Friday Face/Off: Tom Hanks
“It is better,” said the essayist and moralist Joseph Joubert, “to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” In the spirit of such a great man that we just found out about on Wikipedia, we present you, gentle reader, with the first in what may well be a series of debates on the state of modern film.
One of our crack team of writers will present an argument on a subject of their choosing, using their guile, wit and powers of persuasion. Another will then step up to the plate and present a rebuttal, principally consisting of facile name-calling, “yo mama” jokes, pedantry and playground-level sarcasm.
So, first up we turn our attention to Tom Hanks. Modern Hollywood icon or limited and overrated? We present the argument here…
For the Prosecution:
It’s as simple as this: Tom Hanks ain’t a great actor. He can only ever play one role, over and over again. His movie career is basically Groundhog Day, only with more pained expressions of faux-sympathy that look like they came more from a fibreless diet than talent. And what is that one role? Easy: The All-American Nice Guy.
Even when he’s playing a vengeful hit-man (The Road to Perdition, 2002) or a gay man suffering from AIDS (Philadelphia, 1993) Hanks will inevitably use the same voice (sincere, soft), mannerisms (sincere, restrained) and facial expressions (sincere, thoughtful) throughout. Compare him to one of the true cinematic chameleons of the modern age: Mr. Johnny Depp, whose Ed Wood, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Sparrow all burst with life, verve and characterisation.
And how does Mr. Hanks compare?
Badly, that’s how.
He never plays against type, and the type he plays is sheer bland. You can’t see him playing any type of action hero, for instance, or something that’ll challenge his fanbase of All-American cinemagoing drones. His constant stream of work with such autocratic powerhouses as Disney and Spielberg are fairly indicative of the fact he won’t take career risks. No out-there comedy, intelligent sci-fi, nudity or horror – just the same old schtick of hum-drum melodrama, rumbling along, nominated for Oscars purely because Hanks fits the sort of moronic Identikit model the Oscar committee assumes a winning actor should look like. His films inevitably have predictable, happy endings – and anyone who wishes to comment lambasting this opinion should maybe take a second to think. Yup, that film you’re thinking of is the exception that proves the rule. Send me home, Hanks, and drown us in schmaltz while you’re at it.
Every time you see him on screen, it’s Tom Hanks. It’s not Sherman McCoy or Forrest Gump or Joe vs. the Volcano – it’s just Tom sodding Hanks. It’s practically impossible to see him inhabiting a part; he just adopts the same hang-dog face of disappointment. It’s almost as if he expects somebody to call him on it any minute, dare him to act differently and expose his whole career as a sham. Well, Hanksy, consider it called.
For the Defense:
Tom Hanks is not the most attractive of men. His face looks quite a lot like a surprised balloon. He’s not stacked, he’s teetering on the brink of hairlessness and his voice has that slightly quacky quality that makes him unsuited to anything Shakesperian. And yet, he is one of the most successful actors of all time. He’s won Academy Awards, Golden Globes and his performances have pushed many a film into the realm of the classic. Can Tom Hanks act? Yes.
I bet you can think of at least three absolutely brilliant Tom Hanks films right off the bat. Go on, do it now. Managed it? Excellent. If it took you more than ten seconds, you’re probably thinking of Nicholas Cage instead of Big Man Hanks. It’s alright, we all have embarrassing moments.
Here’s our list off the tops of our heads- Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Big, Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, Catch Me If You Can, Road To Perdition, Toy Story 1 and 2, Cast Away, Sleepless in Seattle.
(Admittedly, the last one is less your heart-clenching classic and more your fluffy kitten souffle, but Emergency Hair Thickener doesn’t pay for itself you know.)
It is no miraculous coincidence that Tom Hanks has managed to star in so many films that have gone on to make millions. The thing about Hanks is there’s something about him that makes an audience just, well, care about him. Through some witchcraft embedded in his very face, if Tom Hanks is telling us a story, we want to listen to it. And for us, that is the essence of a brilliant actor – the ability to transform blank words on a page into a living, breathing being that you cannot help but want to understand.
Whether he’s playing a heartless hitman in Road to Perdition, an ethically-torn prison warden in The Green Mile or an innocent child in a man suit in Big, we want to know what’s going to happen to Hanksy. He – with his unremarkable face and figure – brings a life, a nerve-touching closeness, to characters that make them utterly unforgettable. Come on, Castaway was essentially an hour and a half of a beard talking to a football. And yet, did you shed a wee tear when Wilson finally floated away? Don’t be ashamed. It’s the power of Hanks.