Tom Hanks must have done something heinous in his life, right? Something awful? Nasty? Unspeakable? Unprintable? Something he wouldn’t tell his mother?
No? Cheated on his taxes? Stole a parking space? Didn’t recycle? Forgot to wear a flag pin?
Perhaps not. Long one of America’s leadingest leading men, Hanks, 52, is a real disappointment to connoisseurs of celebrity misbehavior — even if he did make his name as a transvestite (in the gender-bending ‘80s sitcom “Bosom Buddies”).
Married to the same woman (actress-producer Rita Wilson) for more than 20 years, he’s been irritatingly on target about doing the right thing. He received the U.S. Navy’s highest civilian honor in 1999 for “Saving Private Ryan.” He was instrumental in pushing through the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. He helped make AIDS part of the national conversation via the dying Andrew Beckett in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” (1993). When it comes to salacious scandal, he generates as much juice as a turnip. Frankly, it makes you wonder why we’re writing about him at all.
There is, of course, a reason: “Angels & Demons,” the Ron Howard-directed follow-up to “The Da Vinci Code,” which opens Friday and returns Hanks to the role of Dr. Robert Langdon, Harvard professor, expert in religious iconography/symbology and theology’s version of Indiana Jones. The story involves dead popes, a secret society, a good-looking woman, a fanatical, unstoppable assassin — it could be the “The Da Vinci Code,” except for all the Einsteinian hoo-hah about antimatter and Galilean astrophysics.
But amid a project in which so much is being repeated, the most surprising thing, in the endless summer of Tom Hanks’ career, is that the actor is repeating himself. Unlike most long-lasting stars in Hollywood, that’s something he hasn’t done. At least not since he became a star.
This wouldn’t have been surprising two decades ago. Back then it was all boyishness all the time. And quite a few mediocre movies — “Bachelor Party” (1984), “Volunteers” (1985), “The Money Pit” (1986) “Dragnet” (1987), “The ‘burbs” (1989), “Turner and Hooch” (1989) — it’ a wonder Hanks survived the ‘80s. How about “The Man With One Red Shoe” (1985)? OK, we’ll stop.
The point is that Hanks was being boyish, and boyishly unwise about what the heck he was doing.
That is, except for “Splash” (1984). And “Big” (1988). Movies that remain iconic in their way, and were the real steppingstones to Hanks becoming the star of such movies as “A League of their Own” (1992), “Sleepless in Seattle” (1993), “Philadelphia” (1993), “Forrest Gump” (1994) and “Apollo 13” (1995), the films upon which the brand was built. (“Toy Story” and its sequels — seem to exist in another Pixar-ian universe entirely.)
It’s a frequent enough phenomenon that popular artists — authors, composers, actors — have a single period in their lives of furious productivity and creativity, something which can’t be maintained forever, but which permanently identify the careers in question. This may be true of Hanks, although it seems equally true that his most interesting work as an actor (he also has credits as a producer) has been done post-Oscars (following back-to-back wins for “Philadelphia” and “Gump”).
Even more curious is that his best performance, period, was in a supporting role: Carl Hanratty, the FBI agent who chases Leonardo DiCaprio in and around Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” (2002), and was a dead-on portrayal of world-weariness, innate charity and droll, dry self-awareness.
Perhaps the secret to the heart of Hanks is in his facial hair. Give him a mustache and you get something really interesting — Michael Sullivan, the ‘30s hit man of Sam Mendes’ “The Road to Perdition” (2002) and the first (and last?) heavy Hanks has played. Give him a goatee — as the Coen brothers did in “The Ladykillers” (2004) — and the outcome is close to excruciating. But a full beard? Not so bad — as shown by the hirsute Robinson Crusoe character of “Cast Away” (2000), in which Hanks gave another Oscar-nominated performance.
But it was a clean-shaven Hanks who played what for this critic was his most piquant starring role: Charlie Wilson, the hard-drinking, womanizing, reprobate, delinquent congressman of “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), the Mike Nichols comedy that had the bad luck to be coming out just as American audiences were turning their backs on anything to do with the Middle East. It was the moviegoer’s misfortune: Hanks was bawdy, vulgar, corrupt, irresponsible — it was the most scandalous thing he’s ever done, outside of being in a movie with such bad timing.
But timing has always been on Hanks’ side, it seems, if one judges by the roles he didn’t get, or take — the title role in “Jerry Maguire,” or Peter Pan in Spielberg’s “Hook,” or Zefrim Cochrane in ” Star Trek: First Contact.” Tom Hanks on the Enterprise? We might now be looking at him in a whole other light.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article