Todd McCarthy: Dissecting Tom Hanks' "Specifically American Brand of Decency"

Tom Hanks - Photofest stills - Publicity - Split - H 2019
DreamWorks SKG/Photofest; Lacey Terrell/Sony Pictures Entertainment; Paramount Pictures/Photofest

The 'Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' star will be honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes on Jan. 5: "Hanks really is the last throwback to pre-Vietnam American masculinity, a stable guy you feel you can count on."

Tom Hanks' first movie was really cheesy. Seventh-billed in a 1980 stalker "thriller" called He Knows You're Alone, the 24-year-old actor played a bushy-haired psych student who tries to impress young women at an amusement park with his alleged ability to spot the criminal type. There's absolutely nothing here to suggest that this seemingly affable but unprepossessing fellow would go any further than the other young actors in this defiantly talent-free film, none of whom was ever heard from again.

But the kid with a vagabond California childhood pressed on, soon winning roles on popular shows such as The Love Boat, Taxi, Happy Days and Family Ties and, for two seasons, on Bosom Buddies (he turned down Fantasy Island). As Hanks told Oprah Winfrey in 2001: "Several things always separated me from a herd of other actors. Whenever I auditioned for a part, I'd think, 'I'm probably better than 50 percent of the actors here, because half of these people are self-conscious in ways I'm not.' I would do anything — I didn't care. But many would not make fun of themselves the way I'm willing to."

In 1984, he got his big break in cross-species love fantasy Splash, in which the wet embrace of unbridled hedonism on the part of Daryl Hannah's free-spirited mermaid proves more than a regular guy like Hanks can resist. Audiences immediately were drawn to Hanks' how-lucky-can-a-guy-get incredulity at being favored by this natural-born, unembarrassed sensualist. And they have remained drawn to him throughout the subsequent 35 years. The worldwide grosses for his films will shortly reach $9 billion, leading Time magazine to anoint Hanks as one of the nation's "Top 10 College Dropouts."

Hanks, who will receive the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Jan. 5 Golden Globes, has been an anomaly among actors, and even more so among movie stars, since he arrived on the scene. Except for the flat-out funny guys like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams, nearly all the dominant male stars in the 1980s and '90s were hunky tough guys, often with gun in hand, who were awfully good at causing and surviving mayhem. Most of them were conspicuously great-looking, especially with their shirts off, which in at least some cases suggested that they were putting in more hours at the gym than studying acting. It was the time of Arnold, Sly, Clint, Mel, Burt Reynolds, Tom Cruise, Harrison Ford, Bruce Willis. Average Joes were out, hard bodies were in. So where was this pleasant, amusing, quintessential nice guy going to find his niche in Hollywood?

Hanks is the only movie star around today who projects a specifically American brand of decency, which suggests an implicit bond with common folk and a straightforward way of thinking and talking that harkens back to earlier generations. He's the only contemporary actor of stature whose manner, bearing and presumed sense of fair play suggest a link to revered actors of the past, particularly James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Spencer Tracy — all of whom, it should be remembered, also were awfully good at comedy.

Both Splash and the even more successful Big, in 1988, branded him as a popular romantic comedy actor and farceur who provided a perfect match to young romantic comediennes. Swinging the other way into big-time serious fare, he starred in his biggest clunker of all, Brian De Palma's film version of Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, in 1990, which Hanks dubbed (in his 2016 interview with Oprah) "one of the crappiest movies ever made." He was on safer ground as the boozy manager of a female baseball team in Peggy Marshall's very popular A League of Their Own.

In 1993, Hanks took the big leap from the safe sphere of comedy to the risky realm of a drama about AIDS, Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. The performance, beginning with the youthful swagger of an on-the-rise attorney, passing through the initial shock of infection and gradual withering and deterioration, is acutely sensitive and moving.1255952Hanks won his first Oscar for the turn and doubled his pleasure the following year with Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump. The humorless, emotionally blank, athletically gifted idiot savant who manages to take part in an exceptional number of historical events is a role not softened by Hanks, whose maintenance of an almost Buster Keaton-like deadpan throughout miraculously works to the film's immense favor.

These two films launched Hanks' greatest decade. But as if these were not enough, there is a third role, from 1995, that in the long run will no doubt eclipse all the rest, because it will be watched and enjoyed for generations to come: Woody in the Toy Story series. How absolutely wonderful that part is, both in visual execution and vocal dexterity. To say that Hanks makes this doll come alive is an understatement; he's probably the most recognizable and beloved sheriff in film history.

To top it all off, Hanks began producing during this period, and his track record in this regard puts to shame many for whom it's a full-time occupation. In 2002, Hanks personally produced a little indie-styled project called My Big Fat Greek Wedding and walked away with something like $20 million for his efforts. And as an executive producer, he's had a hand in many television projects, including the long-running Big Love and, closest to his heart, several major history-oriented miniseries, including Band of Brothers, John Adams and The Pacific.

If this man for all seasons has an Achilles' heel, it's in the realm of directing. He's tried it a few times, mostly on television but twice on the big screen, with That Thing You Do! in 1996 and, 15 years later, Larry Crowne. Both centered on small-town guys, played by Hanks, trying to make something of themselves, but neither gained significant creative traction.

Still, the major successes continued. Hanks wasn't sure he was the right actor to star in Saving Private Ryan, but Steven Spielberg proved him wrong. The Spielberg collaboration has continued apace ever since, ranging from the very fine (Catch Me If You Can and Bridge of Spies) to the not bad (The Post) to the terminally awful (The Terminal). It's supposed to continue with In the Garden of Beasts, in which Hanks would play the U.S. ambassador to Hitler's Germany before the war.

If any film proves beyond doubt Hanks' ability to hold the audience in the palm of his hand, it's Zemeckis' Cast Away. As a FedEx employee whose plane crashes into the Pacific, leaving him stranded on an uninhabited island, Hanks is obliged to become a new Robinson Crusoe and figure out how to survive. Aiding this effort is a volleyball nicknamed Wilson, with whom one might say the man established a good rapport. Few actors could pull off a performance as demanding as this and not overstay their welcome, but Hanks pulls it off as if it were second nature.

Although wildly successful, the three Da Vinci Code films seemed like time-wasters as far as Hanks' abilities were concerned, and his adventurous outings in the 2000s with such worthy filmmakers as Mike Nichols, Sam Mendes, the Coen Brothers and Stephen Daldry didn't quite jell. More successful were his studies of two portraits of real men of transport: as the seaman whose cargo ship is hijacked in Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips and as the pilot who landed his jet in the Hudson River in Clint Eastwood's Sully. And life simply wouldn't have been complete had not Hanks also taken on, and nailed, playing Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks.

In his latest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hanks catches the unique charm and charisma of yet another mild-mannered sage, Fred Rogers. What is it about this actor that allows him to range so far, from the innate goodness and likability of Woody and Fred Rogers, the vulnerability of an AIDS casualty and the blank slate of Forrest Gump to the deep sensitivity of his prison guard in The Green Mile and the unifying force of astronaut Jim Lovell in Apollo 13? Hanks really is the last throwback to pre-Vietnam War American masculinity, a stable guy you feel you can count on, a quietly persuasive moral force around whom people can gather, a man whose natural bent is to gradually gather consensus. He doesn't insist upon your attention, nor does he wear a visible ego. There's no mystery here — Hanks is a good man, and you're glad to be in his presence whenever you can.

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.