Les Grossman: the “Bizarro” Tom Cruise

Curator's Note

Perhaps you've heard of “Bizarro?” He was Superman's opposite in every way - instead of saving people, Bizzaro would try to put them in danger. His poor genetics caused him to become an opposite - something you'd never associate with such a fine specimen as Tom Cruise. And yet,  poor genetics (and bad attitude) were on display in Tom Cruise's "Bizarro" portrayal of Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008).

Since Cruise’s star persona rests on his squeaky clean image both on and off-screen, Grossman is probably the biggest departure, and most dangerous character that Cruise has ever portrayed. Grossman is a grotesque stereotype with foul language and an unnattractive physique.  Where Cruise sports distinctive hair, Grossman is bald. Where Cruise’s hairless body sports muscles, Grossman is fat with hairy knuckles and neck hair spilling out of his shirt. Bizarro, indeed.

Cruise attacked the role with gusto and created the most memorable role in the movie, if not his career. As he dances out the credit sequence, it also appears that he’s having fun.

The question remains – why would Cruise ever take such a role? What was the payoff?

Between 2001-2010, Cruise experienced some of the worst publicity of his career. Coming off his divorce with Nicole Kidman in 2001, the firing of his long-term publicist in 2004 (and replacing them with his sister), his famously bizarre appearance on Oprah, a long, incoherent Scientology video, a protracted argument with Matt Lauer about antidepressants, the termination of his long-standing contract with Paramount, and a failed purchase and reboot of United Artists,’ -- the decade, for Cruise, was distinguished by bad publicity.

While certainly not a failed star by any stretch, Cruise’s “dirtied star performance” as Grossman made him relevant to a new audience. By embracing his absurdity, the role made him seem like he took himself less seriously at a moment when he needed to be perceived as such.

It didn’t hurt that the Grossman character was embraced by the MTV crowd. Cruise also did promotional commercials for the 2010 MTV movie awards, and the role culminated at the ceremony where danced with J Lo in a lavish live production number.

Ironically, by taking the role of the "Bizzaro" Grossman, Cruise regained his dignity.  Because, let's face it, Grossman would never lower himself to jumping up and down on Oprah's couch.  


Colin, You raise some really interesting questions here about why Cruise would accept such an unusual role that deviates so greatly from his established screen persona. For me, I believe that Cruise took the role to show that he has greater range as an actor than some of his critics claim. In playing Grossman I also think Cruise was able to parody and critique the very system which during his "rough" period with public image and stardom that you mention, felt that he could no longer generate box office. Thus for me his willingness to stretch his skills and engage in parodic behavior demonstrated to audiences that Cruise was well aware of how the Hollywood system used his image and how his image was viewed by the public at large. Finally, I think playing Grossman also allowed Cruise to perform a type of masculinity that is crude, lewd, aggressive, and domineering, thus allowing him to show that he had an understanding of traditional models of American masculinity that are represented as normal in the media.

Colin, Interesting take on a shift for Cruise. To me, the key of your post is your idea that taking on the Grossman role allowed Cruise "to seem like he took himself less seriously." So this moment seemed like nothing more than a shrewd calculation of acting in a "cool" and "subversive" way that would help, as you say, overcome some public image problems. It's Tom Cruise "acting" like he's hip to the MTV crowd (look! look! I have a sense of humor, really guys!) just as he "acted" like a love struck idiot for the Oprah crowd. And, as a bonus, he got to deride the system that was trying to reject him. Colin, I see your point about the stretching of skills and alternative masculinities (though I don't really see it as a bid to gain legitimacy as an actor), but I still see it more as a big F-U to those who refuse to accept the image as Cruise wishes to portray it. The ultimate rejection of the other players in the system as having ANY say in his image. I like this push back idea, but somehow when Cruise does it, it seems to lack authenticity or even the true playfulness that taking on such a role should have. I don't know, maybe my general dislike of Cruise's image is coming out here, but given the tight control that has always dominated his image, I have trouble taking anything he does seriously.

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