Tom Cruise's success -- The actor discusses ''Jerry Maguire,'' working with Stanley Kubrick, and his marriage

He is the most successful film star of his generation. Makes $20 million a picture. Married one of the most beautiful women in the English-speaking world. Has even been known to save a life from time to time. And right now, lunching at the posh Dorchester Hotel in London, he’s got a little green leafy thing dribbling down the corner of his mouth.

Oh, well, nobody’s perfect — not even Tom Cruise.

And yet, oddly enough, his famous smile is none the worse for the foliage. ”Man, I’m so sorry I was late,” he offers, flashing his billion-dollar choppers. Cruise and his wife, Nicole Kidman, are in London starting Eyes Wide Shut, an erotic thriller directed by cinema god Stanley Kubrick, and he’s still getting used to the auteur’s famously exhausting production schedule. ”We’re working 14-hour days,” Cruise explains between bites of antipasto. ”You work on a scene and you work on it and work on it. He’ll do 20 takes — that’s not unusual. You are not leaving until he gets it right. It’s intense, but as an actor, that’s exactly what you want.”

Cruise, it should be noted, knows a bit about getting it right himself. Riding what has to be the longest recent winning streak in Hollywood, he’s released 18 movies in 15 years with hardly a bomb among them. The Firm, A Few Good Men, Rain Man, Top Gun — you have to go way back to the 1983 Porky‘s rip-off Losin’ It to find anything resembling a complete flop. Cruise’s films have grossed close to $1.5 billion domestically, making him the most bankable star in show business. Also one of the most powerful, able to greenlight $100 million projects with a single phone call. Bigger than Arnold, bigger than Brad, bigger than Bruce — in a town full of 800-pound gorillas, he’s King Kong, a grinning alpha ape in Ray-Ban shades.

This week, Cruise opens his 19th film, Jerry Maguire, and you don’t have to crawl too far out on a limb to predict a hit. A sweetly offbeat romantic comedy, it has him starring as a hotshot sports agent who decides to change his shallow, back-stabbing ways. Naturally, he gets canned, loses his fiancée, and spends the rest of the movie scrambling to make a comeback. It’s a classic Cruise performance, chockful of the usual cocky charm and boyish charisma. But there’s a new flavor here as well, a taste not found in his previous characters — a tang of desperation.

”I love the idea of Cruise playing a guy on the ropes,” chuckles director-writer Cameron Crowe (Say Anything…, Singles), who spent more than three years tapping out Maguire. ”Cruise’s name is so synonymous with success, I thought it’d be entertaining to watch him fail on the screen.”

It is — and not just for the joy of schadenfreude. You can also look at Maguire as a sort of mid-career breakthrough for Cruise, 34, even something of a bold self-revelation (in fact, the role has already won him this year’s Best Actor prize from the National Board of Review, an Oscar bellwether). For years he’s played irresistible smoothies, turning the world on with his smile while piloting fighter jets and driving race cars. Now he’s playing a slickster whose magic charms have lost their power. Jerry grins beguilingly, shrugs his shoulders adorably, even slips into a pair of sunglasses — and he still can’t catch a break. It’s as if that kid who strummed air guitar in his underwear in Risky Business had finally grown up and gotten a real job. As if Cruise were poking holes in his own screen image, deflating his own myth.

Jerry Maguire
  • Movie
  • 138 minutes