It's weird to say this about someone as acclaimed as Tom Hanks, but: He's underrated.
Yes, Hollywood's nicest guy has two best actor Oscars on his mantel (for "Philadelphia" in 1994 and "Forrest Gump" in 1995), but that category seems to be done with him. He has not been nominated in it since "Cast Away" in 2001, although he did snag a supporting nod last year for "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." That means a string of his best work has escaped the little gold guy's attention: "Captain Phillips," "Sully," "The Post," "Catch Me if You Can," "Road to Perdition." Hanks was thought to be an awards contender for all of those and he'll probably miss out again for "News of the World" when nominations are announced March 15.
Undoubtedly, none of this bothers Hanks. After a COVID-19 battle that shuttered production for months, he's back in Australia, playing Elvis Presley manager Colonel Tom Parker in a Baz Luhrmann project. He has a sci-fi movie called "Bios" and several other titles lined up. "In the Garden of Beasts" will find him squarely in the Hanks wheelhouse: a principled authority figure who bucks the tide to do what's right, much like his characters in "Bridge of Spies," "Greyhound," "Philadelphia" and "The Green Mile." Even when he played a mobbed-up gunman in "Road to Perdition," he was a kindly mobster who loved his kid.
The exciting aspect of the Luhrmann movie is that it will bust Hanks out of nice-guy jail. He once claimed that he wasn't sure he could play a villain but, perhaps spurred by frequent questions on that topic, he's finally breaking bad (unless you count the nefarious Bill Gates type he played in "The Circle," widely and wisely ignored). Parker is a liar and cheat who may have harmed Presley's career as much as he helped it, and weirdly, it'll be the actor's second Elvis-adjacent film after the little-seen but droll "Elvis Has Left the Building."
In a Walker Art Center appearance where he said he once considered moving to Minneapolis to try his luck at the Guthrie Theater, Hanks also traced his choices back to childhood. "If there is any one thing that sort of does in fact drive my artistic bent in choosing films or relating to characters or being interested in these themes, even if they're just comedies, [it's] usually that — combating against loneliness," he said.
As a director, too, his work has been about communities, whether it's the garage band in the lively "That Thing You Do!" or the classroom in the tedious "Larry Crowne." Here are seven greats from Hanks to keep you company.
Picking just one of Hanks' many pilot/captain/astronauts means skipping past "Apollo 13," but this is my favorite Hanks performance. It's all about the final moments after Phillips, having survived an attack by pirates (including Minneapolis' Barkhad Abdi), drops his steely resolve to reveal all the feels he has bottled up.
Hanks has many gifts as a performer, but you wouldn't necessarily list "transformation" among them. Everyone knows who Mister Rogers was, which makes this performance even more miraculous because Hanks uses Rogers' measured delivery and a few cardigans to convince us he's the beloved TV neighbor. Marielle Heller's film smartly uses the association between two beloved icons by insisting Rogers and Hanks have more dimension than their work hints at.
Once a star develops a "thing" they use often, one of the smartest strategies is to deploy that thing in different contexts and genres. Hanks' traveling news reader is not much different from the average-guy-of-principle role he often plays, but the 19th-century Texas setting makes it feel fresh.
Hanks became only the second back-to-back best actor winner (the first was Spencer Tracy) for "Gump," although he says it took three days of unusable footage before he figured out how to do it. Incredibly, although director Robert Zemeckis has said he can't imagine anyone else as the kindhearted Forrest, it's been reported that John Travolta turned down the role in favor of "Pulp Fiction" (for which he lost the Oscar to Hanks) and that Bill Murray and Chevy Chase also spurned the part.
You could call Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr a villain, but he's so pervy and absurd that it's hard to think of him that way. Dolled up like Colonel Sanders, Hanks handles Joel and Ethan Coen's rococo language beautifully. The actor said he wanted the Coens to fit him into one of their bizarro worlds; they responded by handing him the sort of goofy screw-up they usually ask George Clooney to play.
A lot of funny people have a childlike quality, but not Hanks. Even when he's immature (in "Bachelor Party," for instance), he's undeniably an adult. Maybe because his own sense of humor is so knowing? But in "Big," the first movie where it was clear he's a gifted character actor, he captures the innocent selfishness of a kid so believably that his would-be love scenes with (adult) Elizabeth Perkins are real creepy.
It's probably as hard for an actor to pretend to be a stand-up comic as it is to be a singer — maybe harder, since singing can be dubbed. That's demonstrated in this drama about a pair who become friends while grinding out the comedy club circuit. Putting to good use his experience as the dream guest of late-night talk show hosts, Hanks nails both the neediness and the wit that covers it up, in a way that co-star Sally Field can't. (In time-dishonored Hollywood fashion, they play potential lovers in "Punchline" but the next time they'd be on-screen together, the 10-years-older Field would be his mom in "Gump.")
Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367