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The many faces of Tom Hanks

It’s Tim, here on the eve of Captain Phillips getting released for all the world to enjoy, to ponder the career of its star Tom Hanks. For this movie (and Saving Mr. Banks later in the year, to lesser degree) represents a kind of comeback, for a movie star that never seemed like he needed one; and yet the buzzy, well-received thriller is lining up to be the first largely successful vehicle that Hanks has had in years. Larry Crowne sank without a trace; Angels & Demons impressed nobody and was hardly a “Tom Hanks movie” in the first place. And that already puts us more than half a decade in the past. An odd fate for the man who seemed so unavoidable in the ‘90s and into the ‘00s.

But anyway, 2013 is shaping up to be a big year for the actor, so what better opportunity to look back over some of the best performances of an actor who, though he always seems to regress to an everyday nice fella stock type, has boasted a bit more shading and nuance than that. These are my picks for some of Hanks’s best work – and no, you won’t see either of his Oscar-winning roles here.

Early, wacky comedies
Having made his name in the world of TV sitcoms, it’s hardly shocking that virtually all of Hanks’s big screen roles in the 1980s were an extension of the broadly amusing, family-friendly material that he’d worked with there. The best of these roles, by far, is as the adult incarnation of Josh Baskin in Big, the iconic Penny Marshall film about a preteen who wishes to grow up and does so overnight. Concepts don’t come much higher, nor comedy much less edgy, than that, and yet the film hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm despite a quarter of a century in which its goofiness could have easily been reduced to kitsch.

Almost all of its success relies on Hanks, who happily resists from playing up the most obvious elements of the part (can you imagine circa-’88 Robin Williams in the part? Yeesh). Instead, he plays the part weirdly straight, keeping a childish sense of confusion just close enough to temper the childlike wonder, and finding comedy through being honest to the character, instead of mugging.

Romantic comedies
Two of the films that paired Hanks with Meg Ryan are generally regarded as, if not “classics”, appealing time-wasters. But it’s the first and most obscure, Joe Versus the Volcano from 1990, that gets my pick as the best, and even more as the best work Hanks himself did in the trio. It’s half black comedy, half cartoon, and extensively reliant on having a rock-steady everyman in the middle to anchor its whimsies. This may in fact be the first movie to extensively and successfully trade on Hanks’s “Heck, I’m just a middle American guy like everyone else” persona, and undoubtedly my favorite of all the roles where he played that aspect up. It’s not incredibly sophisticated or probing, but it’s exactly what the film requires, and it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better.

Earnest Oscarbait
Back-to-back Oscars couldn’t translate into a third consecutive nomination for Apollo 13, but compared to the breast-beating Importance of his work in Philadelphia (he’s not even my pick for best male lead of that film, let alone that year), and the aggressively corny hero of Forrest Gump, I absolutely find his portrayal of real-life astronaut Cmdr. James Lovell to be much more rewarding, if only because it is more human-sized. The trademark Hanks friendliness is in full bloom here, leavened by the character’s prickly military background, and both come out frequently in the more domestic early part of the film, but the most impressive acting all comes after the titular vessel has entered disaster movie territory, and Hanks has to play both mortal terror for the audience and the denial of mortal terror for the other actors, and a palpable sense of loss that underlines both. Apparently, playing regular folk stressing out about being adrift in space brings out the best in all sorts of actors.

Elder statesman
I think it was Saving Private Ryan – the first of three performances for Steven Spielberg – that pushed Hanks from affable leading man to beloved cottage industry, and the movies he made in its wake have a tendency to be a bit more idiosyncratic than the ones before. Though unlike many actors hitting their “interesting work for interesting directors” phase, Hanks never moved too terribly far away from crowd-pleasers (except for the Coen brothers film The Ladykillers, one of those movies for which the word “interesting” takes on an especially euphemistic tone). The showiest of these roles, but also the most accomplished, was as the anchor of Robert Zemeckis’s one-man show Cast Away, where Hanks not only had to keep our attention for two hours virtually alone, he had to suggest his character’s gradual descent into isolation-driven madness in a way that was still fun to watch. Because Hollywood dross or not, nobody wants to see a Zemeckis/Hanks picture with a serious depiction of madness. Plus, it’s due entirely to his efforts that a volleyball has one of the most heartbreaking death scenes of the 2000s, and if that’s not terrific movie star acting, I don’t know what to call it.

So those are mine – what are your favorite Tom Hanks performances? Share with us in comments!

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Reader Comments (39)

Hanks possibly was Oscar worthy for Cast Away but the academy certainly
blundered in awarding him Oscars for Philadelphia and Gump.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

I haven't seen them all, and I haven't seen some of the more famous ones.
I liked:
- A League of Their Own
- Apollo 13
- Cloud Atlas

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

I love his character as a baseball coach in A League of Their Own.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndres F.

I think the most Oscar worthy Hanks performance is
perhaps Cast Away. The academy double blundered in
awarding him gold for Philadelphia and Gump...

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

"one of those movies for which the word “interesting” takes on an especially euphemistic tone" - Ha!

anyway, my favorites tend to be the earlier ones, I'll give a shout out to The Burbs.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJessica

I'm kind of surprised that you of all people didn't include the Toy Story films. Perhaps it's not his most nuanced, challenging work, but it's one of Hanks' most iconic roles (it's hard to imagine anyone else as Woody), and he's one of the many parts of those movies that just absolutely clicked.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

Oops sorry, but there was a correct answer to the Meg Ryan romcom question. It was obvious. You did blow it. I will be accepting reparations to be donated to the Sleepless In Seattle Fund for the remembrance of simple, delicate, funny 90's romcom days gone by.

Other Tom Hanks favorites? A League Of Their Own, Big, and after tonight's trip to the multiplex Captain Phillips, which is easily the best performance I've seen from him, though Cast Away and Apollo 13 are huge blind spots.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

Come on, Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail are AWFUL. Try to watch them now. They're unbearable, specially because there's so much Meg Ryan in them.

History doesn't forgive: look what happened to Ryan and to Bullock and Julia Roberts. Ryan was just like Sylvester Stallone, only with romcoms instead of Rocky movies.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I find him tiresome, and it will be a chore for me to sit through his contenders this year. No one who won an Academy Award forForrest Gunp needs another one.

If forced to choose, I guess I'd say Philadelphia is his best.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I'm so glad Joe versus the Volcano made it onto this list! It's got to be the most obscure Tom Hanks movie out there but man do I love it to death! Also, I very much agree with your Apollo 13 and Cast Away picks. Lovell is easily my favorite of all of Hanks' roles.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob N.

I love Cast Away, and I love You've Got Mail. I love him stepping back into supporting roles in Catch Me if You Can and That Thing You Do. In the latter, he has the most memorable line in the movie, despite being almost a bit player.

I'm a fan of Forrest Gump and I don't care if that makes the Serious Film people mock me.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah Lipp

Best by far for me are:


in no particular order. Though I did like him a lot in almost all the Meg Ryan pairings (she's so underappreciated... but that's a different topic)

needless to say that the Academy got it so wrong for those first two Oscars. Botha re among my least favorite turns from him, totally obvious broad showboating with little of the nuance he musters in his best work

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

I was a pretty serious hater for a while. Those two wins happened in my early years of Oscar watching, and I hated both movies so much. Plus, he was pretty unbeatable both years, which made it all the more boring to me.
But I've come around. You've Got Mail was on TV the other day, and it really is a good movie - the kind they don't make anymore. I'm not a fan of Saving Private Ryan, but he's good in that too.
And as much as the world would be a better place without Forrest Gump in it, I think the movies are better for having Tom Hanks.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

Thanks Deborah! Forrest Gump may not be a better film than Pulp Fiction, nor The Shawshank Redemption, but I still cease from channel surfing every time I see it playing on cable tv. It stirs the heart just right. The way you guys make it sound like Forrest Gump is in the same level as Patch Adams. that's just pure blasphemy. It may not be my favorite film from that year, but it's definitely not trash. N here's to all of you cinephiles from a fellow cinephile himself: Tom Hanks was also fantastic!

I would not have given him the award for Philadelphia, and I do agree that Denzel Washington was the more worthy nominee for Best Actor; but I would still give him the Best Actor award for Forrest Gump over the other nominees that year. I love Morgan Freeman in THe Shawshank Redemption, but many the performance is too subtle for Academy's taste. If I were to give a Best Actor award to anyone that year, it would be to Samuel L. Jackson for Pulp Fiction (who the Acedemy chose to nominate in the supporting category.. pure category demotion for the simple fact that he wasn't a star back then.) He is the co-lead protagonist of the film, and outshines everyone in the magnificent cast.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

I was too busy sticking up for Forrest Gump that I forgot to name my favorite Tom Hanks performances.

it would have to be

1. Captain Phillips
2. Apollo 13
3. Cast Away

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMike

I saw Captain Phillips last night, and the last 20 minutes of that movie are SO intense. I have always been a big Hanks fan, but he blew me away in the last moments of that film.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoey


No particular order of importance.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

Road to Perdition, Big, Cast Away, Toy Story 3.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Hmm. Just because something isn't to you're liking doesn't really mean that its THE WORST THING EVER! Hyperbole of opinion is so ridiculous (and vitriolic) on the internet.

Hanks (and Ryan) served their film well in Sleepless. Hank's work in Gump was a major achievement and I still can't see the statue going to any other nominees that year (no, not even Freeman).

My favorite Hanks performances:
Forrest Gump
Captain Phillips

Also liked him in Apollo 13, Cloud Atlas, and Philadelphia.

Least favorites? Joe vs. The Volcano, Dragnet, You've Got Mail, The Terminal, Road to Perdition, The Money Pit, and The Ladykillers.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

1. Cast Away (he should have won that year)
2. Saving Private Ryan (would have been happy with him winning, but really anyone other than Roberto Benigni would have made me happy)
3. You've Got Mail (I love the moment in the coffee shop when Meg Ryan insults him and you can see the hurt in his face).

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Not a big fan, as he has drifted into self-parody the last decade. But he's the kind of guy who inspires good will in the moviegoing public, and so I hope he's as good in Captain Phillips as the critics say. But it will never erase the stench of Forrest Gump...ahhhh, pure torture!

I haven't seen Cast Away, so my Top 3 are Road to Perdition, Saving Private Ryan and Big.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Man, everyone is so grumpy and down on Tom Hanks! :-) I think he is terrific and I don't care who knows it. So there.

Anyway, I will say that if Forrest Gump came out before Philadelphia, then Tom Hanks would only have one Oscar. Say what you will about Forrest Gump (and I only sorta liked it when it came out), the problems with the movie are not because of Tom Hanks' acting. I think it's a very magnetic performance.

And I'm glad he won for Philadelphia, and I'm glad he (and Denzel) lent their star power to a "risky" project at that time.

Okay, enough defending. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Splash, the sort of template for Hanks for the rest of his career. I can't imagine much of a better debut for such a talented "everyman" actor.

I guess my favorite performance from Tom Hanks is Cast Away, and I think he was the very best thing in A League of Their Own, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Forrest Gump, etc.

Thank heavens that Tom came along to wrestle the box office world away from the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenneggar.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

It hasn't been mentioned but Hanks' win for "Philadelphia" was very much a political win, because Hollywood FINALLY acknowledged the AIDS crisis. Whoever had played that part was going to win an Oscar. And "Forrest Gump" was everywhere in the summer of '94, and it was just too towering a performance for him not to win again.

However, I do agree his best work was in "Cast Away". The despair towards the end was heart-wrenching. All that could have been...

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Wow, no love for "Splash"? Thirty years later, it still holds up as both a salty comedy (John Candy and the various character actors sprinkled throughout), as well as a swoonily romantic comedy (aside from Meg Ryan, has Hanks ever been so well-paired with an actress love interest as Daryl Hannah?). The movie almost makes a fatal mistake when Hanks' character rejects Hannah after realizing her secret, but acquits itself handily by the finale. And those romantic moments stay with you: Hanks giving Hannah the music box with the dancers (preceded by those immortal lines: "No....you open it." "There's more?!?!"), Hannah giving Hanks the mermaid statue (always a tear-jerker moment in which Hannah's artlessness and Hanks' skepticism-melting -into-vulnerability mesh beautifully--and Ron Howard frames the final shot in the scene to perfection), the lovers' reunion in the lab before the breakout, and Hanks and Hannah's ecstatic, rolling embrace underwater during the end credits. As Newsweek pointed out, two of the best love stories of 1984 were inter-SPECIES romances (the other being "Starman").

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDback

Ageree with brookesboy

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrick

I never thought of myself as a big fan, but this post made me realize that I am. I think he's a great actor capable of stretching himself, able to do comedy with ease and the heavy stuff. He was miscast in "Cloud Atlas" and "The Terminal" was cloying all around, but I seriously had a difficult time narrowing down my favorite performances. He's not what you would call a daring actor, but he's a star in the mold of Jimmy Stewart.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

He's been good in a lot of things, but for me it has to be Castaway, followed closely by Big.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

I by and large find him a good actor but I'm not sure I've ever seen an Oscar worthy performance by him, the closest would be Apollo 13. My other favorites are Big, Saving Pvt. Ryan, A League of Their Own.

Decent performances: Sleepless, Cast Away, Nothing in Common, Splash and his canny work in That Thing You Do!

I didn't think his performance in the hermetically sealed Philadelphia was bad, although nothing compared to Eric Roberts brilliant but unrecognized work in a similar role in It's My Party a few years later, just trapped in an overly earnest social conscience lesson. Certainly not worthy of an Oscar. Even worse though was the excruciating Forrest Gump.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I am appalled by the lack of love for That Thing You Do!, which he not only did a very good job directing, but also used his star quality in an almost brilliant way. Given that I also love him in A League of Their Own, I'm tempted to say that I like him better in supporting roles. But Cast Away is seriously, seriously great work. If he hadn't already won twice, he very well might have won for that (and deservedly so).

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Good to Great Hanks

A League of Their Own



Saving Private Ryan

Apollo 13

Road To Perdition- Shockingly underrated. You'd think the turns by Law and Hanks, the swan song by Newman in a prestige role, the introduction of Daniel Craig, and the cinematography would have people calling it Mendes' best movie. But it is never in the conversation it seems.

Joe Versus the Volcano- Extremely underrated. Shanley should've stuck with comedies given this, Moonstruck, and Congo- yes, Congo- showed a real knack for comedy.

And That Thing You Do! is great. It's a supporting turn with a lot of sub-plot removed from the theatrical cut (including one that implicates his character as a gay man!). But it is a solid directorial turn. He discovered Charlize Theron before anyone else too!

Toy Story trilogy voice-work too, of course.

Bad Hanks

Mo-cap work in The Polar Express. Sorry, uncanny valley Hanks is terrifying.

You've Got Mail- Who would want to date him?

Charlie Wilson's War- Enraging movie all around. Career-low for Nichols, in my opinion.

The DaVinci Code/Angels & Demons- Miscast role but the source material is terrible anyway.

The Ladykillers- He really should be banned from any southern regional dialects.

The Bonfire of the Vanities- Only Melanie Griffith and a good book came out of that movie well.

The Terminal- It could've worked but it just felt like he was mismatched with the character arc.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

I like Tom Hanks a lot. I don't think he has ever given a bad performance imo.... No, I can't think of any.
I loved him in Splash, Joe vs. the Volcano (really great movie), Sleepless in Seattle, The Green Mile and even Terminal.
For his two Oscar wins, I prefer Philadelphia over his performance in Forrest Gump. I don't know, I just think it was more intense, like the scene where he speaks about opera...
I can understand why he also won for Forrest Gump.
My favorite performances (from what I've seen so far) are Cast Away and Catch Me If You Can.
But there's still a lot I haven't seen yet.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

So glad Big was mentioned. His joy, his physicality (loose and nimble and awkward without show-boating), his lack of talking down to his character...that was before I started watching the Oscars, but even now I'm surprised he got nominated but am so glad he was.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

For me, Catch Me If You Can and Philadelphia are excellent performances, with Big trailing slightly.

For the record, I can't stand Forrest Gump.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRC

Saving Private Ryan.

October 11, 2013 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

This is an easy one: Splash, The Money Pit, Big, Joe Vs. The Volcano, A League of Their Own, Toy Story, You've Got Mail, Cast Away -- basically every other movie, every other year, of his in the '80s and '90s. Since then...meh. (I will say though that he and Robin Wright had terrific chemistry in Forrest Gump.)

October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

CMG: The uncanny valley stuff? That's NOTHING to do with Hanks. Separate the rest of the performance from the questionable animation.

October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Captain Phillips completely left me aching. The last 30 minutes are so emotionally intense. Tom Hanks certainly has his finest moments in this film. I liked him in Big, Saving Private Ryan, Philadelphia and more, but nothing he has done could have prepared me for this. I don't care how many Oscars he's won in the past. He deserves one for this. Haven't seen Ejiofor's or McConaughey's performances yet, but Hanks here sets the bar so high I find it unlikely that I'll see something better this year.

October 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Cast Away. Flawless. That movie affected me heavily. I'm interested to see Captain Phillips.

October 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

Tom Hanks should get a Best Actress nomination for Captain Phillips.

October 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

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