- YEAR: 1986
- DIRECTOR: Tony Scott
- KEY ACTORS: Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, Val Kilmer
- CERTIFICATE: 12A
- IMDB SCORE: 6.9
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 54%
SEX SCORE: 3/5
✔️ Is it rewatchable? What a question – of course it’s fucking rewatchable!!
✔️ And of course I want to fuck the cast! Maverick, Goose, probably Ice Man and Viper…the flight suit/aviator look is cliched now but it’s a cliche for a reason!
✔️ I think it also did inspire fantasies. Not so much of fucking a pilot but of fucking 1986 Tom Cruise!
❌ But it doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test. The only two female characters are Charlie and Mrs Goose (who is called Carole but I had to look it up) and while they do share one scene, they don’t say a word to each other.
❌ And it’s not sex positive. Too much sexual harassment is treated as a joke!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Sky Cinema (free with subscription), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £5.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
Following on from my Disney Princess series, this is the first installment of another intermittent series looking at Movie Stars – specific people and the sexy or feminist movies that they have made. As you’ll know from the recent vote, I will be choosing four movies that I think exemplify that star and leave it to you all to choose which one is the focus, but my post will also include a few of my thoughts on the star themselves, their career, and whether or not I had/have a crush on them!
And, of course, I had to start with Tom Cruise, perhaps the ultimate movie star. Born in 1962 as Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, Wikipedia have him listed as one of the highest paid actors in the world and one of the highest grossing box-office stars of all time. He has been nominated for three Oscars (Best Actor for Born on the Fourth of July and Jerry Maguire, and Best Supporting Actor for Magnolia) but, sadly, has never won. Famously, he is a Scientologist and incredibly, intensely committed to acting, performing most of his own stunts even when they’re barking mad and completing a shot for a Mission Impossible film despite breaking his ankle. He has been making movies since the early 1980s and I can’t imagine there are many people that don’t enjoy any of his films. The Rewatchables podcasters often talk about impressive movie runs – as an example, Tom Hanks’s early 90s filmography from Sleepless in Seattle in 1993 to Toy Story in 1995 includes two Best Actor Oscar wins among some cracking box office successes- but I love literally every movie that Cruise made from 1985 to 1996: Legend, Top Gun, The Colour of Money, Cocktail, Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Days of Thunder, Far and Away (OK, I admit that this is a stretch but still!), A Few Good Men, The Firm, Interview with a Vampire, Mission: Impossible and finally Jerry Maguire. What a decade. What a fucking legend!
At the time of posting this, I’ve only written about one Tom Cruise movie – Eyes Wide Shut – but he is definitely someone who I intend to write a lot more about. My poll could have been twice as long and, if this blog continues for long enough, I expect I’ll write about each one of them and probably more. I am fascinated by Tom Cruise. Fascinated by how brilliant an actor he is in his early career and how slick a movie star he is later on. As I wrote before, I blame Kubrick and the failure of Eyes Wide Shut for that particular transformation and it shows in his filmography – I can’t imagine Cruise even being nominated for an Oscar now but I equally cannot understand why he didn’t win before.
He was also my first contemporary movie star crush. I saw Mission: Impossible as soon as it was released on video in 1996 and thought that it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I simply could not take my eyes off Cruise. It prompted me to go back and watch Top Gun and Risky Business and other earlier films, and I was sold. I loved him in uniform in A Few Good Men. I loved him as a cocky racing driver and a cocky cocktail waiter and a cocky pool player and a cocky…you get the idea. I even loved him in a dodgy blonde wig as a queer vampire. During that pre-internet time, I didn’t read movie magazines or reviews and wasn’t that involved in celebrity culture so had no idea about who he was outside of movies; I simply thought he was beautiful and I loved him.
But those details are now impossible to ignore and, while his looks haven’t yet really gone – like most people who present as men, Cruise has almost got better looking as he has aged – his specifically sexual appeal has definitely fallen away. If he ever really had any at all. Cruise is just so unsexual now. He’s like some sort of android or alien; someone who knows what he needs to do to be accepted in human society but can’t quite get it right. The Rewatchables team (god, I love that podcast) often mock Cruise for looking like someone acting drunk or acting sexy having never actually experienced it, and Cruise increasingly acts like a man who hasn’t experienced much of real life at all and is just pretending so no one notices how weird he really is. His weirdness has become such a part of his identity that Hadley Freeman in 2012 wondered if he has simply taken over from Michael Jackson as the biggest celebrity weirdo, claiming that ‘he is the man who, most have decided, lives a life far weirder than anything anyone can say and so anyone can say anything.’ Whatever it is, the jig is up Cruise. Be who you were made to be and we’ll still come to your movies!
Unfortunately, Cruise’s complete lack of sexual chemistry with his co-stars – including his ex-wife – has meant that he has been surrounded by rumours that he is not the heterosexual alpha male that he would like to be. The rumours are so persistent that he has had to take legal action to quash and disprove them, successfully suing men claiming to have had affairs with him and newspaper articles claiming his marriage to Kidman was a sham. Now, I don’t know or care about the truth of his sexuality – obviously Cruise is allowed his privacy and everyone is allowed to choose when they come out, but I would be sad for him if he has lived a lie now for over 30 years – but I do find it extraordinary that someone who is undoubtedly a brilliant actor can be so bad at faking it!
So my crush on Tom Cruise hasn’t stood the test of time, or even really proper exposure to his work, but I do still remember the power of his smile in the 1990s and how it was still playful rather than kind of creepy. I remember watching the sweat on his skin in every scene in Top Gun. I remember how his arms in Mission: Impossible made 11 year old me feel and how disappointed I was with his longer hair in the sequel. I remember watching Vanilla Sky and not caring that I didn’t understand the plot because Cruise was so handsome and presenting such a perfect idea of a beautiful relationship (and yes, I’ve watched the movie since and realised that that is the whole point!). And I will never be sad to rewatch any of his movies. Well, any of the pre-2000 ones anyway!
And the king of the pre-2000 movies has to be Top Gun so I really wasn’t surprised that it was chosen for my Cruise deepdive. I LOVE this movie! I would happily watch it every week and cackle wildly at nearly every line, quoting most of them. I know the script so well that when I was living in Paris, I sat through a French dubbed version at an outdoor cinema and still laughed at all my favourite lines, even though my French was too poor to actually understand a word. It’s also a perfect example of an early Cruise movie and shows off the pattern that recurs in, well, all of them.
Cruise plays a young fighter pilot/
cocktail waiter/racing driver who has incredible natural skill and could be extraordinary if he weren’t so cocky and unreliable. He is given an incredible opportunity to earn a lot of money/save the world/show off/fly at the elite fighter pilot school guided by an older, wiser mentor (Tom Skerrit). Something terrible happens – an accident/betrayal/the death of his good friend and wing man, Goose (Edwards) – and he runs away. It takes the love of a good and often older woman (McGillis) to bring him back in line and then he saves the day!
Before I go any further and descend into proper fangirl territory, I think you should go and listen to The Rewatchables podcast on Top Gun. It’ll save me from quoting them too often and they ask all the important questions that need to be asked about Top Gun anyway. Like why at this elite flying school is there only one shower and is it so that the hot sweaty men can stand around in their towels? Talking of hot sweaty men, was there a plot reason for that volleyball game and did Tony Scott know how homoerotic it would be? And most importantly, when Maverick leaves his date with Charlie to have a shower (it’s his turn, finally) and she is lying on her porch, frustratingly clutching a pillow to her chest, does she start to masturbate immediately or wait until he has actually left the house??
I love Top Gun because it exists in a wonderful crossover between nostalgia, serious drama and enormous unintended comedy. And Top Gun is a truly fascinating movie. Described by John Semcken, fighter pilot and real Top Gun graduate, as ‘the best recruiting movie that you’ve ever seen,’ this hyper-masculine adrenaline-fest caused a surge in military recruitment, aided by the recruitment booths opened in cinema lobbies, and is the main reason why Aviators are STILL markers of being cool.
Top Gun offers us an almost unique window into 1986 and what the world looked like then. From an American (and because of Hollywood, the Western world’s) perspective, life was much simpler then – the Cold War meant that the enemies were obvious and didn’t need any backstory but could also remain as nameless entities, echoed by the faceless, voiceless MiG pilots. Victories were clear and clean, with no civilian casualties, and there was no doubting our moral superiority. But time has not been kind to this level of ‘glib militarism’ and it would now be mocked as propaganda! After the Gulf Wars, 9/11, the conflicts in Afghanistan and the rise of terrorism, combat and war feel more nuanced than the world of Top Gun would suggest. As Noo Saro-Wiwa commented when reviewing the movie for its 30th anniversary, ‘If Top Gun came out today I wouldn’t watch it – it is too bombastic, monochrome and sexist.’
The sexism in Top Gun is an element that hasn’t aged at all well, and another that reveals a lot about attitudes of the 1980s – something Wonder Woman 1984 tried but kind of failed to show. Because in 1986, and frankly still in 1996 when I watched it, Maverick was cool. He was fucking cool! And he had game and we loved him for it. Walking into a bar and declaring it to be a ‘target-rich environment’ was cool; making a bet about which of them could fuck someone on the premises was cool. The famous (notorious?) ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ approach was awesome and not at all mortifying; Maverick literally following Charlie into the ladies toilet after she’d politely rejected him was plucky and bold, not actual sexual harassment!
But, even though I roll my eyes, I don’t find Maverick creepy or feel physically uncomfortable with his actions when I watch it today, whereas I do with other dated movies, and I don’t really know why. Judith Woods for the Telegraph described Top Gun as a ‘period piece’ and I think she’s right. I think that’s why it’s somehow forgivable. Is it because it is so nostalgic for me? Is it because it captures that apparently simpler time when it was easier to know who the bad guy was – and he wasn’t the patronising naval aviator just trying to get laid after a long mission? Or, as a cis woman, is it so fucking homoerotic that it doesn’t feel remotely threatening??
The homoeroticism in Top Gun is ‘the stuff of legend’ and, although parodies do exist, they are entirely unnecessary! One of the pilots genuinely says that watching videos of them flying is ‘giving me a hard-on!’ to which his friend replies ‘don’t tease me!’ An air traffic controller actually shouts ‘I want butts! Give me butts!’ and they really do play volleyball to a song called ‘Playing With the Boys’. But I am fascinated by Top Gun because, in the 1980s, this really wasn’t obvious – and claims that it was were pretty controversial!
Mark Simpson, writing an article for the Telegraph in 2016 titled ‘How did Top Gun become so gay?’ feels that ‘Top Gun isn’t a gay movie – but it’s flagrantly not a very straight one either’ and succeeds because it skillfully made ‘the new, consumerist male vanity of the 1980s look traditional and patriotic – and the military an attractive, sexy proposition for a new generation of young men.’ The 1980s was a flamboyant, glossy and metrosexual time when glitz and glamour were becoming more mainstream and people who identified as men wore make-up and dressed in more feminine styles. But the 1980s were also a particularly homophobic time as the rising AIDS crisis stoked intolerance and it became more and more dangerous to come out, both for fear of violence and for the impact on careers. In this background, it was ‘normal’ (in scare quotes) to assume that everyone was straight, no matter how they presented.
Alongside this, the 1980s was also the beginning of the idea of the male body as something saleable, something aspirational for the mainstream – the famous Levi’s laundrette advert had revitalised the brand the year before Top Gun in 1985. But these sorts of images were often inspired by ‘gay porn, because that was the only reference point’ and, again, blurred the boundaries between sexualities in a way that was more accepted because it was unexpected. Simpson concludes that ‘the secret of Top Gun’s erotic ambiguity is that it orchestrates a spectacular collision between the sublimated homoerotics of traditional Hollywood war movies and the emergent male vanity and individualism of the 1980s.’ So of course Top Gun was able to be ‘innocent and explicit all at once’ because that’s how culture was in the 1980s!
Finally, I can’t talk about Top Gun and sex without mentioning the sex scene. If you needed more proof that Top Gun is a gay movie, consider just how dull the straight sex is! Cruise and McGillis had so little chemistry – certainly not as much as Maverick had with Ice Man (Val Kilmer) – and they needed to add extra scenes later because early audiences didn’t believe the romance. I am SHOCKED! By that point, both Cruise and McGillis had changed their hair for their next movie so, for the scene in the lift, she wore a hat and his hair was wet and the sex scene was really short and in silhouette. And the silhouette is just…I can’t. Really, why is there so much licking? At one point, he literally licks her teeth! Mark Graham for Decider felt that the ‘two don’t kiss so much as they explore their surroundings with their flickering tongues, reptilian-style.’ I am genuinely astonished that this is included in lists of important movie sex scenes – a list that incidentally does not include The Thomas Crown Affair so is immediately invalid – and that Berlin’s song ‘Take My Breath Away’ won the Oscar for best song. It’s not even the best song in the movie!
So I think I need to conclude that Top Gun is magic. It’s a hyper-masculine, military movie with homoerotic undertones that taught a generation how to be sexy and yet is one of the most sexist and sexless movie of the decade. And yet, I love it!
To paraphrase my favourite quote in a movie full of incredible, quotable lines…son, this movie is writing cheques its body can’t cash but I’ve gotta do something there, I still can’t believe it. I’m gonna send it up against the best and declare it one of the greatest movies ever made.
NEXT WEEK… Kramer vs Kramer