In 1994 and 95, Tom Hanks became only the second person to win and subsequently retain the Oscar for best actor. Not only that but he is one of Steven Spielberg’s favourite performers, has appeared in a number of the most successful films ever made and even has an asteroid named after him. That would be quite a return for anyone, let alone somebody so mediocre at acting. Indeed I would go so far as to deem it miraculous that a person who can only play one character, and quite a boring one at that, could become such a global star.
Tom Hanks plays the same person in every film; he is always the good guy, a trustworthy all American hero. He never plays a real anti-hero, and he never will. The Tom Hanks character does have its variations; he can be a little bit angrier, a bit stupider, a married man or a bachelor. Occasionally he’s a tad scared and every once in while he loses his rag. Sadly though, whatever the surface variation, it’s always the same guy on the inside.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is in Hanks’ new film, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Hanks plays a loving and doting father figure, a performance criticised as overly sentimental, bordering on unwatchable. Perhaps the critics today would be well served re-watching Road to Perdition. In that film Hanks plays a gangster and murderer but, the odd burst of righteous anger and machine gun fire aside, Hanks’ character is basically a predictable, safe, loving father figure. Despite initially appearing to be a total departure, it is a classic Hanks role.
Or again, in Saving Private Ryan, Hanks plays a military leader who ends up as a father figure to his regiment. He’s an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. What about Toy Story? Woody is an honest, heroic, trustworthy sort of guy. Catch Me If You Can? The same. Philadelphia? The same. Forrest Gump? You guessed it, the same again.
Indeed, looking back through Tom Hanks’ filmography, a pattern starts to emerge. Compared to other similarly acclaimed actors, one starts to wonder quite how he has made so much of so little. Where is the Travis Bickle, Jake Gittes or Vito Corleone on his C.V.? You’d expect that someone with such a long and successful history would try something new once in a while but, in this case, you’d be wrong.
In fact it is very easy to describe any Tom Hanks role. Firstly there is an archetypal character, a sort of virtuous good guy, honest, heroic, trustworthy and, the Terminal aside, American. Secondly there is a context, something like ‘he’s a soldier on D-Day’, ‘he’s a gangster in the 20s’ or ‘he’s a castaway on an island’. That’s it, really.
Perhaps it’s understandable then that Hanks has done so much of his work with Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Both are excellent filmmakers, one could even call Spielberg a genius, but both are also both notable for their sentimentalism, emotional manipulation and distaste for moral ambiguity. By contrast Martin Scorsese, the master of the anti-hero, has eschewed Hanks throughout his career, preferring more versatile talents like Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
Fortunately for Tom Hanks, the character he plays happens to be the perfect one for Hollywood audiences. He is a very safe man to cast, he always does the same thing and it always makes money. In fact since his breakthrough in Big Hanks has been acclaimed as a great actor. If so, then he’s the dullest ‘great’ actor I’ve ever seen.