Road to Perdition
The Green Mile
You've Got Mail
Saving Private Ryan
Sleepless in Seattle
There is a reason Tom Hanks is one of the most celebrated actors of his generation.
And I never would have pegged it based on his early career.
Hanks' performance were not bad. In fact, they tended to be very good. But as is often in the realm of comedy, great acting can be overlooked. Also, his early work was a little too smirky; they were fun but they also lacked depth. And yet he turned in some hilarious turns in movies like Dragnet, Splash, and The Money Pit.
The first time I took real notice of Tom Hanks as an acting powerhouse was in the movie Philadelphia. I remember thinking it so strange that a comedic actor like Hanks would be given such a tragically dramatic role. Much was made of his weight loss for the role, but the real work was in his face. The movie itself is actually pretty bad (though I've seen few critics willing to admit it), but the performance Hanks gives is Oscar worthy. Director Jonathon Demmi let the camera in close, uncomfortably close, and Hanks uses that intimacy with the audience for great effect. Watch as he closes his eyes and is taken away by the sadness and emotion of his favorite opera:
After this, I went back and watched his other Oscar nominated performance in Big. At first glance, I thought that it was just another comedic turn. But watching it again, I saw the layers that Hanks was putting into his role. He was playing a boy pretending to be a man who becomes a man but needs to be a boy. That is a complicated persona to present, and yet Hanks is wonderfully open and vulnerable the way a child in an adult world would be.
This next role might be his most iconic: Forrest Gump. This is a character that is often imitated, but (pardon the trite expression) never duplicated. I think in most people's memories, Hanks simply affected an accent and acted simple. But like his performance in Big, he used the outward layers to help inform a deeper character. One of the amazing things about the performance is that it wears its tone and accent like a costume. The real acting is underneath it. I think almost anyone else would have been lost in those layers. But Hanks by this time learned the power of stillness and how to pierce the heart with minimal movement. Not only could he ring deep, genuine laughs, but he could move you to tears. Hear the pain in his voice when he says, "I'm not a smart man, but I know what love is." It is such a deep admission of his failings and yet a defiant proclamation of his wisdom. And look at the killer scene when he comes to realize who Jenny's son is:
These big dramatic roles also helped his comedy. He was able to bring that depth to movies like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail. In the former, Hanks added a melencholy flavor to his widower Sam that did not drain from the humor, but acted as salt to something sweet and highlighted the comedy. And his Joe Fox in the latter could have been played as a one-dimensional corporate jerk. But he brought great humanity to the role, especially the times when he is hurt by the woman he loves.
He got to stretch his adventure/leadership acting skills in movies like Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13. What I really like about both of those performances is the level of control Hanks uses. In both, he plays men of discipline. And he plays the honesty of that role all the way through. In Ryan, Hanks holds in much of his emotion in order to appear strong for his men, only letting himself cry when no on is looking. I read a story that said there was a heartfelt speech in the script about his character's wife and how much he loved and missed her. The article hinted that this speech could have one him another Oscar. But Hanks told Spielberg to nix the speech because his character would not talk about something so private. That character integrity earned so much respect from me. You can see that again with his astronaut Jim Lovell. He is a man trained to not panic. And Hanks trusts the audience enough to understand that the situation calls for panic without him losing his cool.
Hanks has even played a little notorious. His darkest role is without a doubt Road to Perdition. As a hit man out for revenge, Hanks had to project the look of a cold-blooded assassin while at the same time being sympathetic enough to keep us watching. This is no easy task, and yet Hank infuses his character with enough contradiction to keep him interesting. He is a killer and a man of faith. He is a father who scares his son. His main enemy is someone he loves dearly. And Hanks plays all of those parts for everything they are worth.
But his best role by far is as Chuck Nolan in Cast Away. Once again, he went through a radically physical transformation, but that was only the icing on the cake. Whenever Cast Away is on, I cannot stop watching. And the reason is because of Hanks' performance. It is amazing to watch his slow descent into madness. And it is a madness borne out of necessity to hold onto even one shred of sanity. Director Robert Zemekis demonstrates complete faith in Hanks' acting by taking away all safety nets while he is on that island: no musical score, not narration, no monster from which to hide, no other actors with whom to dialogue. Hanks must hold the movie together purely on his skill and talent. Is there any scene more heartbreaking than Chuck and Wilson's last scene?
We believe because Hanks gives every ounce of emotional strength to get us to feel for a volleyball we KNOW is not a person. We are under no illusions. We never see what Chuck sees in his mind. Wilson is just a ball. There is no doubt about that. And yet it kills us to see that scene. And check out the look in Hanks' eyes on his plane trip home: that haunted, hunted look. He snaps "into character" as soon as someone talks to him, but you can tell that he is fundamentally changed. The look that always gets me is when he turns on the lighter. In that one look you can see his utter disbelief at something he knows is real but cannot fathom it.
And finally there is is monologue at the end. It is a pitch perfect expression of loss and hope.
Tom Hanks is one of the true greats. Just to say his name conjures great memories of great performances that will be with us for many years to come.