He still performs his own stunts, flaunts his incredibly torn torso on screen and flashes that signature smile that seduced audiences early in his career. He was ubiquitous, working on international red carpets in Japan and Cannes and even socializing with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whom he helped up the steps at the film’s London premiere.
Cruise’s fingerprints can be seen in every aspect of the film, including the intense flight training for actors and the push for a theatrical release – the timing couldn’t be more perfect. Moviegoers are even greeted with a recorded message from the actor thanking them for traveling to see him in theaters.
It was such a triumph and testament to Cruise’s enduring movie magic that it’s hard to remember that two decades ago the “Jerry Maguire” star had almost turned toxic and been branded a crazed zealot.
While promoting “War of the Worlds” in 2005, the normally private star got on Oprah’s couch and professed his love for then-fiancé Katie Holmes, whom he would marry before divorcing in 2012. He then sat down with Today’s Matt Lauer and berated him for using antidepressants, saying, “You don’t know the history of psychiatry. I do.”
The damage to his reputation was compounded at a time when celebrity blogs and YouTube were springing up, causing his bizarre antics to go viral. He was also increasingly viewed as the face of Scientology, which was beginning to suffer a PR crisis of its own. (An embarrassing video of Cruise praising the virtues of Scientology was leaked in 2008.) It didn’t help that he split from Pat Kingsley, his hard-bitten, controlling publicist, in favor of his sister, Lee Ann DeVette.
However, that was only part of the story.
Initially, what happened off-screen didn’t impact his appeal on the big screen. In fact, the Steven Spielberg-directed film opened at $64.9 million. But then the following year, Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone briefly ended Paramount’s working relationship with the actor’s production company, citing his “unacceptable” fanatical behavior that negatively impacted ticket sales for “Mission: Impossible III.”
The impact on Cruise was profound.
“It was like he came out in front of the curtain and got tomatoes thrown 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 dumped his sister for publicist Paul Bloch, who died in 2018.
Nicholson said Cruise, who had previously taken supporting roles in outlandish Oscar vehicles like “Rain Man,” instead opted for the sure-fire blockbusters that continued to rake in money and adoration from the masses.
While he’s paid no attention to his private life, he’s used red carpet premieres to enchant audiences around the world.
“I think Tom was always advertising savvy. He was always the person who would do more country visits and more red carpets and provide the template for the global star. Then Will Smith followed,” said Nicholson.
Cruise has also bucked the trend for celebrities to become accessible and identifiable on social media — and it’s been to his advantage.
“There’s a lot of pressure to do pasta on Instagram Live,” Nicholson added. “Do you want to be people’s friends or a movie star?”
Even the likes of Smith, who rode in Cruise’s wake, joined in his wife’s salacious revelations – 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 lawsuit against his ex-wife Amber Heard, and we’re watching our Hollywood A-listers’ dissolution in real-time.
According to Puck News’ Matt Belloni, the premiere of Top Gun: Maverick was tightly controlled and the media was screened to ensure they were not asking about Scientology matters.
“It’s almost entirely TV and outlets have been told they must use professional cameras, iPhone recording is not allowed. It’s unusual, but Tom is Tom and Tom has to look great,” Belloni said.
If shaky iPhone footage appears, it’s Cruise with a fan, Nicholson said.
“When you work with Tom Cruise, you know it’s going to be a top-notch event,” said a veteran publicist who has worked with the actor on many junkets and premieres. “Everything is buttoned up. He is very focused.”
The publicist stated that he was a unique force at the premieres.
“He’s really a nice person to staff, publicists and fans,” she said, recalling a junket in Vienna for “Mission: Impossible,” where things got hot.
He finished an interview, looked over at her and noticed that she wasn’t feeling well. “He asked if I was okay and if I wanted to put myself in the shade. He is very aware of his surroundings.”
And aside from his controversial religion, he still has the influence of a true Tinseltown titan.
“When you’re in his presence, you feel like you’re in the presence of a movie star,” the publicist said. “There aren’t many actors I can say that about.”