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A week after the election, with many New Yorkers still feeling uneasy about the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, a number of entertainment industry luminaries gathered at the Museum of Modern Art to honor Tom Hanks with the organization’s ninth annual Film Benefit, presented by Chanel.
The election results, a surprising outcome for many who opposed Trump, led MoMA’s chief film curator Rajendra Roy to scrap many of his planned jokes, he said, and just proclaim, “Thank God for Tom Hanks.”
He continued: “For over 100 years, when our country’s faced times of turmoil or uncertainty, we’ve looked to cinema and its heroes for comfort, inspiration and reassurance. Charlie Chaplin gave us his comedic genius and permission to laugh. Barbara Stanwyck gave us her determined strength. … [Tom Hanks] is the cinematic hero we need now.”
When Hanks himself finally took the stage — after a compilation of clips from many of his films and accolades from Emma Watson, Aaron Eckhart, Steve Martin and (via video) Oprah Winfrey, Ron Howard and Clint Eastwood — he echoed these thoughts about the role of film in helping people cope with difficulty.
“I can’t wax philosophically enough about what film means to myself and to any person who ponders the human condition,” said the actor. “We are one week into a different era for the world and for our nation. We can always turn to films, from no matter what era they were made in, to reflect who we are and how we believe and the things we hold dear and important to us. Sometimes they can be silly movies, fantastic movies. The Wizard of Oz when it came out is just as reflective of who we are, who we were, in 1939, as was Gone With the Wind or Goodbye Mr. Chips. The films throughout the ages, in the 1950s and the 1960s, those great years when John Wayne was exhibiting his True Grit at the same time that Peter Fonda was driving across America in Easy Rider. That’s who all of us are. They capture everything about us, one way or another. The rise of artists like Melvin Van Peebles and Sidney Poitier goes on and on.
“We can somehow just sample what makes us a nation and what makes us a people by paying a few dollars and going to a movie theater or by paying a few dollars to go into a place like MoMA,” continued Hanks. “We can turn on our televisions right now and see extraordinary films that somehow, whether or not they were made in the last year or they were made in the 1930s, reflect — we see ourselves up on the screen. Sometimes we’re Barbara Stanwyck in an old Preston Sturges film. Other times we’re Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America. There’s aspects of all of us in those films.”
Hanks even delivered an extended series of remarks about how the U.S. Constitution, singing the Schoolhouse Rock! preamble song and all, will protect the country.
“We are going to be all right,” assured Hanks. “America has been in worse places than we are at right now. In my own lifetime, our streets were in chaos, our generations were fighting each other tooth and nail. Every dinner table ended up being as close to a fistfight as human families are allowed. We have been in a place where we have looked at our leaders and wondered, ‘What the hell they were thinking of?’ We’ve had moments with the administrations and politicians and senators and governors in which we have asked ourselves, ‘Are they lying to us or do they really believe in this?’ That’s all right. We have this magnificent thing that is in place. It’s a magnificent document and it starts off with the phrases that, if you’re smart enough, you’ve memorized in school or just read enough to that you could put it by heart, or you watched those things on ABC where they taught you a little song in order to sing. And the song goes, ‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,’ and it goes on and on. That document is going to protect us over and over again, whether or not our neighbors preserve, protect and defend it themselves.
“We are going to be all right because we constantly get to tell the world who we are. We constantly get to define ourselves as American. We do have the greatest country in the world. We move at a slow pace. We have the greatest country in the world because we are always moving towards a more perfect union. That journey never ceases, it never stops. Sometimes, to quote a Springsteen song, it’s ‘one step forward, two steps back,’ but we still aggregately move forward. We, who are a week into wondering what the hell just happened, will continue to move forward. We have to choose to do so, but we will move forward because if we do not move forward, what is to be said of us?”
Prior to the presidential election, Hanks spoke out against Trump’s lewd Access Hollywood comments, saying he was “offended as a man” and criticizing the then-Republican nominee for his lack of government experience. But speaking to The Hollywood Reporter on the black carpet leading into the gala, he reiterated what he’d said in April on CBS This Morning, and what he would later say in his speech, that the country and its people would be OK.
“This is the United States of America. We’ll go on. There’s great like-minded people out there who are Americans first and Republicans or Democrats second,” Hanks told THR. “I hope the president-elect does such a great job that I vote for his reelection in four years.”
The actor also made it clear that he’d heard Michael Moore’s suggestion that Hanks run for president and he wasn’t too happy about it, indicating he felt he was unfit for the position.
“Not to be completely, over and over coming back to the same thing that I would like to strangle Michael Moore on in offering my name in order to be something other than a CPA, which I’m not qualified to be either,” Hanks said onstage. “We will take everything that has been handed to us as Americans, and we will turn our nation and we will turn the future and we turn all the work that we have before us into some brand of a thing of beauty.”
After the ceremony honoring Hanks, Stephen Colbert asked the actor, even if he didn’t want to run for office, could people continue to think of him as president, again as a source of comfort.
Hanks was humble about the MoMA honor as well, telling THR, “I’m still aghast that they made the choice. It’s a huge honor without a doubt. I never look at my stuff and think [affecting snooty voice], ‘Wow, at last I am at the apex of artistic —’ I always say, ‘Well that kind of worked, and that didn’t work, and that could’ve been better,’ and then the audience informs you in ways that will surprise you. I’m thrilled.”
Roy shared his thoughts on how Hanks is able to be both a movie star with broad appeal and an acclaimed actor.
“There’s not one Tom Hanks character but he’s one of those actors who kind of brings a generosity to the process that informs the characters he inhabits in a way that audiences have embraced,” he told THR.
Eckhart, who played co-pilot to Hanks’ Capt. Chesley Sullenberger in Sully, called his experience working with Hanks “an honor and a privilege just to watch him work and be around him and soak him in, to learn from him, to watch him learn from others.”
In terms of specific memories from their time filming Sully, Eckhart indicated that Hanks offered great career advice.
“Just being in the cockpit with him on those long days and eating lunch with him and talking about the business and his experiences, his wisdom, what he considers to be appropriate or not appropriate in the business or what choices he made or how he overcame obstacles in his career or how he deals with the tribulations of being on set,” Eckhart told THR. “All of this is very interesting to a young actor because he helps people navigate their careers and he’s the best. So anything he says is golden.”
Other guests in attendance included Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, Meg Ryan, David Letterman, Steven Spielberg, Graydon Carter, Wendi Murdoch, Diane Sawyer, Brian Williams, Marie-Josee and Henry R. Kravis and Leon Bridges, who performed for the well-heeled audience after dinner.
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