Tom Hanks: A Viewer’s Guide

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If life is like a box of chocolates, Tom Hanks’ life is one of those really expensive ones handcrafted by Belgians with PhDs in cocoa in a lab made entirely of praline. He is, quite simply, the biggest movie star of all time, with the box office ($8.5bn and counting) and Oscars (two, plus three nominations) to prove it. He’s regularly been tagged ‘cinema’s Average Joe’, a Norman Rockwell portrait of American’s best face, but like his predecessor in that niche, Jimmy Stewart, there’s an awful lot more to him that that. Beyond his acting, he’s a veteran producer, two-time director, screenwriter, environmentalist, part-time rapper and the man who taught us that “There is no crying in baseball!”. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Thomas Jeffrey Hanks...

ESSENTIAL VIEWING:** Apollo 13 (1995)**

The First Law Of Tom Hanks is that any long-haul journey that he embarks upon will inevitably end in catastrophe, usually followed by a frenzied improvisation and ultimate triumph (See also: Cast Away, Captain Phillips, Joe Versus The Volcano). It’s the real reason he wasn’t allowed to board that flight in The Terminal and it’s borne out in spades in Ron Howard’s clammy slingshot into space. As the Californian has proved time and again, these Hanks-in-distress roles draw in audiences like a tractor beam. Along with Saving Private Ryan and Cast Away, Ron Howard’s retelling of the 1970 Apollo mission is the perfect showcase for his relatable Everyman. John Travolta was first choice to play astronaut Jim Lovell, a man paid to travel through space in a giant baked potato and look happy about it, but for all his flying experience it wouldn’t have had half the romance of Woody becoming Buzz Lightyear.

ESSENTIAL VIEWING:** Toy Story (1995)**

The first voice part to make the cut in this feature (and we’ve been doing it for at least a year), Tom Hanks’ dulcet tones are so entwined with the passionate, protective and pernickety Sheriff Woody Pride, it’s impossible to imagine as anyone else in the role. The actor had an uncanny ability to “take the emotions and make them appealing”, explained Pixar head John Lasseter of his pick for the pull-string cowboy, “even if he is down-and-out and despicable”. Sure enough, Hanks gets the tone just right as Woody tiptoes towards... well, if not despicable behaviour, then certainly petulance when a certain spaceman pitches up and steals all the glory. According to Pixar lore, Hanks was persuaded to sign up after being shown some of the completed animation work with his Turner & Hooch dialogue dubbed over it. What, getting the line “Wind the frog!” wasn’t enough?

ESSENTIAL VIEWING:** Cast Away (2000)**

Forrest Gump might be the more obvious pick here – it earned Tom Hanks his second Best Actor Oscar and a place in shrimp folklore – but, bloody minded folk that we are, we’ve plumped for his desert island disc instead. And considering that Hanks swung 22 kilos to play FedEx Chuck “WIIILSON!” Noland before and after he’s plane-wrecked in the Pacific, ‘plumped’ is the operative word. A Robinson Crusoe-inspired script by Apollo 13 writer William Broyles Jr. presented him with the bruising, dialogue-light challenge of playing a man regressing to a primal form – a kind of reverse 2001: A Space Odyssey, coincidentally Hanks’ favourite movie – and turned him into a twisted firestarter along the way. Showy, sure, but there’s immense technique at work as Noland’s panic turns to despair, and despair in turn coalesces into something steely and bearded.

RECOMMENDED:** Philadelphia (1993)**

This segment is all about 1993, 12 months that heralded Tom Hanks’ arrival as a major star with incredible range and put the year’s sixth and twelth biggest box-office hits under his belt. That he was prepared to tackle an issue movie as pointed as this one, a cri de coeur against AIDS scaremongering and homophobia, showed that he had the courage of his convictions too. Jonathan Demme’s drama, shot in continuity, meant a 17 kilo weight loss to play AIDS-stricken lawyer Andrew Beckett and a research process that sat him down with AIDS sufferers. “I felt as though I was an unfair, sort of, privy inspector to not just intimate aspects of their lives”, Hanks told Larry King, “but literally the part and parcel of who they are. They opened themselves up in ways that I honestly thought were going to get [me] slapped and thrown out of the room.” His tribute to those men earned him the first of his two Oscars. As The Simpsons’ Lionel Hutz once pointed out: “If there’s one thing America needs, it’s more lawyers.” It did if they were anything like this one.

RECOMMENDED:** Sleepless In Seattle (1993)**

Actors have fallen over themselves to deliver dialogue penned by the late, great Nora Ephron, but it’s easy to imagine that when it came to Hanks, the feeling was mutual. Their collaboration was as full as kismet as Sleepless’s radio-crossed lovers, Sam (Hanks) and Annie (Meg Ryan), so perfectly did their strengths complement each other. Both routinely land comic beats and real emotions that would feel schmaltzy and false in lesser hands, as witnessed by this loose redo of An Affair To Remember that connected with US moviegoers to the tune of $126 million. Hanks revived his Ephron connection earlier this year, making his Broadway debut as a hard-boozing Irish hack in her play Lucky Guy. “Selfishly, I did this [play] to hang out with Nora,” Hanks told NPR. She died before it came to the stage but Hanks’ tribute was a Tony-nominated performance.

FOR THE FAN ONLY:** Big (1988)**

Look away, Dragnet fans, because with its body-swap charms and the Bit Where He Plays The Giant Piano With His Feet, Big is everyone’s favourite early Hanks. It’s sugary and fun and showcases the Hanks manchild that we’d see a lot more of in Forrest Gump – even if, let’s be honest, it also has some fairly pre-Operation Yewtree bits where Elizabeth Perkins puts the moves on his 12 year-old trapped in an adult’s body. But it’s not difficult to overlook the potentially creepy plot wrinkles – hey, we did it with Back To The Future – when a movie has a heart this big or an afterlife as cheering. After all, that piano still has pride of place in FAO Schwarz in Manhattan, and Hanks still has those chopsticks moves...

ONE TO MISS:** The Da Vinci Code (2006)**

Tom Hanks hasn’t made too many stinkers over his illustrious career, although The Ladykillers, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Bonfire Of The Vanities and Polar Express were, let’s face it, pretty bad. The Da Vinci Code, however, is a seriously wiffy affair: a rotting mullet dumped on the steps of the Vatican. Parsed unconvincingly from the pages of Dan Brown’s lacklustre bestseller, the storyline offers biblical doohickeys and Catholic McGuffins and sinister types in robes swirling about in a head-spinning confusion of Serious People saying Important Things. In the middle of it all is Hanks’s rare off-key performance as earnest symbologist Robert Langdon. The Harvard man’s attempts to do any actual symbology find themselves terminally upstaged by a naked Paul Bettany and a cat o’ nine tails, leaving a hokily generic thriller that, needless to say, made loads of money and immediately spawned a sequel.