Everybody's Mr. Hollywood - Tom Hanks - returns to the big screen

June 25, 2011


Tom Hanks is one of the most successful figures in show business, a two-time Best Actor Oscar winner and the star of 17 $100 million-plus box office hits. Yet here he is in Dallas, sitting in the Hilton Anatole, talking about the ones that didn't take, the almosts and not-quites, the woulda-shoulda-couldas.

According to Hanks, who is in town to promote his new comedy, Larry Crowne, which he co-wrote, directed and stars in, you can think you are doing everything right when you are making a film, and yet still sit back helplessly and watch it come to nothing when it opens.

"There was one year where I had three movies back to back," he recalls. "First, I made The Polar Express, which was about four-and-a-half weeks of this bizarre motion-capture thing. It was everybody who had made Forrest Gump and Cast Away, and there we were again. And then, with very little turnaround, I did The Ladykillers. That was a quintessential Coen brothers team that was put together. I did that all summer long and then in the fall went into The Terminal with [director] Steven Spielberg."

He continues, "Those movies all came out back to back [in 2004]. The Ladykillers disappeared without a trace, although there's some amazing stuff in it. The Polar Express has become this odd, quasi-historical thing, because it's the first motion-capture movie, and the technology never really became what people thought it would be. And The Terminal was an OK movie [that didn't do as well as expected at the box office].

"So you never know what's going to happen."

But isn't Hanks, who was first nominated for an Academy Award for his enchanting turn as a boy trapped in a man's body in Big (1988), before pulling off back-to-back Oscar wins with Philadelphia (1993) and Forrest Gump (1994), selling himself a little short? After all, many of the folks who were invited to the Oscars the year that Hanks was up for Big -- Kevin Kline, Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith, Edward James Olmos -- haven't been invited back in years.

By contrast, Hanks (who is also a member of the academy's 45-member Board of Governors) was this year asked to hand out the Best Picture Oscar -- the ultimate sign that you've become a Hollywood elder statesman.

With the smiling modesty for which he is well known, the actor adamantly refuses to indulge in his own canonization. He seems to want to strike a careful balance: He doesn't want you to think it comes easy, but he doesn't want to hint that there's anything necessarily tortured or obsessive about his creative pursuits, either.

"Not to bring a cheesy sports analogy into it," he says, "but it's like a long baseball career. You got to have good seasons, or you're not still going to be there. I don't dwell an awful lot on what happened 15 years ago.... And so it's like, 'Don't look back.' You always have to be moving forward."

In Hanks, who turns 55 on July 9, you catch glimpses of what you suspect has to be buried behind the sunshiney countenance: a raging ambition, a doggedly serious-minded approach to his craft, a deep pride at having come out at the top of the Hollywood heap.

If you ask him enough, you might even get him to acknowledge that he has done some truly exceptional work.

"I will go back and see moments every now and again, and I'll think, 'Hey, man, that was pretty good,'" he admits. "Just before I left [for Dallas], I went in to say goodbye to my son, and he was watching Catch Me If You Can, it was on cable or something like that. It was the moment where Carl and the FBI agents go into his old house and talk to [Frank Abagnale's] mother, and I thought, 'This is a good scene.'"

But then, as if some internal humility meter has gone off, he deflects: "Of course, it was Spielberg, and he made a damn good movie."

A Hanks history

Even if Tom Hanks doesn't want to play along, though, it's hard for the rest of us to resist. After all, it's the movie buff's favorite game: Is Hanks the greatest actor of his generation? Or merely among the very best?

Do we dare mention his name among the greatest screen actors of all time -- in my personal playbook, that would be Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole and Jimmy Stewart -- or is his success at the Oscars more akin to, say, that of Walter Brennan, an admittedly terrific performer with an undeniably limited range, who won three Oscars through a kind of happy serendipity between actor and role?

We can all agree that Hanks had a buoyant early period. A California native who tried, with minimal success, to get his college drama teachers to take him seriously, he scored his big break on the 1980 ABC sitcom Bosom Buddies, playing a man who dresses as a woman in order to secure cheap rent in an all-women's apartment building. Good-looking without being sexually threatening, he lent a sweetness to movies that otherwise would have been too crude (Bachelor Party, Volunteers) and a down-to-earth quality to those that might otherwise have choked on whimsy (Splash, Joe vs. the Volcano). And in Big and the perennially underrated Punchline (1988), in which he played a struggling stand-up comic, he hinted at the unexpected, even creepy depths of contempt behind the eager-to-please facade.

He learned to exploit that darkness, to tease it out in quick, startling moments, and that is when he got great.

Playing an AIDS-afflicted lawyer suing his old-boys-club law firm in Philadelphia, he trembled with silent outrage -- and gave voice to a generation of gay men whose illness had been ignored by politicians and business leaders. He was winsome and eminently quotable in Forrest Gump, and then swiftly, immortally heartbreaking, when his title character, a mentally challenged man who hopscotches through history, learns that he has also fathered a child. ("Is he smart?" Forrest asks the boy's mother, played by Robin Wright, and rarely have three words been so capable of inducing an entire auditorium of people to instantly weep.)

Let's not forget, either, what are perhaps his two greatest performances, which earned him his fourth and fifth Best Actor Oscar nominations: Saving Private Ryan (1998), in which he's a decent-hearted soldier slowly coming to despise the war, and Cast Away (2000), in which he plays a FedEx exec stranded on a deserted island, Sisyphus and Job rolled into one, asking the biggest questions of all (What is the purpose of existence?) without once making us feel as if we're in a Philosophy 101 lecture.

He seemed to be in a perpetual golden age: appealingly relaxed in those otherwise cloying Meg Ryan collaborations, 1993's Sleepless in Seattle and 1998's You've Got Mail; utterly adorable as the voice of Woody in the "Toy Story" pictures. He even managed to make The Green Mile (1999) semi-watchable.

And yet, it has been nearly nine years since Hanks' last truly surprising performance, in Catch Me If You Can (2002), playing an FBI agent whose doggedness tips over into a dark and melancholy kind of obsessiveness. Since then, he has starred in assorted misfires (The Ladykillers, Charlie Wilson's War) and soulless money grabs ( The Da Vinci Code and its prequel, Angels and Demons). His best work in recent years came when he revisited the Woody character in Toy Story 3 (2010).

Some of us also can't help but wonder if he has it in him to pull off the sort of late-period performance -- a la Brando in Apocalypse Now or O'Toole in My Favorite Year -- that forces us, in one devilish instant, to reconsider everything a brilliant actor has done before. Despite the Oscars and the $100 million-plus-grossing movies, Tom Hanks remains a curious case: an almost-legendary actor who still hasn't realized his full potential.

A new movie

Now for the disappointing news: That potential is no closer to being realized with Larry Crowne, which opens nationwide Friday. Hanks spent five years working on the script with My Big Fat Greek Wedding scribe Nia Vardalos. His decision to direct, he says, was born less out of a burning desire to be the boss than simple necessity: He couldn't imagine seeing the vision he had labored over for so long be taken over and altered by a different filmmaker. (Hanks' previous directing experience consisted of a mostly forgotten 1996 musical-comedy called That Thing You Do! and episodes of the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon, which his production company, Playtone, produced.)

"It's not the greatest of days when you decide to direct it yourself," he says. "It's not only more work. You also think, 'Here goes 18 months [making it], plus another six in promoting it. That means I'm taking myself out of the marketplace for a lot of other things. And then, the worse thing is, I have to make the movie as good as possible. That's a beast."

A beast indeed. Pretty much from the opening credit sequence, Larry Crowne feels tone-deaf and strained. As the plot unfurls, Larry is fired from his job at a Target-like superstore because he doesn't have a college degree. In order to get back on his feet, he enrolls in community college, where in short order he meets an oddball collection of younger students (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wilmer Valderrama, Rami Malek), who give him a makeover, and the requisite gorgeous professor (Julia Roberts), frustrated by both her job and marriage and ready to be swept off her feet. You can guess the rest.

Hanks does seem genuinely pleased with the film. "The disappointments that I have are so minor," he says. But once again you catch glimmers of anxiety -- an awareness that, after spending two years on this movie, and not acting in any others, he really wants to see Larry Crowne succeed.

At one point, he asks me if I saw the movie with a large audience -- it's a long-standing studio policy to make critics and journalists see comedies with preview crowds, under the theory that laughter is infectious. When I tell him there were only a few other journalists in the screening room in early June, he twists his face in irritation.

"And you went 'ha-ha,' right?" he asks, mimicking polite, dismissive laughter. Happy as Tom Hanks comes across the rest of the time, you suddenly can't help but wonder if a marketing executive is about to get seriously chewed out.

More on the way

So do we shrug our shoulders and write Hanks off as one of those solid actors who went a little bit soft (see the dismal past 10 years of Robert De Niro's career-on-autopilot), or who eventually decided that he'd rather have a big paycheck than a fat new challenge (paging Harrison Ford)?

Hanks insists that there is no grand strategy behind his career choices. He says, "You can't sit back and say, 'All right, we've done the comedy, now it's time to get you an action-hero part.' Then, you're just making movies by formula."

But after a stretch where his ambition appears to have gone a little lacking, you have to wonder if he is now determined to double-down.

He just finished shooting an adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's seemingly unadaptable post-Sept. 11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (published in 2005), co-starring Sandra Bullock and directed by Stephen Daldry (The Reader). It's a supporting role in the sort of demanding, somber drama that he hasn't attempted since Cast Away.

Those of us who have been yearning to see him follow in the footsteps of Jimmy Stewart -- to whom Hanks has often been compared, and whose dirty old man performances in Vertigo and Rear Window played so brilliantly off his sweet-and-innocent reputation -- are even more excited about Cloud Atlas, an adaptation of David Mitchell's wildly convoluted 2004 novel, set to be shot this fall, with directors Andy and Lana Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) collaborating. Hanks will play multiple parts in the six-section story, including the pivotal role of the nefarious seafarer Dr. Henry Poole.

Will Tom Hanks eventually be remembered as one of the three or four greatest screen actors of all time?

We will wait and see, and pay careful attention.

For now, though, we can be certain of this much: He is an actor who works very hard to make it seem effortless; who, as much as he smiles, is on some level deadly serious.

"I'd hate for you to think that I'm just disconnected from everything," Hanks tells me, near the end of our interview. "But I know how this works now, and the serendipity of it is something that you cannot predict. Early on, when I was doing that thing of studying the dailies on tape, I realized that something that I thought was magnificent was horrible, and something that I thought was dismissible ended up being brilliant.

"And other times -- and this can drive you crazy, too -- it has to be so light and so natural and you are in the midst of so much life crisis and hell that's going on in your regular life, that to get to that light and natural place requires true artistry."

By Christopher Kelly

Source : Star Telegram