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What came first Tom Cruise or the smile? Richard Crouse, for metro Canada 2 January 2009

valkyrie633Valkyrie looks like a standard issue Tom Cruise movie with the usual explosions, intrigue and wild action. The missing key element is his megawatt smile. His Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is so stern faced he makes the expression challenged Buster Keaton seem riotously animated by comparison.

If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships then Tom Cruise has the smile that sold a million movie tickets. Wide and toothy it stretches the full breadth of his face as a pearly-white physical manifestation of his movie star charisma. Like Jimmy Durante’s nose Cruise’s grin is his most distinctive feature and the focus of his public persona.

In the beginning it lit up his face with the optimism of a young man for whom things came easily. The smile debuted in a Risky Business scene where he recruits clients for his new business. There it was a charming non-aggressive symbol of his self-assuredness.

The eighties saw the lopsided grin become a pop culture icon. It shone from the cockpit of his Top Gun F-14, gave Paul Newman’s baby-blues a run for their money in The Color of Money and reflected off the Stoli bottles in Cocktail. In each of these films the smile is 90% of the performance.

Post-Cocktail Cruise seemed to realize that serious actors don’t have gleaming smiles. A series of tight lipped Oscar-bait performances followed—Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men and The Firm—which kept the smile under wraps.

Cameron Crowe was the first director in almost a decade to realize that the smile is Cruise’s strongest suit. In 1996’s Jerry Maguire the smile is a romantic tool, revealing both heartbreak and earnestness.

The smile’s most natural performance to date is in Magnolia. As the inspirational guru of the “Seduce and Destroy” technique Cruise handed in the best performance of his career because he understood the character’s innate charisma.

The villain characters of The Last Samurai and Collateral show the smile’s emotional range. The smile is still there, but now it’s menacing. For example Vincent, the hit man in Collateral, uses an ominously icy smile when he’s about to hurt people.

In one form-or-another the smile has been front and center in all of Cruise’s biggest hits. It’s a distinguishing mark that became a trademark and without it Valkyrie just doesn’t feel like a Tom Cruise blockbuster.

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