Shortly before Christmas, New York moviegoers could choose between seeing two Tom Cruise films that were screening simultaneously: Jerry Maguire at Lincoln Center (as part of a retrospective celebrating him), and Eyes Wide Shut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (as part of a Christmas movie series). Sorry I could not watch both and be one viewer, I opted for Eyes Wide Shut. “You had me at hello” and “Show me the money!” would have to wait for another day. Surely I was taking the cultural high road, the Guermantes Way, if you will, one that would certainly never meet up with any quippy, Tom Petty–inflected sports romance.
Since the bemused response to the release of Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, the film’s admirers have been increasingly winning out over its critics. But both camps agree that the film is a closed universe, meticulously arranged down to the smallest detail, the ne plus ultra of auteurist micromanagement. Kubrick was a famous hermit who refused to leave England to film Eyes Wide Shut, although it is set in New York. Instead he constructed an enormous studio replica of Greenwich Village, and everything was shot in this controlled environment. Tom Cruise, as though under Kubrick-ordered house arrest, didn’t make another movie for the entire duration of the project (from 1997 to 1999). If you didn’t like the movie, you saw the final product as hermetically sealed and emotionally sterile, a bad imitation of New York and the way that real people talk and feel. But if you liked the movie, it was because each of its frames could be subjected to exhaustive analysis in a thousand term papers, like a game of hidden pictures, mined for occult symbolism, motifs of consumerism, and every possible allegorical reading. Kubrick’s obsessively detailed vision seemed particularly to license a shot-by-shot deconstruction. (I invite you to google: “Eyes Wide Shut illuminati” for a good time.)
Whether one was frustrated by the film or saw it as an engaging puzzle depended especially on whether one saw the film as giving coherent or interesting answers to the Big Questions that it raised (with no small note of self-importance): Is fidelity possible? Was it all a dream? What exactly is happening in the notorious orgy sequence? What is the difference between masculine and feminine desire?
But in taking up these questions, in debating the finer points of the film, we might ourselves be going about with our eyes wide shut to the most prominent, glaring aspect of the film—even to the point of disregarding the very first words onscreen: “TOM CRUISE. NICOLE KIDMAN.” For it turns out that Eyes Wide Shut has almost nothing to say about its ostensible topic—marital fidelity—but it has a great deal to say about Tom Cruise. It might even be that the key to Eyes Wide Shut is not lurking in a coded image appearing only for a split second, but rather in the entire world-famous corpus of Tom Cruise’s acting work. But this would ruin our idea of Eyes Wide Shut as a claustrophobic world unto itself.
I first began thinking about Tom Cruise in this way after I came across something Claude Chabrol said while directing his final film, Bellamy, which was also his first ever collaboration with Gérard Depardieu. He intended the film as a portrait of Depardieu, but admitted it could really only be “a vision of one of his many aspects.” Before I read this, I had never pondered the star of Green Card as someone over whom to have flights of vision. The deconstruction of his persona could only be the breaking of a butterfly upon a wheel. That of course is because audiences, even critics, never see stars with the eyes of directors.
Over the past decade, Cruise has subsequently lost all control of his persona, owing to a certain incident on Oprah Winfrey’s couch, an ugly spat with Brooke Shields, and the bizarre and unsavory involvement of the Church of Scientology in his marriage to Katie Holmes and in their child. I am personally disappointed with myself that I can name that child. Although Cruise has continued to be a bankable star, his most telling latter-day role is a cameo in Tropic Thunder, in which Cruise wears heavy makeup and a fat suit, to perform a vulgar and detestable impression of a studio executive. We still like seeing Tom Cruise, the actor, in movies. But we can no longer abide the Tom Cruise persona. He must wear a conceptual fat suit.
This was not always so. Tom Cruise is billed in Eyes Wide Shut as playing Dr. Bill Harford, an Upper West Side practitioner who goes on a nocturnal odyssey of bizarre erotic encounters, but he really is playing Tom Cruise—the same character as Jerry Maguire, Charlie Babbitt (Rain Man), Vincent Lauria (The Color of Money), Maverick (Top Gun), et al. In all of these roles, he is more or less a con man. What gives this character unlimited dramatic interest is the varying degrees to which he is conning himself and the not-yet-entirely-eradicated line in the sand of personal integrity. For this reason, he works best with a professional argot, a polished routine or script, and the intensely one-upping patter of homosocial domains (the pool hall, the barracks, the locker room). Whenever he departs from this line, as in the Mission: Impossible films, the result is a mirthless misfire.
Nothing in Eyes Wide Shut happens to Dr. Bill—everything happens to the entire concatenated personal history of the Tom Cruise character. If it was not possible to watch Jerry Maguire and Eyes Wide Shut simultaneously at Lincoln Center and at BAM, perhaps it is possible to watch them together as mutually illuminating. After all, Jerry Maguire was the last movie Cruise made before collaborating with Kubrick, when he was the biggest star in the world.
Sports agent Jerry Maguire, in a moment of delirious integrity, gives up the dehumanizing ambitions of his job at a huge, humming corporate firm to take a gamble on himself and his values—only to come up short. He trades the competitive, castrating Kelly Preston, with whom he had standing-up-against-a-wall sex, for the maternal Renée Zellwegger. In the words of Cuba Gooding Jr., Tom Cruise is “shoplifting the pootie” from the single mother, but even that sounds more erotic than their relationship looks. He does not have standing-up-against-a-wall sex with Renée Zellwegger.
In both films, Tom Cruise’s job is to cater to the megarich, subduing his own ego, whether to Sidney Pollack and his shadowy cabal of powerful connections or to Cuba Gooding Jr.’s thirst for outlandish bling. His specialty in both films is that he makes “house calls,” i.e., he seals the deal with a personal touch and an implication of going out of his way for you, the patient/client.
But in Eyes Wide Shut, Cruise is not playing his game. He is not only out of his league, outmatched—cinematic cues that he need only gather together his character’s passion and integrity for one final push—he doesn’t know the rules or even the players. After the opening scenes set up the Tom Cruise persona, he spends the rest of the film terrified and off-balance. The culprit? Female desire, Nicole Kidman’s provocative admission that—far from being a domesticated, passionless trophy pledged forever to fidelity by motherhood—she has flights of raw, un-self-regarding lust. Like Anna Karenina (in the book; none of this is conveyed by Keira Knightley’s turn), Kidman is seized by desire as by a demonic force. She isn’t “expressing” her personality by her object choice. There is instead a vertiginous dropping-out of all of her supports and decencies and self-concerns. This isn’t even pleasant to her; it is more a feeling of “I don’t care what happens to me.” We have to assume that she has values—but they are all eclipsed. She literally cannot help herself, in every sense. She tells Cruise of a certain naval officer she had exchanged glances with, “If he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything. You, our daughter, my whole fucking future, everything.”
No one says these things to Tom Cruise. You might say that the entire universe of his other films is predicated on the impossibility of these words. In The Color of Money and Rain Man, there are fleeting moments of jealousy where his (nearly identical) girlfriends start being unduly interested in Paul Newman or Dustin Hoffman—but not before we are thoroughly apprised that these men (the only non–Tom Cruises on the scene) cannot get it up. In Jerry Maguire, this role of impotent rival is played by the adorable child actor Jonathan Lipnicki. But neither Kelly Preston nor Renée Zellwegger have other men on the horizon. Don’t be ridiculous.
So why are these women with Tom Cruise? Straight down the line, Cruise’s early films read as a manual in male insecurity and phallus worship: the jet fighter, the football star, the driver of Lamborghinis, the hustler who can really handle his stick … and the woman’s role is only as a kind of vanishing mediator, who will point him away from these narcissistic substitutes for masculinity and towards his authentic self. In Jerry Maguire, this means realizing that Kelly Preston is having sex not with him, but with his career. This isn’t her fault, of course—she couldn’t have sex with his inner, postnarcissistic integrity, because this requires the reflected, admiring gaze of a male child. Whereas when Kelly Preston and Tom Cruise have sex, only their dog is watching them.
In Eyes Wide Shut, Nicole Kidman’s desire, her pleading for an urge that exists totally outside of the logic of Tom Cruise movies, is the really terrifying power—not the shadowy powers that organized the synthesizer-scored orgy in a Long Island mansion. The interpretive crux of the movie is when Kidman relates a nightmare that she had while he was away (awake) on his night of mystery. It is the identical scenario—in her dream, Tom Cruise is observing an orgy—but with her at its center, getting off with who knows how many people, for him to watch and be humiliated. But notice two things: first, that this is a horrifying nightmare, she wants no part of it; second, that not only is Tom Cruise the “observer” in the dream itself, but the dream is produced for him as its audience, addressed to him by her unconscious (and then related to him upon waking). She is essentially flinging his own desire (to be a spectator at the orgy) in his face; it has nothing to do with what she wants.
The orgy itself is probably the least sexy scene in cinema history, surveyed with completely flat affect by a crowd of masked onlookers. It has been ruined for him in advance by his wife’s challenge earlier that night—it may even be that he “stands out” as not belonging to the company by virtue of this disenchantment. What is certain is that the necessary element for Tom Cruise to get off—the confirmation of a male viewpoint (to give yet another example, think of the split role performed by Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer in Top Gun)—that a woman’s touch is then called forth to dissipate and reorient, is nowhere present here. In fact, there is no man in the movie who could even play this role: Nicole Kidman is only approached by Sidney Pollack’s friend, while Tom Cruise’s piano player friend is de-eroticized by unfortunate facial hair.
Before its release, Eyes Wide Shut was promoted as “the sexiest movie of all time.” The reverse is probably true. The entire movie is a calculated denial of the sort of sex scene that we find in Top Gun (scored to “Take My Breath Away”). It is almost a running joke that Tom Cruise doesn’t ever have sex, in scene after scene of orgies and women throwing themselves at him. And the second that Nicole Kidman tells him that they need to go home right away to do something important—to do what? “Fuck.”—then the movie has to end right there. Because Kubrick by then has accomplished the incredible: you do not want to see the most famous couple in the world have sex.
Ben Parker is a doctoral student in English at Columbia University. His collected tweets can be found at @exyoungperson.