Mr. Iconic turns ironic

Turning his back on the “Mr. Nice Guy” roles that have brought him mindbending success, Tom Hanks now prefers to play killers and con men.

In the 20 years since he made his initial splash in “Splash,” Tom Hanks has experienced what is arguably the most impressive winning streak of any actor in Hollywood history. Some say he’s smart, others say he’s just plain lucky, but the bottom line is he’s mind-bendingly rich and successful for an actor with forgettable looks and invisible charisma.

All of which makes it tempting to speculate whether “The Ladykillers” finally may end that streak. The new Coen brothers movie strikes some as droll but others as just plain flat. And its $13 million opening weekend, albeit the best showing for a Coen brothers film, was the weakest Hanks opening since “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1990.

The inevitable question: Will “The Ladykillers” finally end the Hanks roller coaster?

At 47, Hanks seems increasingly eager to shed his Jimmy Stewart “Mr. Nice Guy” image and to grow as an actor — or at least grow more facial hair. Hence he’s now drawn to roles like the killer in “Road to Perdition” or the con man in “The Ladykillers.”

The industry yearns to confer on him some form of iconic aura — witness the weird decision to play “Hail to the Chief” for his Oscar entrance — but Hanks seems at best diffident about all this. His recent films suggest he has no interest in becoming either an icon or the proverbial “older leading man,” who, like Redford or Beatty, must still get the girl. And there are no Jimmy Stewart-like heartwarmers like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” on the horizon.

So what’s Hanks aiming to do? In his public pronouncements, he is both wary and circumspect.

“Being a media darling is a fate I do not wish on my worst enemy,” he likes to say. “I’m not dazzling enough to be a source of blind items.”

Or, as Steve Martin quipped at a recent awards ceremony, “When you look at him, you wouldn’t think this is one of our greatest actors. You’d think more, ‘Excuse me, what are today’s specials?’ ”

Yet Hanks has brilliantly learned to play to his plainness. After “Splash” he found himself caught in such drab films as “Dragnet,” “Punchline,” “The Money Pit” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” all of which underscored the fact that Tom Hanks was neither a leading man nor a comic lead. Soft-spoken but ferociously ambitious, Hanks was desperately frustrated.

To hear him tell it, something clicked. He decided not only to select his scripts more carefully, but also to go with his own taste. As he puts it, “If I read a script and say, ‘Hey, I’d like to see that movie,’ then I want to be in it.”

At about that time, Hanks also changed agents (signing with CAA’s Richard Lovett) and brought aboard a savvy producing partner named Gary Goetzman, and suddenly the cycle started. It consisted of a dazzlingly eclectic series of starring roles that defied Hollywood logic: “Forrest Gump,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Philadelphia,” “Apollo 13,” “Cast Away” and, of course, “Saving Private Ryan.”

The Oscars rolled in, the gross participations catapulted skyward, and Hanks had transformed himself from an actor into a sort of Hollywood immortal.

His producing efforts further burnished this status. “Band of Brothers,” co-produced with his friend and neighbor, Steven Spielberg, was a formidable achievement on HBO, both critically and financially — the History Channel just paid a record $6.5 million for rerun rights.

Other ambitious efforts are planned for cable, including a miniseries on John Adams and another 10-part mini about the Japanese front during World War II.

Hanks’ company, Playtone, also continues to buy rights to provocative books such as “They Marched Into Sunlight,” about two especially brutal days in the Vietnam War, and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” George Crile’s stinging book about America’s training of resistance fighters in Afghanistan. Whether these films will get made remains to be seen, but no one can accuse Hanks’ company of playing it safe.

Will Hanks as an actor start playing it safe? As unpredictable as his recent career choices have been, Hanks exhibits a strong survivor’s instinct. His next films to be released are directed by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg — about as mainstream as you can get.

And he and his wife are still stashing away their producers’ money from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which was not exactly a film of high artistic aspirations.

It took Hanks a long while to climb into the $25 million club and, “Ladykillers” notwithstanding, he has no intention of surrendering that status. But what sets him apart is his intent to use his muscle to help create a body of truly distinguished work both in film and TV. For a man with forgettable looks and invisible charisma, that is high ambition.

Hail to the Chief may not be so over-the-top, after all.

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