Tom Hanks is a Hollywood institution. With the release of Inferno, the third in a trilogy of Dan Brown adaptations directed by Ron Howard, Hanks reprises the role of Robert Langdon: the Harvard professor of historic symbols, for another round of global intrigue and adventure. Now aged 60, Hanks has been top of the Hollywood pile for 30 years, with the inherent goodness, and charisma he brings to the big screen still striking a chord with the movie-going public. It’s an impressive feat for an impressive man. No other Hollywood star has been able to stay as relevant to audiences even as the landscape of film has changed around him he has remained a constant, and entertaining presence. How can this be when so many of his contemporaries have either disappeared altogether, or had numerous sharp declines, and comebacks? Maybe it’s because he is the symbol of the cinematic good guy.
The Early Years
After a few years skirting around various television comedies, Hanks gained his breakthrough role in Splash, which also marked his first collaboration with Ron Howard. Throughout the eighties Hanks, as he himself admitted, was a jobbing actor. It would take nearly a decade for him to become the kind of star that could pick his own projects. In the meantime he began to create the typical Tom Hanks protagonist: odd, charming, humorous yet never a clown, he was the Hollywood everyman, almost by accident. Of his early career there are some major hits: Bachelor Party, Turner and Hooch, and the film that changed the course of his career, Big. Directed by Penny Marshall, Big is a strange beast by 2016 standards. It fits into a weird time in eighties filmmaking, as does John Hughes entire output, where the film’s premise is one of romantic whimsy, but the film itself is a little creepy. Yet none of that creepy factor touches Tom Hanks performance. Playing a child trapped in man’s body, Hanks refuses to play it broad and easy, instead there is a sense of wonder, and even fear to the new adult world he had wished his way into. The performance made Hanks a bona fide movie star, and scored him his first Academy Award nomination.
At first Tom Hanks was primarily a comedic actor. He fitted in nicely with peers like Robin Williams, and Michael Keaton, yet he had the power to elevate even the most contrived Hollywood fluff. Which brings us to his most famous collaboration with Meg Ryan: You’ve Got Mail. Hanks and Ryan had worked together previously on Joe vs the Volcano, and the Superior Sleepless in Seattle. In the latter Hanks eschewed the more romantic characterisation of rom coms, by playing the role of Sam Baldwin, a man who is raising his son after the death of his wife. It’s a muted dramatic performance in an excellent comedy. On the other hand, You’ve Got Mail is as broad as possible. Directed by Nora Ephron, who also directed Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail is a riff on the Jimmy Stewart film The Shop Around the Corner. The film is fairly standard, but it gave Hanks the opportunity to embody the role of an actor, that it could be argued, Hanks is the modern equivalent. What better actor to fill the imposing shoes of legend Jimmy Stewart than Tom Hanks.
The Oscar Bait
The Jimmy Stewart comparison becomes even clearer in the films that brought Tom Hanks Oscar attention. Granted his two back-to-back best actor wins, for Philadelphia, and Forrest Gump, are measured by Hanks own talent, but since then, and especially with his collaborations with Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks has inherited Stewart’s crown of the all American hero.
While Steven Spielberg’s career may be remembered for his collaborations with Harrison Ford, or sharks and dinosaurs, the four films starring Tom Hanks is a jewel in the careers of both men. It was Spielberg that capitalised on Hanks all-American goodness. Spielberg recognised how Tom Hanks “movie star” could inform the audience of his films. He is the calmness in the chaos of Saving Private Ryan, he is a symbol of clear-eyed American justice as he pursues Leo in Catch Me if You Can, he is the empathetic fish out of water in The Terminal, and the one good man between corrupt, Cold War-torn governments in Bridge of Spies. Tom Hanks is the good guy, not the tough guy, or the bad guy (as The Ladykillers taught us), just the good guy.
The Modern Movie Star
In the modern movie landscape star power is a thing of the past. It’s a time where Bruce Willis make straight to Blu-ray films, it’s a time where Arnie can’t buy a hit, it’s a time when a Tom Cruise movie can flop, but none of this has affected Tom Hanks. Hanks has always been able to stay a modern movie star, even as Hollywood changed around him. Like box office draws Chris Pratt, Robert Downey Jr, and Jennifer Lawrence, Hanks complements the modern framework. Like the others, Hanks is part of two money-making franchises (Toy Story, and The Da Vinci Code films), which Inferno will add a lot more cash, and a host of prestige roles, like Captain Phillips, and the upcoming Sully, he even stars in music videos.
Due to his likeable screen presence, and his charming off-screen presence, Tom Hanks is always the guy you root for. For thirty years it’s been the same: if Tom Hanks is on screen, you want him to win.