Tom Terrific

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$ The souped-up Chevy Lumina circles the track at North Carolina's Charlotte Motor Speedway. At the wheel is Tom Cruise, daredevil superstar. The hazel eyes that laser out of his handsome face focus on the thrill of speed and risk. Nor is this challenge confined to a roadway's hard curve; it applies as well to his career in the movies, even if it means taking dangerous curves toward roles that might confound his fans. This day, after a dozen laps, Cruise sees a dime, stops on it and emerges from the Lumina to say hello to a visitor. He extends a hand and flashes the million-dollar smile -- or, to judge from the worldwide take of his past four movies, the $1.035 billion smile. He points to the car and asks, "Want to go around?"

America wants to go around with Tom Terrific -- that's how he looks, that's how he makes moviegoers feel. They hitched a ride with him in Risky Business and made him a star at 21. They sat in the cockpit of his F-14 as he swaggered through the sky in Top Gun. They perched in a pool hall and watched him wield a cue like a master swordsman in The Color of Money. They flew to the Caribbean to join him in a frothy Cocktail. They traveled with him on a cross- country journey to fraternal reconciliation in Rain Man. And with each adventure, audiences adjusted their estimation of the young man -- from Most Likely to Succeed to All-American Dreamboat to Serious Actor worth taking seriously.

At the end of the '80s, Cruise, 27, is the movies' biggest star, with nothing but promise on the horizon. Just ask two masters he has apprenticed with: Dustin Hoffman, the decade's most lauded actor, and Paul Newman, the last golden exemplar of Hollywood star quality. "There's no sense of a crest in Tom," says Hoffman, who won an Oscar as Cruise's brother in Rain Man. "His talent is young, his body is young, his spirit is young. He's a Christmas tree -- he's lit from head to toe." Newman, who played Cruise's mentor in The Color of Money, considers the young actor's competitors and says, "Tom may be the only survivor."

What does he have that separates him from the Brat Pack? He's not as lovely as Rob Lowe. He doesn't explode, on- or off-camera, as ripely as Sean Penn. "Tom is at a disadvantage," says Barry Levinson, his Rain Man director. "He's got a pretty face, so his abilities are underestimated. And he's not working a rebel image, which is associated with being a good actor." But he does have the image, in the films that made him famous, of an intense young man with a mission: the total workhorse, the ultimate party animal. His job -- flying planes, shooting pool, mixing drinks -- is his life. And he is vulnerable as well as volatile. His thin, high voice helps him here: it locates a little boy lost in the clouds of bravado. Moviegoers may also like what they see in Cruise the man: a dedicated actor, utterly absorbed with his craft, who uses his celebrity to get better parts and get better at what he does. With each new film, he has proved he has more to offer than Ray-Ban Wayfarers and a charismatic grin.

Now Cruise has his best shot in a sprawling, squalling film on Hollywood's favorite serious subject. Born on the Fourth of July, directed by Oliver Stone (Platoon), is a Viet Nam melodrama pitched at high decibel level for 2 hr. 23 min. The movie is a jeremiad not just against the war but also against the cultural authorities who encouraged it from the pulpit, the blackboard, the dining-room table and the movie screen. This is an anti-Hollywood movie too; everything that was terrific in, say, Top Gun -- the war, the sex, the male bonding -- is found to be toxic here. It is also a one-character story whose lead actor must grow and shrivel, rage and endure in every scene. And Cruise pulls it off. He carries the film heroically, like a soldier bearing a wounded comrade across a battlefield. He is the very best thing in a very big picture.

Born on the Fourth of July is the true story of Ron Kovic, a kid from Long Island, N.Y., who got his spine shattered in Viet Nam. Back home he became bitter, questioning his old values of family and patriotism, before convincing himself he could best serve his country as a squad leader in the war against the war. This morality play could be a turnoff if it weren't for Cruise's presence. Says Tom Pollock, head of Universal Pictures, the film's patron: "Tom Cruise is all America's all-American boy. The film's journey is more powerful when it is made by the maverick from Top Gun. It's not only Ron who goes through this wrenching story, it is Tom Cruise -- our perception of Tom Cruise."

Casting against type, of course, can lead to a miscast movie. But Cruise jumped at the dare. "I demand a lot of myself," he says. "I want to learn. I can't sit back. I like a challenge, so I create a lot of challenges for myself." For the actor, many of his films provide the perk of being able to test himself, master a new skill. He flew in Navy jets before making Top Gun. He played serious pool for eight weeks before The Color of Money. For Cocktail he tended bar in Manhattan. He plays a race-car driver in his next movie, Days of Thunder, a spin-off from Cruise's latest perilous hobby. But for Born on the Fourth of July he faced a different challenge: spending almost a year sporadically in a wheelchair, as Ron Kovic.

Stone, who planned the movie for more than a decade, was ready to do battle too. "Tom has the classical facial structure of an athlete, a baseball player," he says. "He's a kid off a Wheaties box. I wanted to yank the kid off that box and mess with his image -- take him to the dark side." So the kid goes off to war and sees a slaughtered Vietnamese family. In the chaos of a skirmish, he kills one of his own men. Paralyzed from the chest down, he finds his sex life over before it begins. In horrifying rants, he abuses his parents, his country and himself. This Ron is not a nice person or even, in his hippie garb, a nice-looking one. Moviegoers who expect to find the best of America in Cruise's face will instead discover a haunting mug shot of the nation's Viet Nam nightmare.

The film spans two decades, beginning on July 4, 1956. Ron Kovic's tenth birthday is the U.S.'s 180th, and his hometown of Massapequa, N.Y., is parading its patriotism down Main Street. Disabled veterans are wheeled out, including one (played by the real Kovic, co-author of the film's screenplay) who flinches at the sound of a firecracker. It must remind him of a war that demands elegies. But young Ron -- too busy watching skyrockets that night to pay attention to a first kiss from his precocious friend Donna -- sees organized gunplay as the short road to manly glory.

Ron knows only what he has been taught: by his family's suffocatingly pious Catholicism, by the suave belligerence of President Kennedy's Inaugural Address, by his drill sergeant of a high school wrestling coach, by the Marine recruiter looking for a few good men. Men! Ron wants to be one of them, in the nifty new theater called Viet Nam. He hardly has time for a dance at the senior prom -- just a promise of sexual pleasures with sweet Donna (Kyra Sedgwick), deferred till after he has done his duty. After he finds his manhood.

Instead of finding it, he loses it, and so much else: his unexamined ideals, his blinkered innocence, his respect for those who still believe the lies that nurtured him. Ron would give up all those values just to be whole again. The film spends only 17 minutes in Viet Nam, but the war overshadows all that precedes and follows it.

Here, the disasters of war are at home. The Bronx veterans' hospital where Ron is sent to recuperate is an open sewer teeming with rats, drugs and whores. Back in Massapequa, Ron is now the flinching veteran used as a prop for patriotism, and family life is a ceaseless, sickening debate about the war. Even in Mexico, at a kind of seraglio for impotent veterans, he finds little sympathy among his own crippled kind. He looks into the angry face of his buddy Charlie (Willem Dafoe) and finds a mirror of his own grotesque despair. He has hit bottom.

For Ron, regeneration is painful and partial. He never, in the film, reconciles with his parents; there is no fade-out kiss with Donna. His conscience has more urgent needs. To expiate the guilt of killing a fellow soldier, he must confess to the boy's family. To purge his horror of the village massacre, he must speak out against the war. He infiltrates the 1972 Republican Convention in Miami Beach and gets on TV. When a security guard dumps Ron out of his wheelchair, he fights back with a Marine's heedless bravery. "We're gonna take the hall back!" he cries to his troops. "Fall out! Let's move!"

Whereas Platoon had news value, Born on the Fourth of July tells a familiar story; it wants to teach us what we already know. The movie's uniqueness is in its tone. Stone plays director as if he were at a cathedral organ with all the stops out. Each scene, whether it means to elegize or horrify, is unrelenting, unmodulated, rabid with its own righteousness. And yet, frequently, the crazy machine works because of its voluptuous imagery. When Ron is wounded in Viet Nam, he collapses backward, and from his mouth a stream of blood spurts like the fountain of lost youth. The hospital sequence is an insider's tour of hell, and the Mexican brothel is an endless emotional purgatory.

Stone's canniest directorial decision was to choose Cruise. The actor remakes himself in the film, trashing preconceptions, showing a range that astonishes. Ron's furious arguments with his family become primal screams of frustrated love. In the Mexican scenes, where Ron meets a prostitute who treats him gently, Cruise's tearful face expresses wonderfully conflicting feelings of joy and fear, peace and release. He makes sense of the story even when the movie doesn't. No wonder that at the end of the filming, Kovic gave | Cruise his Bronze Star. "He gave it to Tom for bravery," Stone says, "for having gone through this experience in hell as much as any person can without actually having been there." The presentation was made for the actor's 27th birthday.

Thomas Cruise Mapother IV was born on the third of July, 1962, the third child of Mary Lee and Thomas Cruise Mapother III, an electrical engineer. Cruise has three sisters: Lee Anne, 30; Cass, 26; and Marian, 28. Dad had to follow the work, and the family followed Dad; young Tommy attended a dozen schools before he was twelve. Cruise learned to adapt. "I'd assume the role of what I thought kids were, what I thought was In. Sports was one way of fitting in. But I was never Mr. All-Star Athlete. It was something that got me out, as opposed to staying home and reading a book. Which I didn't understand anyway."

Tom had dyslexia, a reading disability that bred frustration and a poor school record. "I didn't have any tools to study with," he says. "I didn't know what studying was." A grind for perfection, Cruise today often carries a dictionary so he can look up unfamiliar words. "He comes into my office," says Top Gun co-producer Don Simpson, "and goes over my stack of books, taking notes. Last night he used the word plethora. Two years ago, he didn't know the word."

In 1975 the Mapother family faced a plethora of problems. The parents divorced, and Mary Lee moved her children to Louisville. Tom missed his dad, but says, "My father was not a guy to go out and hit baseballs to me. It was my mother who took me to my first ball game." In 1984 Cruise's father died of cancer. He had never seen any of his son's films. Though there was no reconciliation, Tom's father finally acknowledged his domestic mistakes. An edge of anger creeps into Cruise's voice: "But he never said it to me."

In Louisville, Mary Lee rallied the children. As Lee Anne recalls, her mother said, "O.K., things have changed. This is the new game plan." With no child support available, Mary Lee juggled three jobs, and the children earned money too -- especially Tom, then twelve. "All of a sudden, I was the guy," he says. "I grew very protective of my family." Cruise remembers the first Christmas without his father: "There wasn't any money for presents. So we picked names out of a hat and did something special for that person. You would find a flower on your bed. Or you'd come in to find your bed made. We also wrote poems to each other telling what we did."

The Mapother home was now largely a tight sorority in which Tom served as father, brother and friend. "Having grown up with women, I trust and believe them more than men," he says. "I love women. I love the way they smell." Today Cruise is just as close to Mary Lee and his sisters, who are frequent visitors to his sets. This month in Charlotte, when Lee Anne's two-year-old was injured in a hotel door, Tom rushed to the rescue, stayed with the child as the doctors stitched the wound, jollying him in recovery, being a great uncle -- perhaps because Cruise missed having a great dad.

By 17, Tom had attended three high schools and studied for a year at a Franciscan seminary, where his desire to become a priest eventually gave way before his love of women. By his senior year he was in Glen Ridge, N.J., where a knee injury dislodged him from the school wrestling team. He was miserable. Then he auditioned for the Nathan Detroit role in Guys and Dolls and got the part. "It was the first thing in my life for a long, long time that I felt excited about," Cruise says. He announced to his family that he was going to be an actor. Within a year he had a movie part.

At first he was vibrant local color, one of the beautiful faces, a hunk for hire. Fast-forward through an early Cruise movie, and you will find him in the corner of the frame, a winsome thing in love with his body, exuding the jock wholesomeness of a baby Christopher Reeve. Superboy. Dozens of such sleek stud puppies pass through Hollywood every year, and in Endless Love (1981) and The Outsiders (1982), Cruise had the chance to scope out his competition: Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, James Spader, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, C. Thomas Howell. Usually boy toys come and go without attracting much more than vagrant pubescent lust. There is little job security in being this week's pinup on the bedroom wall of American girlhood.

Some teen dreams become stars; a few become actors. In one early role, Cruise showed he had the capacity for both. In Taps (1981), where he was up against Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn, he played a military-school cadet who goes picturesquely bonkers and is killed by the National Guard. "It's beautiful, man! Beautiful!" he shouts as he sprays the quad with an orgasm of machine-gun fire. In his first significant film of the '80s, as in his last, Cruise was the gung-ho soldier boy, his body destroyed in the fantasy of combat.

| For a young actor in the early '80s there was plenty of roles, but mostly in the tits-and-zits teenpix that emulated Porky's. Cruise did time in a dim comedy, Losin' It (1982), about some lads who visit Tijuana to mislay their virginity; he played the sensitive one. From its plot synopsis, Risky Business (1983) promised more of the lame same. An affluent high school senior has an affair with a hooker (Rebecca de Mornay), dunks the family Porsche in Lake Michigan, turns his house into a brothel and still gets into Princeton. Sounds like the Reagan era in miniature. But there was wit in Paul Brickman's script and swank in his camera style. For Cruise, there was more. As soon as he tore into an air-guitar rendition of Bob Seger's Old Time Rock 'n' Roll, in his Oxford-cloth shirt, B.V.D.s and socks, pop magnetism burst out of its suburban shell, and a star was born.

"My best work comes when I'm really communicating with the director," Cruise says, "and I work great with Brickman." Brickman praises Cruise's ability "to play innocence and heat back to back. When he read for the part, he stopped himself halfway through, said, 'Wait, I think I can go in this direction,' and started over again. That was a courageous thing for a 19-year- old to do, but Tom is a courageous guy. He's got a will for excellence."

Cruise's next picture, All the Right Moves (1983), was an earnest, working- class remake of Risky Business. This time he was a steel-town senior whose only hope for a college scholarship was through football stardom. But this was no chic adolescent fantasy, just a drab ring around the blue collar, and suddenly Cruise had lost the big mo he earned with Risky Business. It would take time to win it back. Legend (1986), which he spent a year shooting in London, didn't help. Ridley Scott's airless fable had too much fairy glamour and no breathing room for an intense, American-style actor. As the peasant boy Jack, Cruise gets to decapitate goblins, but he looks stranded amid the special effects. The movie made him hide from his own smartest instincts.

Top Gun (1986), directed by Ridley's brother Tony, had enough smarts to cadge $350 million. Enthralling and deplorable by turns, this tale of hot rodders in the sky limns a life of quick thrills. Cruise's Pete ("Maverick") Mitchell is a Navy buzzboy who fills his downtime with volleyball, partying and swell sex. But Maverick is truly juiced up in his F-14, where sex and sport fuse into career and patriotism, where an ace can wage a Nintendo war with death as the penalty. "Your ego is writing checks your body can't cash," an instructor warns him. In Top Gun, though, death happens only to supporting players, and advice is something only a wimp would heed.

Give Cruise this: he takes suicidal militarism and makes it affably sexy. He stares at you, murmurs, "That's right, I am dangerous," and zaps a grin that tells you how much fun he expects to have mowing your butt. Maverick is the master of machismo, his talent nearly matching his arrogance. He needs only to learn the elements of style. Top Gun shares Cruise's grinning, winning style; it says that Maverick and his kin are a better breed. The picture cashed its checks on the actor's body. So did the Navy, which set up booths outside theaters. But with its climactic dogfight against Soviet MiGs over the Indian Ocean, Top Gun also caught flak for being a sort of recruitment poster for World War III.

Cruise defuses the criticism. "It was a nice E-ticket ride," he says, "a simple movie, but involving. These guys risk their lives every time they go flying. It's tremendous fun and requires a lot of intelligence and skill." He is impressed with those who master any dangerous, complex craft, and if offered the chance, he is determined to match them at it. Producer Simpson recalls taking Cruise, who was not yet committed to the project, for his first ride in an F-14: "When he hit the ground, he said, 'I'm in.' "

Top Gun proved that Cruise could carry the right picture by himself. In The Color of Money he would see if he could stand up to a movie icon, Paul Newman, under the gaze of a world-class filmmaker, Martin Scorsese. Newman is Eddie Felson, the pool sharp he played 25 years earlier in The Hustler, and Cruise is Vincent Lauria, a comer in the art of nine ball. The movie describes two different styles of performance and personality. The old kind was grace without sweat: the whole point of Astaire's dancing, Sinatra's singing or Bogart's acting was to make hard work look easy. The new style (Gene Kelly, Elvis, Brando and all their successors in the Pop arts) was manic, sexy, a brilliant workout for the ego.

So Vincent pokes his dexterity in every side pocket while Eddie sits nearby, coiled, worldly, wise, a little affronted at the younger man's blazing cheek. This raw kid is the color of money -- green -- but at his best he radiates in- your-face star power. One sensational shot at the pool table reveals Cruise high on his own showy excellence, whooping, dervishing, twirling his pool cue like a kendo master: Luke Skystrutter. The force is with Vincent. And with Cruise.

When Eddie first spots Vincent's gift with the stick, his eyes light up. Newman might have felt the same when he noticed Cruise's determination. "He's prepared to hang himself on a meat hook," Newman observes. "He'll hang himself out to dry to seek something. He's not afraid of looking like a ninny. He doesn't protect himself or his ego. And he's a wonderful experimenter." Of course, like any actor, says Newman, "when the material is poor, he falls back on his successful mannerisms: the happy kitten. I don't know that he's a great mathematician or a theoretical physicist, but he has what he needs to be a good actor." A good student too. With Newman's encouragement, Cruise took up racing and fell in love with the sport. For a while he even drove for one of Newman's teams.

His next significant project, Rain Man, took years to get going. As a kind of vacation from responsibility, he made Cocktail, a shrewd, soulless marketing of the Cruise charisma. The star tries hard to appear engaged by the story of a young bartender seduced and frazzled by Manhattan chic. But he is just beefcake hanging in the window: smile, flirt with the ladies, shake your booty. "I tried to sell out to you," he tells a rich girlfriend, "but I couldn't close the deal." With Cocktail, Cruise closed the deal. This empty decanter grossed $175 million.

Rain Man was the third consecutive film in which Cruise played a character who could be described as the cool jerk. Charlie Babbitt is a slick salesman whose estrangement from his father has cut him off from most human contact. Emotionally, he is as autistic as his brother Raymond (Hoffman). But Cruise made character sense out of Charlie and held his own against Hoffman's brilliant stunt of a performance. "Tom's a moment-to-moment actor," Hoffman says. "He's there in the moment. He doesn't have an intellectual idea of what he wants to do -- he's coming off his gut, and that makes him a pleasure to play Ping-Pong with. I started out being his mentor. But by the end Tom was as much directing me as I was directing him."

In Born on the Fourth of July, Cruise had no Hoffman to play actor's Ping- Pong with. In front of the camera, he was on his own. Behind it, he would be led by two Viet Nam vets, Stone and Kovic. "I chose Tom," Stone says, % "because he was the closest to Ron Kovic in spirit. I sensed that they came from the same working-class Catholic background and had a similarly troubled family history. They certainly had the same drive, the same hunger to achieve, to be the best, to prove something. Like Ron too, Tom is wound real tight. And what's wrong with that?"

Throughout, Stone kept winding Cruise tighter. "I put a lot of pressure on Tom," he says, "maybe too much. I wanted him to read more, visit more hospitals. I wanted him to spend time in that chair, to really feel it. He went to boot camp twice, and I didn't want his foxhole dug by his cousin. At one point I talked him into injecting himself with a solution that would have totally paralyzed him for two days. Then the insurance company -- the killer of all experience -- said no because there was a slight chance that Tom would have ended up permanently paralyzed. But the point is, he was willing to do it."

Cruise was willing to do anything for the picture; he tabled his usual multimillion-dollar salary, and will earn no money until the box office sends some back. He spent hours with Kovic, peppering the vet with questions, soaking up the man's life. In matching wheelchairs, the two men would go shopping; Cruise was rarely recognized. In a Westwood, Calif., electronics store, he was asked to leave because his wheels were leaving marks on the rubber carpet. "He was furious," recalls Kovic. "Everyone in the store turned and looked at him when he shouted, 'I have as much right to be in this store as everyone else!' "

They shot for 65 exhausting, twelve-hour days (on a slim budget of $17.8 million), and Cruise would not trade a day of it. "At the beginning I thought, 'Oh, man, I just don't want to blow this. Every day I am going to give it everything I have. In the Philippines, where we shot the Viet Nam stuff, I was thinking, 'I don't know how it's going to be, but all I know is, I have got absolutely nothing left.' I was burned out. Burned out. But when I think back to the happiest moments in my life, I think of when we finished Born on the Fourth of July. You're looking down from the mountain and saying, 'Jesus, I had no idea it was this big.' I love that feeling of conclusion, accomplishment, overcoming obstacles."

One obstacle a married movie star must overcome is the time he spends away from his wife. (Another annoyance is tabloid tales of imminent splitsville, and Cruise has heard those too.) But Cruise and his wife, actress Mimi Rogers | (Someone to Watch Over Me), spend as much time together as possible in their New York City apartment and visit each other when they are filming in far-flung locations. Cruise says it helps to have a wife in the business: "It's like trying to explain how driving a race car feels. You can't do it. They've got to get in the car themselves. I need someone to understand what I'm doing, so I get good input, so I'm not in it alone." But Rogers, 34, is also, obviously, another crucial woman in Cruise's family. "The most important thing for me," he says, "is I want Mimi to be happy."

They do well separately and do good together. Cruise and Rogers serve on the board of the Earth Communications Office, an entertainment-industr y organization that promotes environmental causes. The two visited a Brazilian rain forest this year. At home they limit the water pressure in their sinks and toilets. On a cable-TV cartoon series, Captain Planet, Cruise lends his voice to ecologically sound Captain Planet. Says Bonnie Reiss of ECO: "Isn't this guy too good to be true? He loves animals, children, people. And he's gorgeous, O.K.? I mean, please."

Rogers has been with Cruise in Charlotte on the speedway set of Days of Thunder. She is there as Tom Terrific, his solid frame wrapped in a white racing suit with black and red stripes, steps into the chartreuse-and-yellow Lumina. He carries his celebrity gracefully, as if he knows he'll have it for a long time. "I'm just happier now than I've ever been in my life," he says softly. On the fast track of responsible stardom, he just keeps cruising along.