Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Unsullied Tom Hanks

Next time you’re taking a trip and you spot Tom Hanks at the helm or in the cockpit, beware! He’s got a good, steady hand on the tiller, but the guy has terrible luck. He’s in charge of an American cargo ship off the coast of Africa (Captain Phillips), and the next thing you know, it’s attacked by Somali pirates. He becomes the lead astronaut in a mission to the moon, and because of a mechanical glitch nearly gets lost in space (Apollo 13). In 2016’s Sully, he’s a veteran airline pilot whose US Airways plane out of New York City—with 155 people aboard—is unexpectedly disabled by a flock of Canada geese. Though he makes a successful (and unprecedented) landing in the Hudson River, he then faces scrutiny by the National Transportation Safety Board that nearly grounds him for good.  (More bad luck: ABC’s website announces he’s been nominated for an Oscar for Sully . . . but he hasn’t.)

Even when Hanks is a passenger, bad things happen. Traveling for his job as a FedEx systems engineer, he faces a weather-related crash off the coast of Malaysia. A life raft deposits him on a nameless tropical island where he survives for four years with only a volleyball for company. When he finally gets back to Memphis, he discovers his long-term fiancée has married his dentist. Maybe he had the right idea back in 1984, where as a skinny and curly-haired young man newly elevated from TV sitcomland, he fell in love with a mermaid and followed her into the briny deep. I’d hope our Tom faced better odds under the sea than he later did when traveling on the water and in the air.

There’s one time when Tom was undeniably lucky. When Ron Howard, early in his directing career, was casting Splash, his romantic comedy about a mermaid who washes up in Manhattan, Howard’s assistant Louisa Velis suggested he consider Hanks, because she enjoyed his work on the crossdressing sitcom, Bosom Buddies (1980-1982). At first, Hanks was up for the part of the hero’s devil-may-care brother. But both John Travolta and Michael Keaton passed on the leading role, as did comic actors Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Dudley Moore. Ultimately, Hanks nailed the audition and got the job. Howard says now that what he discovered in Hanks was an ability to play the film’s comic rhythms, “but not sell the integrity or the honesty of the moment down the river.” Hanks himself remembers that once he got the part, “literally, my life was changed forever.”

Tom Hanks’ career tells us something about stardom, Hollywood-style. Though a gifted actor, he’s bigger than the roles he plays, and we in the audience can’t help responding to our sense of his personality as well as to his characterizations. I doubt we’d buy Hanks  as an exotic foreigner, and his bad-guy roles are rare.  (Even when he plays a hitman in Road to Perdition, he’s a good-hearted hitman.) What we see in Tom Hanks is a quality he shares with Jimmy Stewart: the amiability of an American everyman. Stewart played light comic parts (Harvey, The Philadelphia Story), inspirational roles (It’s a Wonderful Life, The Spirit of Saint Louis), and eerie dramas (Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Vertigo). Whatever sort of role he played, we were on his side.

For Tom Hanks we tend to feel the same sort of trust, whether he’s making a film or living his life. Even if his luck with modes of transportation is lousy, maybe he’s the Mr. Smith we’d like to see in today’s Washington.

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