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The Joke's On Him: Tom Cruise and Eyes Wide Shut

Tom Cruise as Dr. Bill Harford in "Eyes Wide Shut" (screenshot from the WB film)

The New York of “Eyes Wide Shut” is a dream of New York—a sex dream about an emotionally and carnally wound-up young man who denies his animal essence, his wife’s, and almost everyone’s. It’s a comedy. Stanley Kubrick’s movies are comedies more often than not—coal-black; a tad goofy even when bloody and cruel; the kind where you aren’t sure if it’s appropriate to laugh, because the situations depicted are horrible and sad, the characters deluded. 

To make a film like this work, you need one of two types of lead actors: the kind that is plausible as a brilliant and insightful person who trips on his own arrogance (like Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” Matthew Modine’s Pvt. Joker in “Full Metal Jacket,” and Humbert Humbert in “Lolita”); or the kind that reads as a bit of a dope to start with, and never stops being one. The latter category encompasses most of the human characters in “2001: A Space Odyssey”—first cavemen, then cavemen in spaceships, that legendary bone-to-orbit cut preparing us for the end sequence in which astronaut Dave Bowman evolves while gazing up in awe at the re-appeared monolith—and Ryan O’Neal as the title character of “Barry Lyndon,” a tragedy about a ridiculous and limited man who bleeds and suffers just like everyone, and is moving despite it all. 

Tom Cruise’s Dr. Bill Harford in “Eyes Wide Shut” is the second kind of Kubrick hero. He’s is a bit of a dope but takes himself absolutely seriously, never looking inward, at least not as deeply as he should. An undercurrent of film noir runs through most if not all of Kubrick’s films. His first two features, the war fable “Fear and Desire” and the boxing potboiler “Killer’s Kiss,” were stylistically rooted in noir—“Fear and Desire,” like “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket,” has terse, hardboiled narration, linking it to the most overtly noir-ish Kubrick film, his breakthrough “The Killing.” The film noir hero tends to be a smart, ambitious, horny guy who lets his horniness overwhelm his judgement. Dr. Bill is a cuckolded film noir patsy turned film noir hero, cheated upon not in fact, but in his own imagination. And, in noir hero fashion, he gets drawn into a sexual/criminal conspiracy, this one involving the procurement of young women for anonymous orgies with rich older men. He’s always one step behind the architects of the plan, whatever it is, and he's never quite smart enough or observant enough to prove he saw what he saw. 

That’s Bill, a cinematic cousin of somebody like Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity” or William Hurt in “Body Heat,” but diminished and driving himself mad, a eunuch with blueballs, prowling city streets on on the knife-edge of Christmas, constantly taunted and humiliated, his heterosexuality and masculinity, indeed his essential carnality, questioned at every turn.

The doctor’s nighttime odyssey (like “2001,” this film is indebted to Homer) kicks off after he smokes pot with his gorgeous young wife Alice (Nicole Kidman) and she confesses a momentary craving for a sailor so powerful that she briefly considered throwing away her stable life just to have him. The revelation of the intensity of his wife’s sexual craving for someone other than him (fear and desire indeed) unmoors him from his comfortable existence and sends him careening around the city, where he encounters women who all seem to represent aspects of his wife, or his reductive view of her. They even have similar hair color. And if there are men in their lives—like Sidney Pollack’s Victor Ziegler, who calls Bill to deal with a young woman who overdosed on a speedball while in his company; or Rade Serbedjia’s Millich, the pathologically controlling and jealous costume shop proprietor who accuses Bill of wanting to have sex with his teenage daughter (Leelee Sobieski)— They mirror aspects of Bill. It’s surely no coincidence that the masks worn by the orgy participants are distinguished by their prominent (erect) Bills. Bill never actually strays, though. He keeps blundering into situations where sex seems imminent, and yet he couldn’t cheat on Alice even if he wanted to. He’s too bad to be good and too good to be bad. 

It still seems amazing that Cruise, among the most controlling of modern stars, gave himself to Kubrick so completely, letting himself be cast in such a sexually fumbling, baseline-schmucky part, the sort Matthew Broderick might've played for more obvious laughs (Kubrick originally wanted Steve Martin as Bill). Cruise built his star image playing handsome, fearless, cocky, ultra-heterosexual young men who mastered whatever skill or job they'd decided to practice, be it piloting fighter jets, driving race cars, playing pool, bartending, practicing law, representing pro athletes, or being a secret agent. Offscreen, the actor was long suspected of being closeted—a rumor amplified by his hyper-controlling relationships with a succession of public-facing spouses who read, from afar, less as wives than wife-symbols—and he sued media outlets that implied he was anything other than a 100% USDA-inspected slab of lady-loving, corn-fed American beefcake (thus the infamous 2006 “South Park” “Tom won’t come out of the closet” scene). 

So it was doubly startling for 1999 audiences to watch Cruise being swatted across the screen from one cringe-inducing psychosexual horror setpiece to the next, each enjoying its own version of a hearty pirate’s laugh at the idea of Cruise playing a butch straight man who dominates every room he’s in; and to witness his onscreen humiliation by homophobic frat boys. That same year, Cruise got an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor in “Magnolia,” playing a motivational speaker who admonishes his audience of baying young men to “respect the cock, tame the cunt.”

Cruise is a smart actor with often-excellent taste in material and collaborators; it’s inconcievable that he and his then-wife Kidman would submit themselves to over a year’s worth of grueling, repetitive shoots on Kubrick’s meticulously recreated New York sets in London without understanding what they were in for, at least partially. But what’s really important, from the standpoint of Cruise’s performance, is that he never seems as if he knows that the joke is on Bill. This doesn’t seem like the performance of an actor who has decided not to play his character as self-aware (like, say, Daniel Day-Lewis in “The Last of the Mohicans,” playing a character that Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman described as seeming completely free of 20th century neuroses) but rather a not-too-self-aware actor throwing himself into every scene as if bound and determined to somehow “win” them. This is surely a vestigial leftover of the way Cruise acts in most Tom Cruise films, strutting and bobbing through scenes, getting into trouble, then smiling or talking or flying or running or acrobatting his way out. It’s a mode he can’t entirely turn off, but can only tamp down or allow to be subverted (which is what I think is happening in this movie, and in a few other against-the-grain Cruise performances). It’s as if Cruise travels the full narrative length of Kubrick’s dream trail encrusted by scholarly and journalistic and critical footnotes that have accumulated on his filmography since "Risky Business." He’s the leading man as Christmas tree, festooned with lights and baubles. 

What perfect casting/what a great performance/what’s the difference? Is there any? Maybe not. Sometimes great casting is what allows for a great performance. John Frankenheimer cast Laurence Harvey, a handsome hunk of wood, as the brainwashed assassin in the 1962 version of “The Manchurian Candidate,” and his inability to tune into his costars’ emotional wavelength works for the part; it translates as “repressed, tortured, closed off individual,” the type of guy who would be gobsmacked by an ordinary summer romance, to the point where it would constitute the core of a tragic backstory. Harvey’s inexpressiveness becomes a source of mirth when he’s put in the same frame with actors like Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, or Akim Tamiroff, who get a predatory glint in their eye when they sense the possibility of stealing a scene. They know how to mess with people and have fun doing it, and poor, friendless Harvey is an irresistible target. and when Raymond expresses delight that he was, however momentarily, “lovable,“ you can practically see the quote marks around the word, and it’s as sad as it is hilarious.

Oliver Stone pulled off something similar when he cast Cruise as Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July,” a choice that Stone later said might’ve hurt the film at the American box office because nobody wanted to see the smirking flyboy from “Top Gun” castrated by a bullet, wheeling around with a catheter in his hand, cursing his mom and Richard Nixon. The star seeming not-entirely-in on—not the “joke,” exactly, but the vision of the movie—made Kovic’s dawning self-awareness of his participation in macho right-wing propaganda all the more effective. Kovic wanted to be like the guys on the recruiting poster, and now he couldn’t stand up and salute the lies anymore, and a lot of his friends were dead, along with untold numbers of Vietnamese. Al Pacino, who was cast in an aborted version “Born” a decade earlier, might not have been as effective as Cruise overall, because while Pacino is an altogether deeper actor, he’s so closely associated with men who have no illusions about how brutal and soul-draining American life and institutions can be. (Marvelous as his performance in “Serpico” is, it doesn’t start to take off until he’s in undercover cop mode, with that beard and long hair and beatnik/hippie energy. In the early scenes where he’s clean-shaven and idealistic, you just have to take Serpico's innocence on faith, because Al Pacino would never be that naive.)

Kubrick, no slouch at casting for affect, was especially good at filling lead male roles with actors who seemed to grasp the general outline of what the director was up to without radiating profound appreciation of the philosophical and cultural nuances. Ryan O’Neal in “Barry Lyndon” somehow works despite, or because of, seeming a bit stiff and anachronistic—out of his element in a lot of ways. His anxiety-verging-on-panic at not knowing whether he’s doing a good enough job for Kubrick fits perfectly with the character’s persistent insecurity and imposter syndrome. So does the shoddy Irish accent. 

Decades later, Ben Affleck in “Gone Girl” pulled an “Eyes Wide Shut”—or maybe it’s more accurate to say that director David Fincher pulled it by casting him. “The baggage he comes with is most useful to this movie,” Fincher told Film Comment. “I was interested in him primarily because I needed someone who understood the stakes of the kind of public scrutiny that Nick is subjected to and the absurdity of trying to resist public opinion. Ben knows that, not conceptually, but by experience. When I first met with him, I said this is about a guy who gets his nuts in a vise in reel one and then the movie continues to tighten that vise for the next eight reels. And he was ready to play. It’s an easy thing for someone to say, 'Yeah, yeah, I’d love to be a part of that,' and then, on a daily basis, to ask: 'Really? Do I have to be that foolish? Do I have to step in it up to my knees?' Actors don’t like to be made the brunt of the joke. They go into acting to avoid that. Unlike comics, who are used to going face first into the ground.” 

Fincher subsequently poked fun at Affleck, in DVD narration and interview comments delivered in such a deadpan-vicious way that you couldn't tell if Fincher was venting in the guise of a put-on or doing an elaborate comedic bit. Either way, the gist was that Affleck was convincing as an untrustworthy person because he was himself untrustworthy. "He has to do these things in the foreground where he takes out his phone and looks at it and he puts it away so his sister doesn’t see it," Fincher said. "There are people who do that and it’s too pointed. But Ben is very very subtle, and there’s a kind of indirectness to the way he can do those things. Probably because he’s so duplicitous." Thus does the inherent untrustworthiness of Ben Affleck as both actor and person (according to Fincher, whether he's kidding or serious) become the framework for the entire performance's believability. This is a guy whose performance as an innocent man is judged by the media and public and immediately found lacking, and the character proves to be so much dumber than his conniving, vengeful wife that when the final scene arrives, we laugh at how inevitable it was. A more subtle, likable, deep leading man might've have ruined everything. Fincher needed a meathead who was funny and had read a few books, and who seemed to have a sixth sense for how to hide a cell phone from his sister.

This is similar to the idea of Kubrick cuckolding Cruise with an anecdote and sending him all over New York in search of satisfaction and insight that never quite, er, comes (although there’s a hint of hope in that final scene). On top of that, Affleck is an actor who is effective within a narrow range but will never be thought of as a chameleonic or particularly delicate performer—somebody who can play the subtext without overwhelming the text, or who can seamlessly integrate the two so that you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. 

That might be why Affleck disliked working with Terrence Malick, a highly improvisational filmmaker who deals in archetypes and symbols, and expects actors to devise a character while he’s devising the film that they’re in. Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt can do that; Affleck really can’t. The difference between Affleck and somebody like Pitt (or DiCaprio) is the difference between an old-fashioned square-jawed leading man-type, like Rock Hudson or Gary Cooper or Alan Ladd, who tried to stick to the words and hit the marks and color within the lines, and somebody like James Dean or Marlon Brando or Dennis Hopper, who treated every page as potential raw material for a collage they hadn’t thought up yet. That’s why Dean and Hudson played off each other so beautifully in “Giant”—Dean with his tormented Method affectations and odd expressions and voices, and Hudson playing the guy he’d been told to play, while often seeming puzzled or horrified by whatever Dean was doing opposite him, as if he’d been placed in the same room with a badger or wild boar and told “Now the two of you sit down and have a nice lunch while we film it.” 

I like to think of Cruise in “Eyes Wide Shut” as Rock Hudson turned loose in a Stanley Kubrick neo-noir dream, and not just for the obvious reasons. He’s in there angrily and desperately trying to win something that cannot be won, explain things that can’t be explained, and regain dignity that was lost a long time ago and will never come back. He keeps flashing his doctor’s ID as if he’s a detective (another film noir staple) working a case, and people indulge him not because they truly regard the ID as authority but because Bill’s intensity is just so damned odd that they aren’t sure how else to react. It’s hilarious because Bill doesn’t know how ridiculous it all is, and how ridiculous he is. He’s a movie star who lacks the movie star’s prerogative. Only by surrendering to the flow and accepting defeat can he survive. Only his wife, an awesome force unlocked in one moment, can save him. 

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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