time cover baby boomers at 40

There’s a new book, previewed in Grantland (they do book excerpts?), called “Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor.” It’s not the first or last book about Tom Cruise. Movie stars on his level get publishers pumping their printing presses. What’s missing – what I want to suggest here in just 1500 quick words – is a book, or even a good Esquire article, about the era of Cruise’s stardom, a two-decade-long stretch when Hollywood’s scripts rotated around a certain kind of smiling, vulnerable man and star. Call it the Tom-Mel-Tom-Bruce Era.

Living through the era, most of us didn’t really know how good we had it. In some ways, it was a throwback to an earlier era of Cary Grants and Jimmy Stewarts and Humphrey Bogarts; in other ways, it represented life as it could only make sense at the end of the 20th century. Now that it’s over, we don’t have real movie stars anymore. We have brands, we have fantasy figures, but we don’t have top-of-the-A-list stars acting like adults on screen. (If Robert Downey Jr. is our biggest star, where are his non-Iron Man movies? What happened to Johnny Depp making more Finding Neverlands?) We also have more diversity in every way; we now have a YouTube-driven democratization of culture where the very idea of a megastar seems a little too idol-worshiping. At risk of idolatry, we do owe ourselves a little look back at our mentality for 20 years.

The Tom-Mel-Tom-Bruce Era began in May 1986, when Time’s cover announced: “The Baby Boomers Turn 40.” The big 4-0 is always a wake-up call, something along the lines of: “Wait, we’ve done all this stuff, and it wasn’t even the stuff we most wanted to do?! What were we thinking?!” As white male stars go (the only imaginable kind of top star, then), no one represented what-were-we-thinking more than John Travolta and his director for Stayin’ Alive (1983), Sylvester Stallone. Coming directly after the supernovas that were the first two Godfather films and the wonders that were early Pacino and DeNiro, America wanted and needed the lower-class Italian underdog films Rocky (1976) and Saturday Night Fever (1977), still the two best examples of their sub-genre of the million-to-one-shot kid from nowhere. Somehow, by the time Reagan got re-elected, the bloom was off those roses. Travolta’s Perfect (1985) was anything but. Stallone actually had two of 1985’s three biggest hits, Rambo and Rocky IV (and presaged the current branding/franchise era), but the effect was like a binging; words like “cheesy” and “meathead” and “plastic” were being applied to the Travoltas and Stallones too often. The baby boomers were 40 now! Time to grow up or at least grow more interesting.

On paper, coming off of Rambo and Rocky, Cobra should have been the top movie released in May 1986, but instead that honor belonged to Top Gun, which you might not think of as a step toward less cheese. Yet the Hard Bodies era, as Susan Jeffords memorably named it, was slowly shifting by 1986, toward less invulnerability and more of “your mouth is writing checks your body can’t cash.” We sense a desperation from Cruise as Maverick that we never got from 80s-model Travolta, Stallone, Charles Bronson, and peers. So came three summers of the action star rebooted for vulnerability, including Lethal Weapon in 1987 and Die Hard in 1988. We knew Mel Gibson had a sensitive side because of Mrs. Soffel and The River (both 1984); we knew Bruce Willis had a three-dimensional persona because of “Moonlighting.” Now the boomers were getting the avatars they really wanted, with more humor than DeNiro, and more obvious acting talent than the Hard Bodies. Cruise could have made Top Gun 2 any old time he felt like it, but he was more interested in his (in)sensitive side in films like Rain Man (1988) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Cruise both echoed and stimulated the rise of the sensitive star, as personified by the suddenly hot Robin Williams, Kevin Costner, and Tom Hanks (in Big (1988) he both grew up and became more interesting). These weren’t men that you pictured using guns to solve problems (though yes, they did, in some films); these men overcame obstacles by baring their souls as much or more than their chests. And however you may regard them now, Gibson and Willis looked to be joining them with their 1990 projects (however ill-fated) Hamlet and The Bonfire of the Vanities.

While older figures like Hoffman, Nicholson, Pacino and DeNiro mostly existed in their own rarefied tailor-made auteurish projects, the boomer rearguard that had the most to lose in the dawning Tom-Mel-Tom-Bruce era were Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas. Not naturally given to joking or comeuppances, they offered man’s-man, whiskey-drinking layering onto melodramas about modern problems. Douglas in particular was the persona of the zeitgeist in films like Fatal Attraction, Wall Street, Black Rain, Basic Instinct, and Falling Down. But they seemed grouchy, angry over nothing. It bears saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger was at least as big a star as any of these people during this period. Action movies never went away. But Arnold projects were just that – no one else could have made Twins, Kindergarten Cop, or Terminator 2. Hollywood writers needed a template, a type of star actor to whom they could pitch most of their scripts. For nearly 20 years, that person was basically Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks, and/or Bruce Willis. That matters because every film was either made with them or made in spite of them saying no. Thus we got the great Denzel Washington, but we didn’t get stars who weren’t obvious second choices to the Tom-Mel-Tom-Bruce cabal. In 100 years, when our descendants wonder how we saw ourselves, we will have to own up to two decades of seeing ourselves as either Tom, Mel, Tom, or Bruce – at least 10 years longer than we saw ourselves as either John, Paul, George, or Ringo.

The Tom-Mel-Tom-Bruce era is better understood if cut in half, because the coming of Will Smith in 1996-97 really changed it. Bye-bye, Arnold, Michael, Harrison, Kevin, Robin; there just wasn’t room for them near the top anymore. Will Smith was the first Generation X movie superstar, and as the boomers had feared, he was funnier, more naturally active on screen, and of course non-white. Smith paved the way for all the GenX stars that came after him, but in the meantime, Tom, Mel, Tom and Bruce still had nearly ten years of gas left in the tank. How else to explain adult drama hits – unimaginable today – from 1999-2001 like The Sixth Sense, What Women Want, Vanilla Sky, and Cast Away?

Though a longer article would say more about cultural context and boomer aging and the evolution of America’s self-image, let me finish this sketch by fast forwarding to the primary reason for the end of the Tom-Mel-Tom-Bruce era. As with the start, in 1986-88, it happened over a range of two years, but in this case there was one commonality: religion. Perhaps appropriately for boomers now entering the gloaming stages of life, audiences didn’t like how Tom, Mel, Tom and Bruce came to God, or at least their approaches left their audiences divided. First The Passion of the Christ (2004) sparked a lot of opposing passions, including a memorable “South Park” showing Mel Gibson crazy enough to poop all over his house. Bruce Willis offended some by fronting Sin City (2005), about the sins of wastrel hot teenagers, while dating such a teen, Lindsey Lohan. Tom Cruise, as you may have heard, jumped on Oprah’s couch in May 2005, and with the rumors that he had a scientology “information booth” on War of the Worlds (2005), Americans began to see him as Germans long had – too weirdly religious. Tom Hanks, more like Willis, erred by not being religious enough (at least for his more devout Forrest Gump-Green Mile fans) when he signed up to front The Da Vinci Code (2006). Sure, it made money, but it was his last big hit, partly because of the lingering impression of trying to debunk Christianity.

The end of the Tom-Mel-Tom-Bruce era was also part of the rise of YouTube, Facebook, Web 2.0, internet snark, and a DIY culture that was less reflexively white-man-loving, that didn’t really need megastars, and that relied on superhero/fantasy films when it wanted to engage adult themes. (Sigh.) In a way, it’s nice that we don’t need them anymore, just like we don’t need the Beatles. On the other hand, they were often terrific, and we could have done a lot worse. Thanks boys.