The word Everyman is used so frequently to pin down the appeal of Tom Hanks that few are compelled to question it.
And yet, is it really every man who could be expected to remain so calm and collected while storming the beaches of Normandy? In trying to guide a badly damaged Apollo space capsule back home? Or having discovered, upon waking, that his body has overnight morphed from 12 to 30?
Of course, it’s true that Hanks, who’s receiving BAFTA/LA’s Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for excellence in film, has time and again portrayed a type of man who might be described as ordinary. That is to say, a guy who manages to make it through the day without benefit of chiseled visage, rippling physique or acrobatic fight moves. But more often than not, Hanks’ seemingly average Joes find themselves caught up in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
So it may be that when people speak assuredly of Hanks’ Everyman quality, what they really mean is that he projects a kind of dignity, morality and heroism that are increasingly rare commodities at the cinema. He may not be every man, but he’s who every man would like to be.
Which makes it all the more ironic, one supposes, that Hanks began his career by playing a cross-dresser, in the short-lived ABC sitcom “Bosom Buddies.” That gig led to bit parts in a few movies, as well as the lead in “Bachelor Party” (1984), a sophomoric T&A romp notable mainly for how inconceivable it is to imagine Hanks making it today.
That same year, Ron Howard’s mermaid comedy was a “Splash” for all concerned, prompting Pauline Kael to remark of Hanks’ buoyant performance: “He has the expressiveness of a little kid who can’t hide a thing.”
But in the post-“Splash” years, it was Hanks who foundered like a fish out of water, with a string of starring roles in alleged comedies long since forgotten: “The Man With One Red Shoe”; “Volunteers”; “The Money Pit,” which had Steven Spielberg as an executive producer; and “Dragnet,” which at least was a hit.
The Israeli-made “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” in 1986, represented a rare foray into drama, though Hanks’ dramatic aspirations were on better display in “Nothing in Common,” where he was the irresponsible son to Jackie Gleason’s irascible father.
Then, in 1988, there were “Big” and “Punchline” to cement the claim that Hanks might be taken seriously, no matter that both films were comedies of sorts. (“Punchline” went so far as to talk explicitly about the world of standup comedy, and what a cruel, callous place it can be.) It was a splendid double act for which Hanks was named best actor by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. “Big” earned the actor the first of his five Oscar nominations. Immediately thereafter, dross followed in the form of “The ‘Burbs” and “Turner & Hooch.”
John Patrick Shanley’s “Joe Versus the Volcano” was an enterprising, absurdist romp seen by too few moviegoers, and may be the best of Hanks’ three screen pairings with Meg Ryan. “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” on the other hand, was the type of volcanic disaster that careers are lucky to survive.
Hanks retreated for a moment –two years passed, during which he was only the uncredited narrator of “Radio Flyer” and very good as the gruff coach in “A League of Their Own.” Indeed, Hanks may have needed a disaster to prompt a reassessment of his career. For he was about to soar back, like a phoenix reborn out of “Bonfire’s” ashes.
If “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993) is ultimately little more than a treacly concoction destined for enshrinement in the chick-flick pantheon, it was in Hanks’ AIDS-stricken lawyer in “Philadelphia” that one could see the full evidence of an actor who had grown weary of playing the funnyman.
To no one’s surprise, Hanks pocketed the actor Oscar for his work. But it was with “Forrest Gump” that the Hanks we now know (and can’t imagine ever having been without) seemed fully formed. That movie was a cultural phenomenon to rival few of its era, and there was Hanks at its center, the glue deftly holding together the movie’s fabricated down-home charm, state-of-the-art special effects and recrafted American history. Another Oscar quickly followed.
In the ensuing years, Hanks has remained at the top of his profession, with his choice of top projects and collaborators with which to make them. Thus, a series of pictures in which he seemed as iconic as one of the faces on Mount Rushmore: “Apollo 13,” which grew out of the Hanks’ fascination with America’s space program as did the subsequent HBO miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon” (on which Hanks was producer and co-director); Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” — not just the inevitable pairing of Hollywood’s most successful actor with its most successful director, but a vivid, stirring tribute to the WWII generation; and “Cast Away,” which may be the ultimate test case for an actor having to “carry” a movie on his shoulders alone. Hanks carried it off so well in “Cast Away” that it seemed like old hat — which it may well have been, given the many solitary hours he had previously spent in a recording booth, giving life to Woody, the rationalist star of the two “Toy Story” films.
Along with all of that, he has even found time to direct one feature (“That Thing You Do”) and to produce a little movie called “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Hanks’ screen persona is by now such a comfortable fit that he must be wary of how quickly nice can become tedious. So, like Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart before him (to whom he is frequently compared), he has striven against his typecasting as a decent, upstanding, nonthreatening human being.
Yet, even when he was cast as a murderous gangster of “Road to Perdition,” the film can’t stop reminding us what a fundamentally good person the character is. (More fruitful performances were delivered in his dogged FBI agent in “Catch Me if You Can,” and a return to the physical, slapstick comedy of his early career in “The Ladykillers” and “The Terminal.”)
But while one can easily picture Hanks in a remake of “High Noon” or “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” could he effectively coarsen himself in the way Cooper and Stewart did in the Westerns of Anthony Mann? Or the way another famous Tom did for another famous Mann, in the urban western “Collateral”? There’s every reason to believe that he could, but will Mount Rushmore still welcome him if he does?