Latest vs. Greatest looks at directors, actors, actresses, screenwriters and composers to assess the state of their career as it stands. We’ll look back at the latest 10 movies the artist has done, rate them and then average them out to see where they stand today. We’ll also rank their 10 greatest movies and give them the same treatment to compare what they have been doing to their very best work. (A quick side-note: if an artist is/has been a regular on a TV show we’ll also grade the seasons individually; artists need 10 projects to qualify).
Tom Hanks is the most famous actor in America, if not the world. In a career entering its fourth decade, Hanks has already established a body of work of legendary quality. He has created some of the most memorable characters in film history. He has participated in cinema’s most famous scenes. He’s won multiple Oscars and, were it not for the Academy’s weirdness about giving “too many” he’d have several more. He is equally deft in comedy or drama. He’s directed featured films. He’s been the driving force behind three of the greatest mini-series to ever appear on television. He’s one of the most powerful forces in the industry, but I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him (and in entertainment that’s quite an accomplishment in itself). He is, quite probably, the best actor of our generation….and he started it all by dressing in drag on a sitcom.
Oh you didn’t think we weren’t going to start here? I slapped a Growing Pains picture on Leonardo DiCaprio’s profile. I’m shameless that way. The sitcom about two friends who dress in drag to live in an all-women’s apartment building ran for three seasons and gave Hanks name recognition as a comedic actor. Umpteen dramatic Oscar nominations later, you have to be reminded that Hanks started as a comic actor. He did comedies like The Money Pit, Bachelor Party (The Hangover of the 1980s) and a really painful Dragnet remake with Dan Akroyd. Before we get to his breakout in 1988, I do want to highlight an almost completely overlooked gem in Hanks’ body of work.
Garry Marshall’s 1986 Nothing in Common somehow gets no recognition amongst Hanks best films, but it is and it’s worth tracking down because this was Jackie Gleason’s last movie. Gleason passed away a year after the film was released and I wish he’d gotten Oscar attention for this. Hanks plays a career man on the rise constantly being dragged down by his extremely cantankerous father who he avoids like the plague…until he finds out he’s dying. Eva Marie Saint also appears as Hanks’ mother and it’s just a wonderful film. Totally overlooked gem.
Then in 1988, Tom Hanks received his first Oscar nomination and moved from steady comedic actor to rising superstar for his performance in Penny Marshall’s Big. This film could have so easily been painfully bad. The script is good, no doubt, but the entire movie hinges on the actor playing kid/magically-turned adult Josh Bascomb. Big is funny, hilarious in parts, but it’s also heartbreaking and touching because of Hanks. He always made the adult Josh so transparently a child to those of us in the audience in on the secret. No scene does this better than his first night alone in New York City, alone in a dive, all his bravado shrinks away and he becomes overwhelmed by the sounds and noises; driven to tears because being a kid is frightening. That’s something people seem to forget when they golden-tinge their childhoods. Everyone is bigger than you, you have no idea what you’re doing, you’re scared to death most of the time and you have no coping skills. Big also gives us one of the most famous scenes in film: the FAO Schwartz piano dance with Robert Loggia and Hanks (I talked more about this in a separate column, click here for that).
After Big, Hanks was hot, but his choice of films was not great. This was the era of Turner and Hooch (an anchor that Hanks still uses to keep himself humble), Joe vs. the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities, one of the most notorious flops in Hollywood history. It took four years really after Big before Hanks began his elevation to greatness. He re-teamed with Penny Marshall to play burnout baseball manager Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own (THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!!!) and then made one of the best (the few actually GREAT) romantic comedies with Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Both films were enormous hits and Hanks began a string of critical and commercial hits to rival any in history.
The last vestiges of any doubt about Tom Hanks as a serious dramatic actor were erased when he won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1994 and 1995 for his work in Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Though the quality of the films is undeniable, neither are among my favorite Hanks performances and, yes, I am probably the only person in the world who doesn’t adore Forrest Gump. The performances, though, are both indelible and Forrest Gump has become one of the most famous characters in film history. Philadelphia probably did more to raise AIDS awareness than any other media project to date. Both are good films with great performances by Hanks, they just aren’t the two I would have given him Best Actor for (and I’d have given him four by now).
Apollo 13 was my favorite movie of all-time until the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out and knocked it off. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a kid. I couldn’t imagine anything more cool than to get in a ship and go find stuff no one had ever seen before. Of course, then I found out you needed to be shorter than I ended up being. And have an aptitude for science. And not be claustrophobic. Also the safety record for the shuttle program was becoming a serious issue, basically the astronaut thing did not happen clearly because I’m writing about it rather than orbiting Mars.
Apollo 13 so good, so realistic, so meticulous in its recreation of the most hair-raising mission in NASA history, that NASA personnel came up to Ron Howard and asked him where he’d found some of the archival footage he’d used because they’d never seen it. That’s when you know you’ve gotten your F/X right. Hanks is an even bigger space buff than I am and went to Jim Lovell himself to convince him he was right for the part. Lovell wanted Kevin Costner (Costner made Waterworld instead). With so much STUFF happening in this film, the human element could have easily been lost, but Hanks and a fantastic ensemble kept it simple at its core: get these three men home. It’s still one of my top 5 favorite films. Hanks wasn’t done telling the story of the Apollo program, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.
1995, the year of Apollo 13’s release, was also the year Pixar released Toy Story: the first-ever feature-length computer animated film. It seems impossible that it hasn’t even been 20 years because the film changed everything. It was as much of a landmark in animation as Steamboat Willie or Snow White. CG animation is now the norm and hand-drawn, sadly for those who love it, is all but extinct, The transition was probably inevitable, but the first film was so perfect and so lovable, that even though the animation isn’t near today’s standards, it’s still impossible to poke a hole in the film or its two sequels for that matter. Hanks’ voiced one of the trilogy’s two leads, Woody the Cowboy, and has been an integral part of making him one of the most memorable and beloved casts of characters ever.
We talked about space and we’re soon to talk about World War II, so this is probably a good spot to talk about Hanks and television. Hanks got his first break on the tube and he’s always come back to it. He’s one of the most prominent hosts in the history of Saturday Night Live, one of a handful of stars that could possibly pop up during any show. He’s pictured above inducting Justin Timberlake into the hosts “5-Timers” Club, a running gag on the show that involves a mythical Shangri-La for the most frequent hosts.
His primary contribution to TV, though, has been being the driving force behind three of the best mini-series in television history: From the Earth to the Moon, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. From the Earth to the Moon was born out of Apollo 13. Hanks found so many more incredible stories buried within the history of the race to the moon that he wanted a forum to tell them. The series follows the space race from Kennedy’s thrown gauntlet to the shuttering of our ambitions to explore. I know NASA doesn’t have a lot of fans anymore and they’ve not helped themselves, but mankind needs to explore. It’s part of who we are as a species. We go over the next hill, we cross oceans, we climb mountains and in doing so we better ourselves and invent things and achieve things we never knew we could. We had no idea how to go to the moon when we set out to do it. We invented almost everything that was used. Those inventions commercial applications then changed the lives of everyone on earth. Do you like your calculator? I’m fond of this computer I’m writing this article on. Technology derived from the space race. Humanity needs a huge dream again. I know this is a rabbit trail, but we do so much nonsense in the name of fear or self-interest. It’d be nice to see the country band together and decide to cure cancer, map the ocean floor, reach Mars, do something outrageous that would remind us we’re capable of doing those things. Because we’ve forgotten. We’ve regressed. Turn on Bravo. Chimps would wince at the social norm.
Hanks other two projects with HBO, Band of Brothers and The Pacific were born out of Saving Private Ryan. Unlike Moon, where Hanks does act in one episode, he served behind the scenes on both these projects, but the outcome are two of the best things to ever air on television. Band of Brothers is arguably the greatest mini-series of all-time. I think only Roots and Lonesome Dove deserve to be in the conversation.
Backtracking to films again, in 1998 Hanks teamed with his long-time friend Steven Spielberg for the first time onscreen and the result was Saving Private Ryan. Ryan isn’t just a great picture; it’s one of the best movies ever made and it transcends that to being an “important” movie. In its case, nothing like it had ever been seen. The first 30 minutes, the chaotic, bloody, harrowing slog up the beach on D-Day changed how everyone who never had been in battle viewed war forever. War was never again going to be a guy clutching his chest and falling over after a bang. Ryan showed war the way it really is: a real-life horror show with, hopefully, a reason. From the opening sensory rearrangement, the movie dilates into a simple story of seven men looking for one in the middle of war-torn France. I’ll never forget when I saw it in the theater. There were elderly men in full dress uniform weeping. When Jeremy Davies is too much afraid to climb the stairs and get ammo and aid to his squad mate, one of the uniformed men rose to his feet shaking with rage and started screaming at the scene, “YOU SONUVABITCH! YOU COWARDLY SONUVABITCH! DAMN YOU! DAMN YOU!” Then he broke down and had to be helped out of the theater. I’ve never seen anything like that in a movie before and I doubt I will again. For my generation, the film was a slap across the face. It reminded or made us aware for the first time, that our grandparents had literally saved the world and we owed them thanks for that if they were still around to receive it.
After a very good turn in Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (which I don’t think gets enough credit), Hanks next big project was what I think is his best performance to date. Hanks played FedEx exec Chuck Noland, time-obsessed and career oriented who survives a plane crash and is stranded on a deserted island for seven years. It’s a modern-day Robinson Cruosoe, with the part of Friday being played by a volleyball (Wilson, is to this day, the single best performance by a sporting goods product in a major motion picture). Poignant, sad, funny, and somehow never boring even though Hanks is alone onscreen for 85% of the film (which is part of the genius of Wilson). A lot of people hate the ending of the film. I must admit, I did the first time I watched the film, but I felt very strongly the other way the second time. I think it’s perfect and the monologue he gives to his friend (see my column on my favorite scene in Cast Away) is one of my favorite scenes of all-time.
The decade of Hanks came to an end in 2002 with two fantastic movies Catch Me if You Can (which we also talked about in Leonardo DiCaprio’s piece) and Road to Perdition. Perdition is the best-looking movie I’ve ever seen. Every frame could be a postcard. Hanks, who almost invariably is the good guy, is not a good man in this movie. He kills people for the mob, but when his son witnesses one of those hits and turns on them, he becomes a fallen angel trying one last time to fly him to safety. It pairs the greatest actor of this generation with the greatest actor of the previous in his final great performance. Paul Newman is incredible in this film and that Hanks can hold his own with him is statement enough about the greatness of both. Another favorite scene of mine, in all movies comes in this film and you can click on the link for analysis of it. My opinion of this movie improves every time I watch it and it resides just a hair outside of my top 10 (where there are already two other Hanks films). Best use of rain in a film since Gene Kelly was dancing and singing in it.
Thus ends the decade of perfection and begins the decade of peaks and valleys. The last decade, Tom Hanks perfect run of project picking went off course in a big way, so badly I was afraid it would never come back. In a Hollywood gone franchise mad, Hanks picked the dullest one, becoming Robert Langdon for crushingly dull The Da Vinci Code (worst movie hair ever?) and the better but still bad Angels & Demons. There were small peaks like directing and taking a small part in a film for his son Colin, The Great Buck Howard (great, underrated movie). He also starred along the late (still hurts to type that) Phillip Seymour Hoffman in the fantastic Charlie Wilson’s War. That movie manages in 90 minutes to offer a lesson in the consequences of geopolitical tinkering that most movies couldn’t get across in 90 hours. The scene where Hoffman goes insane on his boss and breaks his window is my favorite scene of his in any film.
There was another, maybe the best, Toy Story, but Hanks followed it with the stunningly average Larry Crowne and the annoying Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (though, to be fair, Hanks character is not at all the problem with that film). Then came Cloud Atlas, one of the most polarizing films of recent years. I know people who I consider to be extremely smart, who do not consider this to be a pile of smoking nonsense. I am not one of those people. I think it is honestly one of the worst, most non-sensical, ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen. I think the make-up is so bad it borders on racially insulting to Asians and though there are seven plots in the film, not one of them makes a lick of sense to me. I came out of that film thinking Tom Hanks was done.
2013 was the year of the comeback. Hanks starred in two of the best movies of the year and took on two challenging vital roles and knocked them out of the park. That the Oscars overlooked Captain Phillips is their loss, but I think he should have won for the film. I have full reviews for Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks on the site, so click on either title to read my full take on those. I was so happy to see my favorite actor acting like my favorite actor again.
So let’s look at the decade of peaks and valleys; the last ten Hanks films:
HANKS’ LATEST TEN:
1. Saving Mr. Banks (2013)…………………………………..9.75
2. Captain Phillips (2013)…………………………………….8.75
3. Cloud Atlas (2012)…………………………………………….1.25
4. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011) ….5.00
5. Larry Crowne (2011)…………………………………………5.00
6. Toy Story 3 (2010)…………………………………………..10.00
7. Angels & Demons (2009) …………………………………6.00
8. The Great Buck Howard (2009) ……………………..8.00
9. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)……………………………9.75
10. The Da Vinci Code (2006) ……………………………..3.00
HANKS CURRENT AVERAGE: 6.650
That uneven choice of projects has left him with a current average that is that of an actor with a quarter his talent. Ridding himself of The Da Vinci Code will help with the next project, but not if that next project is adapting the worst Robert Langdon book, The Lost Symbol, is as ruined. Hanks needs to take the momentum of this year and run with it. He’s not officially signed on to anything, so we’ll see. You really see the quality of his work by looking at his greatest average.
HANKS GREATEST TEN
1. Saving Private Ryan (1998)…………………..10.00
2. Apollo 13 (1995)…………………………………….10.00
3. Road to Perdition (2002)……………………..10.00
4. Toy Story 3 (2011)…………………………………10.00
5. Toy Story (1995)…………………………………….10.00
6. Toy Story 2 (1999)…………………………………10.00
7. Cast Away (2000)…………………………………..10.00
8. Big (1988)…………………………………………………10.00
9. Saving Mr. Banks (2013) ………………………..9.75
10. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)……………….9.75
HANKS’ GREATEST AVERAGE: 9.950
NEW RECORD FOR ACTOR GREATEST AVG!
With at lest 20-30 years of acting left, it seems inevitable that Hanks will get two more 10’s and join John Williams in the ranks of those with perfect career scores. Those who think more of the two films he actually won Oscars for might have him there already. All he needs to do is to look back at the success of this past year and the decade before and if he can return to that form, he’ll retire with an untouchable film legacy as one of the greatest actors who ever lived.