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.
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.
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.
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!