Better than AFI’s 100 Years…100 Stars: 8

To see my running list of the hundred greatest movie stars in American film history, click here

We’ve reached the top 10! At this point, every star gets their own post.

8) Tom Hanks

From 1993 to 2000, Tom Hanks was nominated for Best Actor four times, winning twice. He was the lead in at least one of the top ten movies of the year by box office in every year except 1996 and 1997. On the other hand, that’s made up for a little by being in two of the top ten films in ’93 and ’95. Hanks did it with a variety of comedies and dramas, with a number of different directors, and two of those films are animated. The Oscars he won are even for very different kinds of performances. In Philadelphia, he plays a sophisticated gay lawyer with AIDS; in Forrest Gump, he plays Forrest Gump. These films, from Sleepless in Seattle to Cast Away, don’t require Hanks to “play himself,” as the saying goes. But at this point he’s acceded to a place where his part in the film is accentuated by how instantly recognizable is, and the further we go the more that part is inflected. In Philadelphia, we’re watching a foundational “aw man, I don’t want Tom Hanks to die” picture; in Sleepless in Seattle we’re watching a foundational “aw man, Tom Hanks seems like a great guy to marry” picture. By the time we take that train down to 1999 and 2000, Cast Away is very much about how we, as a people, cannot abide the idea of Tom Hanks dying on some deserted island, and You’ve Got Mail is about how we, as a people, will always think Tom Hanks would make a great romantic partner even if the evidence does not point in that direction. In short, the greater moviegoing edifice in this country came to adore Hanks not because of his range, but because he was reliably the same so often.

In fairness, Hanks’ attempts to branch out have not typically been met with much favor. His accent work has never put him in the same category as Meryl Streep, and his position in more off-kilter or experimental work (Cloud Atlas stans, unite!) tends to get raised eyebrows rather than rave reviews. The public has found a box for Tom Hanks, and seems content to keep him in that box as far as they are able. In hindsight, Jim Lovell of Apollo 13 created something of a template for Hanks nearly two decades afterward: search recent history, find a reluctant hero, or a man who didn’t expect to face extraordinary danger, and then get him into the tightest spot you can find for him. For Lovell, a crippled spacecraft thousands of miles from terra firma is an appropriately tight spot, and we hold our breaths as he endures sleepless anxiety and a crushed dream in the hopes that his pod will crash into the Pacific and he’ll be transported to an aircraft carrier. This is a nearly identical model for Captain Phillips, which is not nearly as arresting as Apollo 13 but which grants Hanks a little more opportunity to branch out that commander’s image into shrewish and grating rather than focused and worn. We’ll accept him that way, just as we’ll accept him as a little bit dirty-minded like he is in Charlie Wilson’s War, or as sober and persecuted as he is in Sully. We’ll even accept him as coarse, single-minded, and crippled with a parodic Boston accent as he is in Catch Me if You Can. We’ll accept him when he’s sanding down the worst elements of a famous man like Walt Disney, and we’ll accept him when he’s living up to the best elements of a famous man like Fred Rogers. What we don’t like Tom Hanks to be is bad. The Ladykillers is almost universally given as the Coen Brothers’ worst film; That Thing You Do! gets high praise for Adam Schlesinger but less often for Hanks.

From 1989 to 1992, there is an alternate Tom Hanks to be found, one who is not obviously a star in the making, let alone one of the ten biggest stars in America’s cinema history. In 1989, Turner and Hooch and The ‘Burbs. In 1990, Joe Versus the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities. In 1992, a small narrating role in Radio Flyer and a supporting turn in A League of Their Own. Tom Hanks seems to get the Jimmy Stewart comparison a lot, and when it comes it’s either denigrating for Hanks (“Hanks could never have done Vertigo or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance“) or it’s a way for the speaker to tell on the dearth of Stewart viewings in their past. Where I think there is a commonality is that both Hanks and Stewart have inclinations for slightly kooky material. After all, Stewart’s two greatest films pair him with Hitchcock as the dictionary definition of a voyeur and an obsessive with nearly necrophiliac sexual tendencies. The difference is that for Hanks, most of the weird stuff is frontloaded rather than filling in a late prime. Barring the odd Tom Tykwer collaboration or his frequent reunions with Robert Zemeckis—not just The Polar Express, but even Forrest Gump, which is frankly a weird concept to broach if you didn’t experience it as it happened—it’s hard to think of an actor whose choices feel more mainstream prestige-friendly, the kind of pieces which collect Oscars. Given the relative predictability of that 1993-2000 era in Hanks’ career, I cherish that ’89-’92 phase, where you can watch Hanks seeking out projects that push him in goofier ways which do not scream the potential for one of the most beloved and best-reviewed actors of the past fifty years.

Turner and Hooch (Hanks plays Turner, not Hooch, common mistake) is the story of how a man comes to love the ugliest and messiest dog in the history of Canis familiaris. In some sense I think it’s an important tryout for some of his future films, like Sleepless in Seattle or Road to Perdition; an actor who is good with dogs is likely to be good with children, and that’s a gold star on an actor’s CV which is harder to fake than being good with instruments or guns. It’s also a surprising follow-up to Big, which got him an Oscar nomination and a show of real box office friendliness; one is hard-pressed to think of a dog movie that an actor does because they’re on the upswing of their careers and not the downswing. A League of Their Own, like Big a collaboration with Penny Marshall, casts Hanks as an ex-MLBer who takes on a managing job with the women’s baseball league. Hanks, who was in his mid-thirties when the film came out, was actually about the right age for the part if not a little young. It’s also a part which seems to cry out for a much older actor, someone who is significantly more washed. Again, it’s the kind of part that someone attempting a comeback would take on rather than someone continuing to climb the Hollywood ladder. Hanks is really good in both of those movies, and just as interesting to me, playing two very different people. Turner is uptight, a noodge, and of course ill-suited to take care of a dog as hungry for furniture and expensive possessions as Hooch. Jimmy Dugan is introduced to as a a highly evolved man, one who can pee gallons rather than cups at a time, and who goes on to shout “THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL” at a weeping woman in what might be the quintessential Hanks bawl. Neither one is necessarily out of place in Hanks’ wider career, but both of them have a little more of the character actor in them rather than the star.

Amusingly, the two traditional star performances of this period, as Joe who is against the volcano and master of the universe Sherman McCoy, reflect two zones where Hanks has traditionally been overlooked or uncomfortable. In Joe Versus the Volcano, a cult movie, the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romcom pairing gets its first run, and what a weird, delightful run that is. The film triple casts Ryan opposite Hanks as the woman who best suits sadsack, “doomed” Joe in whatever scenario he’s in (and she is so much fun as all three), and for his part Hanks plays Joe with great enthusiasm. In the beginning of the film, there’s a sequence where Hanks and his coworkers head into their factory which is genuinely Burtonesque, complete with little twists of hellish whimsy. Hanks looks terrible in those scenes, and it is so funny. Eventually he gets cleaned up (after being told that he’s living under a death sentence thanks to what he believes to be ill health) and throws himself, at first very badly and then very sincerely, into this new situation, complete with floating steamer trunks and a visit from a gargantuan full moon. It is, in timing and rhythm and feel and vibe, very much like other Hanks comedy performances. In practice, that enthusiasm and attaboy attitude that we watch Hanks employ with Ryan seem largely insane, because Joe is living within an insane scenario. If Hanks is an everyman, it is not normal to watch the everyman live in a world where the rules seem fundamentally bizarre, and it creates an uncanny vibe that simply does not match the Hanks who we would later come to love. There’s a similarly insane scenario in Bonfire of the Vanities, although the plot manipulation that ensures that Sherman McCoy can be tarred and feathered by New York’s media and politicos alike requires Hanks to play (gasp) a bad guy. Sherman McCoy is arrogant, unfaithful, clueless, rich. It is one of the few black marks on Hanks’ career, to ask your average moviegoer or movie critic, but I maintain that casting the eternally likable Hanks as an unlikable person is a smart choice. The trouble with the role, aside from every other problem that is supposed to have plagued that picture’s production, is that Hanks never tries to make the character more likable, never tries to challenge us into believing that maybe Sherman McCoy isn’t such a bad guy all along and thus pointing the finger at the audience’s complicity in an unjust order. Then again, that’s never been why we keep Tom Hanks, who has rarely cried J’accuse! and more often patted our shoulders and said, “There, there.”

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