A-List: Tom Hanks
He’s a two-time Oscar winner and one of the most well-liked and respected actors in Hollywood. Tom Hanks has long been compared favorably to the legendary Jimmy Stewart. He’s an actor audiences almost inherently relate to and cheer for. He started off as a goofball in drag and somehow managed to change course in his career to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.
Yep, Tom Hanks road to Oscar started with a sitcom in which Hanks regularly dressed in drag. Bosom Buddies was a high concept 80’s sitcom at its worse. Hanks and co-star Peter Scolari played two guys who dressed in drag in order to live in an apartment complex for women. Hysterical! Not so much. But Hanks was the break-out star somehow managing to find the funny despite being trapped in a wig every week.
I usually ignore TV movies in these kinds of write-ups. But Mazes and Monsters is just too hysterical to ignore. It’s like the episode of Saved by the Bell where Jesse gets all hopped up on caffeine pills like they were crack. Except Mazes and Monsters warns parents against the dangers of… Dungeons and Dragons!
The popular role-playing game drives Hanks’ character insane. Naturally, the game leads to Hanks’ character attempting to cast a spell and jump off the World Trade Center. When will people realize the dangers of role-playing games. 20-sided dice are unnatural!
Since I’m already going there, I might as well bring up Hanks’ other TV appearances from the early 80’s. Hank guest starred on The Love Boat, Happy Days, Taxi and Family Ties. I’ll never forget Hanks as Alex P. Keaton’s fun (ie. alcoholic) Uncle Ned attempting to drink a jar of maraschino cherries for their alcohol content. Hanks actually came back and reprised the character.
Okay, we had our fun looking back at Hanks’ goofy TV career. But it’s time to get serious. Hanks’ movie career started off with a bang! Hanks made his big screen debut as a guy who falls in love with a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah in Splash. Directed by former TV star, Ron Howard, Splash was a huge hit in 1984. It was also the first film released by Disney’s more adult Touchstone Pictures label.
Splash made Hanks seem like the next Cary Grant. He was funny, but he could also play a romantic lead. The career possibilities seemed limitless.
In 1984, Hanks also appeared in the raunchy comedy, Bachelor Party. This was the Hanks of Bosom Buddies rather than the romantic lead America fell in love with in Splash. And it’s a far, far cry from the Oscar-winning Hanks of today. As raunchy comedies of the early 80’s go, Bachelor Party could be a lot worse. It actually got mixed reviews which means that some critics (including Robert Ebert) recommended it. At this point, it’s really only worth watching to see a young Hanks paying his dues.
Hanks would struggle to recreate the success of Splash. His first attempt was the spy comedy, The Man With One Red Shoe. Filling in for Darryl Hannah was Lori Singer as the object of Hanks’ affections. The movie’s one gag was that Hanks did not realize he was in the middle of a complex spy plot that was unfolding around him. The reviews were terrible and the movie bombed.
In 1985, Hanks actually went so far as to reteam with his Splash co-star, John Candy for the film Volunteers. It’s the story of a spoiled rich kid who joins the Peace Corps to escape his gambling debts. Yep, the Peace Corps is comedy gold. I can totally see why this movie got made. Gene Siskel said Volunteers had “two lame performances by its leading actors, the vastly overrated Tom Hanks…and the consistently disappointing John Candy.”
It’s easy to laugh at Siskel’s comments now that Hanks has gone on to such great heights. But if you had only watched Hanks’ career up to this point, you would be basing your impression of the actor on Splash and Bosom Buddies. Because all of his other movies were pretty lousy. In Volunteers, his character isn’t even very likable.
It should also be noted that while filming Volunteers, Hanks began having an affair with co-star, Rita Wilson. Two years later, he would divorce his first wife and get engaged to Wilson.
With The Money Pit, Hanks actually starred in a re-make of a Cary Grant movie. Hanks and co-star Shelly Long (who was still in her Cheers hey-day) starred as a couple who buys a fixer-upper only to see their investment fall apart before their eyes. The reviews were once again awful. But through the magic of executive producer, Steven Spielberg, the movie was a modest hit.
Hanks would have another modest hit co-starring with Jackie Gleason in the dramedy, Nothing in Common. Hanks played a successful ad exec because it was a comedy in the 80’s and they were all about successful ad execs who’s lives get turned upside down. This time, Hanks’ character’s life was turned upside down when he has to take care of his ailing father following his parents’ divorce. If it all sounds like a TV-movie-of-the-week, that’s because it was directed by Gary Marshall.
On the upside, Hanks got to show a little bit of dramatic range instead of just falling down stairs.
Hanks continued his streak of modest hits with bad reviews in 1987’s big screen parody of the TV show Dragnet. The movie, written by and co-starring Dan Aykroyd, would have made for a funny 5-minute sketch on Saturday Night Live. But at 106 minutes, it runs out of gas long before the closing credits. Hanks even did a rap video with Aykroyd to promote the movie.
This has to be even more embarrassing than appearing on The Love Boat.
In 1988, Hanks’ career finally turned around with the release of Big (directed by Gary Marshall’s sister, Penny). At the time, there were a lot of movies about boys switching places with men and there was really no reason to think Big would be any different. But Hanks imbued Big with heart and the movie was a smash hit. The critics raved and Hanks was nominated for his first Oscar.
Hanks followed up Big with a dramatic look at stand-up comedians. Punchline was produced by Sally Field who starred as a housewife who gets into stand-up comedy. Hanks played an established comic who serves as her mentor. While the film isn’t great, it helped transition Hanks from his wacky comedies into drama.
In 1989, Hanks continued his streak of films that were modest hits with mixed reviews. Joe Dante‘s The Burbs is a frustrating dark comedy. I want to love it for Dante’s quirky sense of humor. But The Burbs is never as clever as it thinks it is. And the tone is just all over the place. The ending essentially reverses whatever the message of the movie might have been in favor of an action finale.
Turner and Hooch was released a few months after the Jim Belushi movie K-9 which was also about the partnership of a cop and a dog. Hanks’ cop is extremely neat so his world is turned upside down by the big, slobbery dog. It sounds like a recipe for a fun, brainless family film. But Turner and Hooch notoriously upset audiences by killing off the dog. Hanks still makes jokes to this day about how you should never kill off the dog. Once again, reviews were mixed but the movie was a modest hit.
I remember reading an article in Variety around the time Turner and Hooch was released. The article claimed that Hanks was the most underrated box office star in Hollywood. The argument was that even though Hanks rarely starred in hits, almost all of his movies made money. And frequently, he was the only draw in them. So in theory, Hanks’ appeal alone was enough to guarantee at least a base hit at the box office.
In 1990, history was made. But almost no one noticed. Hanks paired up with Meg Ryan for the first time. The pair would go on to star in two very successful romantic comedies. But Joe Vs. the Volcano, an existential fairy tale filled with whimsy, was a box office dud. For years, Hanks would make jokes about it as the low point of his career. However, the true low point was yet to come.
Critics were mixed on Joe Vs. the Volcano and audiences mostly ignored it. But I have always found it to be a charming and vastly underrated movie. Far superior to the two more popular Hanks/Ryan films.
The true low point of Tom Hanks’ career was Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s novel was a wicked satire of the excess of the 80’s. The protagonist, Sherman McCoy is a Wall Street investor with Swcharzengger’s physique. He’s an unsympathetic character who refers to himself as a “master of the universe”.
In order to make the movie more commercial De Palma chose to cast Hanks as Mc Coy. It was one of many mistakes in terms of casting and overall tone. The sophistication of Wolfe’s novel was lost in favor of cartoonish comedy. The movie and Hanks were both savaged by critics. Bonfire of the Vanities was one of the biggest bombs of the year.
Following the disaster of Bonfire of the Vanities, Hanks took some time off to reassess his career. In 1992, he started a very impressive comeback with a supporting role in Penny Marshall’s baseball comedy, A League of Their Own. The movie starred Geena Davis and Lori Petty, but Hanks got to steal the movie as the loveably gruff coach. His “There’s no crying in baseball” speech is the one scene from the movie people remember today.
In 1993, Hanks reteamed with Meg Ryan for Nora Ephron’s remake of An Affair to Remember. Sleepless in Seattle was a huge hit and cemented Hanks’ and Ryan’s places on Hollywood’s A-list. While not as inventive as Joe Vs. the Volcano, Sleepless was the movie that made Ryan and Hanks America’s favorite on-screen couple.
But Hanks was just getting warmed up. Later that year he would star opposite Denzel Washington in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. Philadelphia was the story of an attourney who was fired from his firm when it was discovered he had AIDS. Hanks’ performance as an AIDS patient won him his first Academy Award. Philadelphia got strong reviews and was a hit at the box office.
With Philadelphia, Hanks put movies which costarred slobbery dogs behind him forever. He was now viewed as a serious actor.
Whereas Hanks had been unable to fully capitalize on his previous successes, this time he was on a roll. In 1994, he starred in Robert Zemeckis’ ode to baby boomers, Forrest Gump. Gump wasn’t just a hit. It was a cultural phenomenon. And Hanks was at the center.
Forrest Gump swept the Oscars. Hanks became the second actor in history to win back-to-back Best Actor Oscars. (The first was Spencer Tracy.) While I like Gump as much as the next guy, I’m still miffed that Pulp Fiction lost for Best Picture. Still, what a great year! The Shawshank Redemption was another nominee.
In 1995, Hanks reteamed with Splash director, Ron Howard for Apollo 13. The movie told the true-life story of brave astronauts on a space mission gone wrong. Once again, reviews were strong and the movie was a big hit. When awards season came around, Hanks practically asked not to be nominated.
Rounding out a very successful year, Hanks voiced Sherriff Woody in Toy Story. The first fully computer animated feature, Toy Story was an instant classic. The Toy Story films guarantee that Hanks’ work will be enjoyed for generations.
Hanks next stepped behind the camera to write and direct That Thing You Do. Hanks’ directorial debut was a fluffy piece about a fictional boy band in the 60’s that turned into a one-hit-wonder. He cast himself in a small role as the band’s manager. The reviews were good, but audiences weren’t especially interested. The movie was a modest hit.
1998 was another big year for Hanks. First, he starred in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, Saving Private Ryan. The film was a sensation at the box office. Most of the buzz surrounded Spielberg’s telling of the invasion of Normandy. Unlike most war movies to that point, Spielberg showed the horrors of war in graphic detail. The audience, like the soldiers, was bombarded with sounds and motion which were disorienting. Saving Private Ryan was nominated for several Oscars including another nomination for Hanks as Best Actor.
After making Saving Private Ryan, Hanks became heavily involved in raising funds for the World War II Memorial. “I was surprised to realize there is no national memorial to honor the men and women who served in World War II,” Hanks said. “When I learned that the memorial could become a reality, I immediately wanted to be part of the effort.”
Later that year, he paired with Meg Ryan for the last time in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. The third movie in the Hanks-Ryan trilogy was a loose remake of the 1940 comedy, The Shop Around the Corner for the AOL generation. It was viewed by audiences as a de facto sequel to Sleepless in Seattle only not as good. Demand for Hanks and Ryan in a rom-com was high enough to make the movie a hit despite any shortcomings.
In 1999, Hanks voiced Sheriff Woody again in Toy Story 2. Believe it or not, this is the first true sequel of Hanks’ career. And unlike most sequels, Toy Story 2 is arguably better than the original. The Pixar film was a big hit with critics and audiences.
Later that year, Hanks also appeared in Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Green Mile. The Green Mile was also something of a spiritual sequel to Darabont’s previous King adaptation, The Shawshank Redemption. While The Green Mile is good, it’s too long. Even though Shawshank is a better movie, Hank’s star power made Green Mile the bigger hit at the box office.
In 2000, Hanks re-teamed with his Forrest Gump director, Robert Zemekis, for Castaway. Castaway is a very odd movie in that the bulk of it is a one-man show. Hanks spends most of the movie with no one to act against save for a volleyball named Wilson.
Hanks famously gained and then lost a lot of weight to play the main character before he is stranded and after he has been stranded for some time. It’s a tour de force performance and Hanks was once again nominated for Best Actor. However, it’s not an especially entertaining movie. I sat through it once and that was enough for me (sort of like The Green Mile).
In 2002, Hanks tried to stretch beyond his nice guy image. At some point in his career, Hanks went from the “next Cary Grant” (a comparison that never really suited him) to “the next Jimmy Stewart”. Hanks fought against this image by playing a gun for hire. The casting against type kind of works in that it makes Hanks’ protagonist more likeable than an assassin probably should be. On the other hand, Hanks doesn’t really fit the image of a mob tough guy. Jude Law’s transformation from handsome Brit into creepy killer was more successful.
Road to Perdition got good reviews and did okay at the box office. But it probably didn’t change Hanks’ image as much as he had hoped. He may have been able to transform himself from a zany comic actor into a two-time Oscar winner. But he’s never been able to escape his innate likability on-screen.
Later that year, Hanks re-teamed with Saving Private Ryan director, Steven Spielberg for Catch Me If You Can. Hanks played an FBI agent who pursued a young con man played by Leonardo DiCaprio. DiCaprio was in the middle of his own successful career transformation. Catch Me helped to reform his teen heart-throb image and showed that he was capable of more substantial roles.
Catch Me was a big hit and got positive reviews. But I don’t think it did much one way or the other for Hanks’ career. At this point, he was as big as he was going to get. A supporting role in a well-reviewed hit just kept the momentum going.
That momentum took a hit in 2004. First, Hanks starred in the Coen brothers’ remake of The Ladykillers. Once again, Hanks played against type as con-man whose plans are thwarted by an elderly woman. Hanks’ performance is a cartoonish southern stereo-type. Ladykillers wasn’t one of the better reviewed Coen brothers’ films and audiences weren’t lining up to see Hanks play a sinister Col Sanders.
Hanks teamed with Spielberg again for 2004’s The Terminal. He plays a foreigner who gets trapped in an airport when he is denied entry into the US but also can’t return to his home country. Unlike the previous Spielber collaborations, The Terminal received mixed reviews and was a box office disappointment.
Finally, Hanks capped off 2004 with The Polar Express. The Polar Express reteamed Hanks with director Robert Zemekis. By this point in Zemekis’ career, he was experimenting heavily with motion capture film-making. This allowed Hanks to play multiple roles in the film. Although The Polar Express received mixed reviews, it became something of a surprise hit. It was the rare film that had “legs” at the box office and has since become something of a Christmas tradition for many families.
In 2006, Hanks reteamed with Ron Howard yet again for the big screen adaptation of the best seller, The Da Vinci Code. The movie was trashed by critics and deservedly so. It was boring. But the combination of being based on a best seller and starring Hanks made The Da Vinci Code a blockbuster at the box office. Not even Hanks’ horrific hair cut could slow it down.
Hanks also dabbled in voice work appearing as a Woody Car in Pixar’s Cars (Woody, get it?).And he had a cameo in The Simpsons Movie as himself.
In 2007, Hanks starred opposite Julia Roberts in Mike Nichols’ Charlie Wilson’s War. The political drama/comedy got mostly favorable reviews. And it was a modest hit at the box office. But it would have to be classified as a disappointment given the star power involved.
Hanks’ next significant role was the sequel to The Da Vinci Code in 2009. Angels and Demons reunited Hanks with Ron Howard yet again. Just like The Da Vinci Code, the reviews were bad. But the film was a hit anyway. At least Hanks had a better haircut this time around.
In 2010, Hanks returned to voice Sheriff Woody one more time to complete the Toy Story trilogy. (Although Hanks has been quoted lately talking up the possibility of Toy Story 4.) Toy Story 3 somehow managed to uphold the high standards of the first 2 Toy Story movies to give the series a fitting conclussion. Toy Story 3 was a hit with critics and audiences. It was even nominated for Best Picture and won Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.
2011 saw Hanks return to directing with the comedy, Larry Crowne. For added insurance, Hanks co-starred with fellow A-lister, Julia Roberts. That sounds like the recipe for a hit. But Larry Crowne was a bust. Domestically, it failed to recoup its production costs.
Realistically, Larry Crowne is just a speed bump for Hanks’ career. If it had been a hit, he surely would have lined up more work as a director. But the movie’s failure should have little to no impact on his status as an actor.
Behind the secenes, Hanks is still a power player. More and more, he has moved into the role of producer with movies like Mama Mia to his credit. No doubt he will continue to transition behind the scenes and I would be very surprised if he doesn’t direct another movie sometime soon.
It’s been a pretty incredible career. I have enjoyed watching Hanks morph from a zany TV actor in drag, to a “would be” Cary Grant, to an Oscar winning dramatic actor and finally into Hollywood royalty. I imagine Hanks will probably continue to pursue a career behind the scenes in the fashion of Clint Eastwood.