Their three films together depict the rise and fall of their offscreen passion, says Ty Burr

By Ty Burr
February 08, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Kidman and Cruise: Everett Collection

Cruise and Kidman: scenes from their marriage

The news that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman are calling it quits after 11 years of marriage probably strikes you in one of three ways. You: a) are shocked and crushed and lashing out at your coworkers in grief; b) glanced at the headlines, thought it a pretty good run for a union between two self absorbed Hollywood actors, then continued on with your life; or c) find it reprehensible that I’m wasting perfectly good electrons on the subject when there’s a crisis brewing in the Middle East.

As much as I’ve enjoyed Cruise in ”Magnolia” and Kidman in ”Dead Calm,” ”To Die For,” and the supremely trashy ”Malice,” I’m pretty much in the b) camp. It’s sad enough when any marriage goes kerflooey — and weird enough when the couple releases a public statement that blames the estrangement on conflicting work schedules and doesn’t say one word about their two adopted kids — but my emotional involvement in this story doesn’t go much beyond that. Go ahead, swap rumors, sneer all you want, blame the Scientologists — just let me know if anything of lasting import crops up.

One thing’s interesting, though. In preparation for one of those snide little charts EW magazine likes to run, I’ve just watched the three movies Tom and Nicole made together. They’re all bad, although in varying degrees of badness — 1990’s ”Days of Thunder” is brain dead swill, 1992’s ”Far and Away” is high Hollywood hokum, and 1999’s ”Eyes Wide Shut” is (to me, anyway) pretentious, torpid, and not nearly as shocking as it thinks it is.

Taken together, though, the three movies trace the arc of a romantic relationship with surprising, cruel clarity, from initial lust through contented love all the way to apathetic burnout. Of all the married movie stars who have played together — Bogart and Bacall, Taylor and Burton, Woody and Mia, um, Cox and Arquette — only Cruise and Kidman have put together a series of scenes from a marriage that ring with depressing honesty. Did they do it on purpose? Of course not. But it still plays well.

Take ”Days of Thunder” to start. The trappings of this noisy retread from the Simpson/ Bruckheimer factory are ridiculous. Cruise plays a stock car driver named Cole Trickle. Kidman plays a brain surgeon. Enough said. But every time the stars look at each other, I swear it’s like Tony and Maria meeting at the dance in ”West Side Story” — you can practically see the two of them skid to a halt, then scramble to remember their lines. Not surprisingly, Mrs. Cruise No. 1, Mimi Rogers, was out the door in record time, and Tom and Nicole were married within the year.

By 1992’s ”Far and Away,” they’re acting like one of those couples so wrapped up in each other that they can’t bother to let the rest of the world in on the joke. Ron Howard’s romantic epic casts Cruise as a poor son o’ the sod and Kidman as a well born lass who leave the Emerald Isle for the 1893 Oklahoma land rush; the movie’s one of those baked in Hollywood Irish hams that John Ford used to do better. No one can deny, however, that the stars seem to be having a wonderful time, using the film as their private playground and winking slyly as if they can read and enjoy each other’s thoughts. And yet… an impassioned argument over Cruise’s HAT sounds an awful lot like bickering.

Fast forward seven years, and we’re looking at married zombies. Forget all the orgy stuff in ”Eyes Wide Shut”: Stanley Kubrick’s final film works best as a portrait of a couple on autopilot. From the very first scene — Kidman on the toilet asking, ”How do I look?” and Cruise absently answering, ”Perfect” — it’s a study in miscommunication, secrecy, and boredom. Or, if you’re feeling really cynical, it’s your average marriage. ”Eyes”’ final scene of dialogue rings even more eerily — in fact, it sounds like an epitaph for a Hollywood power relationship that’s run aground on the rocks of movie make believe. Tentatively reconciling with Cruise’s character, Kidman’s Alice says, ”Maybe I think we should be grateful, grateful that we’ve managed to survive through all of our adventures, whether they were real or only a dream…. The important thing is we’re awake now.” Her husband replies ”Forever.” She responds, firmly: ”Let’s not use that word…”

Surprise: The lady was on to something. And, given the echoes between film and reality, we’re probably lucky we’ll never see the next movie that Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were planning to make together. It was to be a remake of an old René Clair comedy fantasy, and it was called ”I Married a Witch.”