The Great Tom Cruise Debate: Movie Star Or Madman?

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Any closet Tom Cruise fans out there? Come out, it's OK! I'll admit: I am a believer in the star power of the Greatest Movie Star Of All Time. My debate partner — Daniel Holloway, national news editor at Back Stage — thinks he sucks, even going so far as to proclaim: “Maverick is dead.”

Fighting words! Our arguments, below:

Erin: Tom Cruise lacks his sex appeal of yore but he is still a screen god. If I had to select any actor, past or present, as the Ultimate Movie Star Of All Time, it would be Tom Cruise. His looks are average, his voice a tad annoying, his height lacking – but somehow it all adds up to a strange charisma that very few stars have been able to match. (On equal par with Tom: Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington). Prior to the couch-jumping episode that revealed him to be crazypants, Tom's appeal transcended genders – women wanted him, men wanted to be him. Hello, Top Gun? Jerry Maguire? Even that cloying Irish immigrant drama with Nicole Kidman? EN FUEGO. Then he dropped Nicole, gained a pretty new wife and seemingly went kuckoo; our image of him was shattered. Or so we thought.

Since his 2005 mental breakdown, Tom has steadily worked to regain our respect: He has proved a doting father to his three kids. That he can also roll with the punches and be funny in unexpected roles (Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder). He later reprised Len in a cameo at the MTV Movie Awards — a moment more shocking and original that any girl-on-girl kiss Sandra Bullock and ScarJo could conjure up. And he sends up his batty persona in the enjoyable new action romance Knight And Day, playing a rogue agent with Tom-esque manic energy and calm delivery (two qualities he displayed in those somewhat chilling Scientology videos).

And: He has never forgotten his fans. At opening night for Katie Holmes‘ recent Broadway debut in All My Sons, Tom greeted starstruck audience members instead of disappearing backstage. I was covering the event for the AP, and desperately needed a Tom quote but couldn't reach him amid the swarm of fans. Finally, I caught him on his way out of the theater. I shouted, “HEY TOM! WHAT DID YOU THINK?” And he turned around, looked me square in the eyes and responded, “Did you see it? …. Did you see it? … What did YOU think? It was extraordinary.”

Suddenly, I was a fan all over again.

Daniel: “Prior to the couch-jumping episode that revealed him to be crazypants, Tom's appeal transcended genders-women wanted him, men wanted to be him.”

Oh, if only. It's nice to believe that before he tested Oprah‘s couch springs that fateful spring day in 2005, Tom Cruise was still Tom Cruise – the guy who learned that the human head weighs eight pounds, who buzzed the tower over Goose's protestations, who gave Rebecca De Mornay the business on a moving subway train. It would also be nice believe that MacGruber had never been made. But we don't live in that kind of world. We live in a world of hard realities.

Long before he saw the crazy train pull into the station and thought, “I should get on that,” Tom Cruise was well on his way to irrelevancy. As a movie star, he peaked in 1996 with Jerry Maguire. As an actor the high point came three years later with Magnolia. (It's easy to forget that Cruise is an actor, as he's spent most of his career playing versions of himself: Tom Cruise drives a racecar; Tom Cruise has a retarded older brother, etc.) Everything since has been crap. The two Mission:Impossible sequels? Crap. The Spielberg sci-fi flicks? Crap. The Nazi thing? Oh, sweet Jesus, the Nazi thing.

It would be nice if Knight and Day turned out to be a hit – not just because it would mark a comeback for Cruise, but because it's the only movie this summer not based on an '80s TV. (Coming soon: Too Close for Comfort: 3D with Shia LaBeouf as Monroe.) But that's not going to happen. The movie is tracking terribly, and the reviews have made The A-Team look like a critical darling. Poor Roger Ebert probably still sees CGI bulls when he closes his eyes. Like Roger Ebert needs any more problems.

I too saw Cruise in the flesh not long ago. It was last year at the Friars Club Roast for Matt Lauer. Cruise had previously engaged in a typically Cruiseian — meaning bizarre and confrontational — interview with poor Lauer. Because there is nothing famous people love more than a meta joke (see Grossman, Les), Cruise showed up at Lauer's big day and flung a few gentle barbs at the Today host. Cute. Everybody laughed. Then, as Cruise hustled to the exit, Al Roker said something about a spaceship being double parked. You could feel the room grow cold.

Tom Cruise, no matter how many self-deprecating cameos he makes, not matter how much he lets Ben Stiller write for him, no matter how many adorable alien starseed children he has with Katie Holmes, will never be Tom Cruise again. Maverick is dead. All he'll ever be to us now is a guy who double parks his spaceship.

BURN. What do you think: Are you on Team Tom Is Awesome or Team Tom Is Crazypants?