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The best and worst (but mostly best) of Tom Hanks

The best and worst (but mostly best) of Tom Hanks


If you ever find yourself in the company of Tom Hanks, don’t worry about keeping him entertained. A lunch with America’s most beloved movie star quickly becomes an impromptu performance. On a recent stop in Chicago to promote his new piracy thriller “Captain Phillips,” Hanks continually sailed into uncharted waters — imitating stars from Spencer Tracy to William Shatner, citing his favorite movie as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” even revealing his porn name (the combination of his first pet and the street where he grew up), “Snowball Derby.” 

At age 56, the two-time Academy Award winner is riding another wave.

After the critical and box-office failures of the Hanks-directed comedy “Larry Crowne” and the time-travel epic “Cloud Atlas,” he has been buoyed into the Oscar race for his role as a courageous American mariner in “Captain Phillips.” Later this year he will play Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks,” a true story about the development of the movie “Mary Poppins.” He is a producer on “Parkland,” a docudrama about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that features his son, Colin, and is currently in theaters. And earlier this year he made his Broadway debut in “Lucky Guy” with his “Bosom Buddies” co-star Peter Scolari.

It’s been more than 30 years since that sitcom about cross-dressing roommates made Hanks a household name. Although he has earned a place on the Mount Rushmore of movie stars with roles in “Big,” “Forrest Gump,” “Philadelphia,” “Saving Private Ryan” and the “Toy Story” ’toon trilogy, Hanks remains an uncommonly gracious celebrity. On the “Captain Phillips” publicity tour, he played a protective uncle to Barkhad Abdi, a Somali-American who makes his movie debut as a modern-day pirate.

Hanks’ on-screen persona is often described as an ordinary guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances. But as a student of history (particularly aeronautical and military stories), he notes that he often plays real-life characters like astronaut James Lovell in “Apollo 13” or the eponymous Capt. Phillips, whose heroism derives from hard training in an institutional setting.

There’s no question that California native Hanks trained hard for his career and is now a living institution. To honor him, we present this opinionated tour, with our nominations for the milestones that belong on the plaques.

(Unless otherwise noted, all opinions are my own. Especially about “Joe vs. the Volcano.”)


Although Hanks is not a quote machine like his contemporaries Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he’s had plenty of memorable lines. The nominees:

• “All my life I’ve been waiting for someone, and when I find her, she’s a fish.” (“Splash”)

• “Houston, we have a problem.” (“Apollo 13”)

• “Life is like a box of chocolates.” (“Forrest Gump”)

• “There’s no crying in baseball.” (“A League of Their Own”)

• “You’re my favorite deputy.” (“Toy Story”)

The winner: “There’s no crying in baseball.” Even though it’s sometimes used as a paddle to swat Little Leaguers, Hanks says, “I like that it’s entered the cultural DNA.” It’s an ironic quote from a die-hard fan of the feckless Cleveland Indians.


Every star rolls the dice on the wrong project, and even when we write off such youthful follies as “Bachelor Party” and “The Money Pit,” Hanks has some snake eyes staring back at us. The nominees:

• “Angels and Demons”

• “The Bonfire of the Vanities”

• “Cloud Atlas”

• “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”

• “Larry Crowne”

The winner: “Angels and Demons.” Although it is tempting go off the board and single out the sentimental “Forrest Gump” because it hasn’t endured as well as some of the movies it beat for Best Picture (“Pulp Fiction” and “The Shawshank Redemption”), it’s not an actual bad movie like the sequel to “The Da Vinci Code.” Hanks is threatening to don the mullet for a third go-round as “symbologist” Dr. Robert Langdon, but the signs are not favorable.


In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hanks and the equally likable Ryan were the Tracy and Hepburn of their era. But which tear-jerking romantic comedy has aged the best? The nominees:

• “Joe vs. the Volcano”

• “Sleepless in Seattle”

• “You’ve Got Mail”

The winner: “Joe vs. the Volcano.” Hanks compares this box-office disappointment to his directorial debut, “That Thing You Do.” Both movies have a persistent fan base fueled by music — in this case, a ukulele serenade from atop a bobbing steamer trunk. The absurdist comedy by John Patrick Shanley (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Moonstruck”), in which Ryan plays three different roles, also has a weird workplace opening segment that deserves comparisons to Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.”


Hanks has been blessed with some stellar cohorts, going back to Jackie Gleason in the dysfunctional family dramedy “Nothing in Common.” The nominees:

• Michael Clarke Duncan in “The Green Mile”

• Hooch in “Turner & Hooch”

• Meg Ryan in “Joe vs. the Volcano”

• Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia”

• Wilson the volleyball in “Cast Away”

The winner: Wilson. Hanks says the inanimate object was a late addition to the tiny cast of “Cast Away,” arriving after six months of screenplay rewrites. And as the silent sounding board for a regular Joe surviving on a deserted island, Wilson was a bouncy presence on the set.


Like a lot of stars, Hanks has gained and lost weight, donned frightful wigs and affected funny accents. But which transformation was the most troubling? The nominees:

• “The Bonfire of the Vanities”

• “Cloud Atlas”

• “The Ladykillers”

• “The Polar Express”

The winner: “The Polar Express.” Hanks was shockingly thin in the AIDS drama “Philadelphia” and in the survival story “Cast Away.” The Coen brothers revoked his membership in their repertory company after his overacting in “The Ladykillers.” His pidgin accent in “Cloud Atlas” drew comparisons to Jar Jar Binks, and Hanks says that his lock-jawed accent as a super-rich yuppie in “Bonfire” caused him “a lot of (grief).” But his motion-capture role in the animated Christmas movie “The Polar Express” was, well, so polarizing that it may have killed an entire technology.


As much as anyone working in Hollywood today, Hanks is a throwback to hardworking Hollywood stars, such as these greats:

• Paul Newman

• James Stewart

• Spencer Tracy

The winner: James Stewart. Newman and Hanks became friends while making the gangster saga “Road to Perdition.” And Hanks does a nifty impression of working-stiff Tracy discreetly checking for an “X” on the sound-stage floor as he waits for the director to call “Action!” But the comparisons to Stewart are unavoidable. Hanks is neither blue-eyed sexy like Newman nor as scrappy as Tracy. Like Stewart, Hanks embodies the affable, all-American guy who rises to the challenge when the stakes are high. (Fun fact: “You’ve Got Mail” is a modernized remake of Stewart’s “The Shop Around the Corner.”)


Hanks has been nominated five times for an Academy Award as Best Actor, and his two consecutive wins (for “Forrest Gump” and “Philadelphia”) put him in the rarefied company of Tracy. But which movie reflects his best performance? The nominees:

• “Big”

• “Cast Away”

• “Forrest Gump”

• “Philadelphia”

• “Saving Private Ryan”

The winner: “Big.” Hanks notes “Big” was the last of several body-switch movies circa 1988 (along with “Like Father, Like Son” and “18 Again”) and could have been shrugged off. It doesn’t have the gravitas of “Philadelphia” or “Saving Private Ryan.” It doesn’t represent an arduous feat like “Cast Away” and hasn’t entered the collective consciousness like “Forrest Gump.” Yet “Big” best reflects the actor himself: a successful grown-up with the spirit of a boy.


Photos: Associated Press, The Fwoosh, Fally TV, Alamo Drafthouse, The Racked Focus, Filmpolitiet

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Joe Williams is the film critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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