The mystery of Tom Hanks: Why Hollywood’s most decent star is also one of its most complex

In his new film, ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’, Tom Hanks plays a paragon of compassion and humanity. But, much like Hanks himself, an anxious, angry and far more interesting man lurks beneath the surface, writes Geoffrey Macnab

Friday 31 January 2020 09:14
Battling with their darker instincts: Hanks in (from left) ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’, ‘Big’, ‘Cast Away’ and ‘Forrest Gump’
Battling with their darker instincts: Hanks in (from left) ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’, ‘Big’, ‘Cast Away’ and ‘Forrest Gump’

The strangest sequence in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is of Mister Rogers, the avuncular children’s television presenter played in the film by Tom Hanks, sitting in the shadows of the television studio, pounding a piano. For just a moment, Rogers loses his composure, scowls, and shows a flash of anger and frustration. Then, his equanimity returns.

To British viewers, who haven’t grown up watching him, Fred Rogers might seem a bit on the creepy side when first encountered. The set of his US TV show – the hugely popular Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – is like a version of Sesame Street re-imagined by the production designers of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Everything is distorted and out of perspective. There are puppets with strange voices, toy railway lines and weird pictures of friends and colleagues hidden behind little windows which he opens seemingly randomly. Rogers’ way of talking to children is disconcerting. He locks eyes with them and peers at them with intense concentration as if he wants to stare into their souls. Nothing will distract him.

Hanks plays Rogers brilliantly, as a kindly and disciplined figure who goes to extreme lengths to make outsiders feel that they are worthwhile. His magical qualities of empathy and encouragement work even on the jaded, cynical journalist, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), sent to interview him for Esquire magazine. Lloyd has been asked to write 400 words on Fred for a special edition on “Heroes”. As an investigative journalist, he deeply resents such a trivial commission. Fred, though, completely disarms Lloyd with his friendliness and insight. He helps the hard-bitten hack come to terms with his alcoholic father (Chris Cooper), with whom he has a disastrous relationship.

As in so many of Hanks’s performances, we feel that the figure we are watching on screen is engaged in a battle to keep his own darker instincts at bay. Fred shares the anger and vulnerability he senses in Lloyd but knows how to cope with it.

Like Fred, Hanks has an in-built integrity. On screen, regardless of the roles he is playing, he invariably seems ultimately trustworthy, reliable and decent. That is why he sounds so convincing as Woody in the Toy Story franchise. He is now often the actor of first choice whenever directors are looking for someone to play courageous, upstanding, patriarchal figures like his newspaper editor in The Post (2017), or his pilot in Sully (2016), or his lawyers in Philadelphia (1993) and Bridge of Spies (2015). However, in all of these roles, just as he does in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hanks will expose his characters’ frailties, as well as their better qualities. Even when he played a mob hitman in Sam Mendes’ Road To Perdition (2002), he was a very personable one, devoted to his family, as much a loving father as a ruthless gangster. “I am afraid I can’t come to your concert tonight,” he’ll apologise to his son before he goes off on his next deadly assignment.

Thirty-one years have passed since Hanks picked up his first Oscar nomination for Big (1988) in 1989. He won two Best Actor Academy Awards in a row, for Philadelphia and then for Forrest Gump (1994). He was the first man to achieve this feat since Spencer Tracy in the late 1930s. Hanks was nominated again for Best Actor for Saving Private Ryan (1998), directed by his close friend Steven Spielberg, and for Cast Away (2000). He is in the running for Best Supporting Actor this year for A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood and there are countless other awards and nominations for Golden Globes and Baftas. From the outside, it looks as if he scores a home run every time he steps to the plate.

“His public could be forgiven for believing that Tom Hanks has always had it made … but they would be very wrong,” one of his biographers, David Gardner, writes of him in a passage which makes the young Hanks sound like a waif from a Charles Dickens novel. “The reality was a childhood full of doubts, confusion and loneliness. By the time he was 10, Tom had had three mothers, gone to five different schools and lived in 10 different homes. At one stage, he had so many siblings and stepbrothers and stepsisters that he was known simply as ‘Number Eight’.”

In its account of Hanks’s early life in California, Gardner’s book is full of chapters with titles like “A Family Secret”, “A Broken Family” and “A Family at War”.

Of course, it is absurdly simplistic to look at Hanks’s career through the prism of what Gardner calls his “mixed up” and “lonely” childhood. The fact that his parents married young and divorced and that his father, a chef, led an itinerant life, or that Hanks himself married young and divorced as well, doesn’t explain his excellence on screen.

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Hanks with director Marielle Heller on the set of ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’

Hanks is frequently described as contemporary cinema’s equivalent to James Stewart: a beloved, all-American hero. It’s an apt comparison. Whether in Frank Capra movies or the westerns he made with Anthony Mann towards the end of his career, Stewart would frequently show rage and despair. Hitchcock cast him as a voyeur in Rear Window (1954) and a traumatised former detective with a fear of heights in Vertigo (1958). Stewart was a near-alcoholic opposite the giant invisible rabbit in Harvey (1950). Look through the roles the so-called everyman played and you will find plenty of oddballs and outsiders.

The same applies to Hanks as to Stewart. His edge makes him seem authentic. The suppressed anger and neurosis give him an energy on screen that more conventional actors lack. “The golden thread that runs through each highly individual performance is his portrayal of men grappling with the dark undercurrents of their emotional horizons” was how Kirsty Young introduced him when he was interviewed on Desert Island Discs in 2016. Hanks responded with an intriguing explanation of what drew him to acting. The star of Forrest Gump, Big, Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and Splash (1984), an actor whose films have made billions at the global box office, talked about “the vocabulary of loneliness”. He reminisced how an early mentor, stage director Vincent Dowling, had told him “all the great plays are about loneliness”. He also acknowledged that acting for him is “selfishly a constant exercise in self-examination”.

His accounts of his youthful experiences going on his own to watch Shakespeare, Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams plays at rep theatres in San Francisco are revealing. This was a sacral experience for him, mysterious and transformative, a gateway into another world.

Courageous and upstanding: Hanks in 1993 drama ‘Philadelphia’ (Rex)

Hanks has an abrasive, strident voice. His physique is on the scrawny side. He is not conventionally handsome. Early in his career, he was frequently cast as arrogant and obnoxious types. It’s instructive to watch him as Laurence Bourne III, the tuxedo-wearing Ivy League brat with gambling debts who goes to Thailand to build bridges for the peace corps in Volunteers (1985). “You’ve been a constant source of embarrassment and irritation ever since your mother and I brought you home from the orphanage,” his father (George Plimpton) splutters as Laurence smirks in the background. He starred in the film alongside the ebullient John Candy, who had also played his brother in Splash, and had an obvious rapport with him.

Physical comedy came naturally to Hanks. Cast opposite Shelley Long in Richard Benjamin’s The Money Pit (1986), about a couple who buy a rickety old country house which crumbles around them as they try to repair it, he was like a clown in an old Mack Sennett slapstick farce. He’d fall through ceilings and down staircases, get covered in paint, land headfirst in a fountain, electrocute himself, break his fingers or lean against a door or wall that would instantly collapse. There was a cartoonish quality to his acting, a sense that he wanted to keep moving at all times as if scared what he would find if he stood still. Nothing fazed him. Every time he was knocked to the canvas, the former sitcom actor would bounce straight back up again.

Hanks wasn’t afraid of bawdiness, either. The New York Times wrote of his “suave smart-alecky manner” in Bachelor Party (1984), a determinedly lowbrow R-rated comedy in which he is shown chatting up nuns and generally causing mayhem with “chicks, guns, fire truckers and hookers” in advance of his wedding.

Determinedly low brow: Hanks in ‘Bachelor Party’ (1984)

“He’s all over the place, practically spilling off the screen with an over-abundance of energy,” Variety noted of Hanks in Bachelor Party. In A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, that energy has been cut off completely. Hanks’s performance is characterised by its very deliberate restraint, but he is still able to bring an unlikely intensity to the role. Watching him, we are aware of the immense effort Fred puts into keeping his emotions in check.

For all his skill in hinting at his characters’ inner lives, Hanks’s approach to his profession is pragmatic. As he told Kirsty Young when she asked about his “nice guy” image and lack of enemies, he learnt early on that a collegiate approach helps everyone. On one of his very first jobs as a professional actor at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in the summer of 1977, the other actors warned him “that you had to show up on time, you had to know what you were going to say and even if you did not like the people personally you were working with, you had to respect their process. If anyone becomes a squeaky wheel, that means the show doesn’t go on and, guess what, they could be fired.”

Hanks is the opposite of a squeaky wheel. Nonetheless, he is a far more complex and enigmatic actor than his folksy persona suggests. Beneath that calmness, we can always detect the doubt, anger and grinding anxiety that make him so intriguing to watch – even in the blandest-seeming roles.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in UK cinemas now

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