Tom Hanks is ubiquitous on the interview circuit this week, his pitches for Sully representing a master class in movie promotion. He drops witty sound bites and responds to tedious questions as though they were insightful. If Hanks’ responses seem vaguely familiar, however, it’s because he has played essentially the same character in his last few movies — the stolid and stalwart hero in Captain Phillips, in Bridge Of Spies and, now, in Sully, in which he’s the brave pilot who can land on water if not walk on it.
In his interactions with the press, Hanks, 60, skillfully portrays his new movie as unlike any other – after all, Clint Eastwood, age 86, directed it. When asked about Clint, Hanks responds: “You don’t want to piss him off because he may cold-cock you.”
But the unasked question this week is this: In both his choice of roles and his cool demeanor, is Hanks now becoming a replica of Jimmy Stewart? And is this a career trap? They share certain distinctive traits — the all-American guy and the friendly neighbor. I enjoyed some encounters with Stewart in his later years (he died in 1997) and noticed that, like Hanks, he was impeccably gracious and cautiously distanced. Even on political issues, Stewart played it very cool, taking positions that were the polar opposite of his liberal friend Henry Fonda. But while Fonda was often shrill and obstinate, Stewart was soft-spoken and measured.
In comparing the two careers, however, I’d argue that Stewart’s era in Hollywood was much friendlier to stars than is Hanks’. While Stewart could seem like a blank canvas, the studios were committed to assembling high-voltage star combinations around him. Among Stewart’s leading ladies were Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly. Sharing top billing with him were the likes of John Wayne, Cary Grant and George C. Scott. The story backgrounds were as varied as the casts: Spirit Of St. Louis, Harvey, Shenandoah, You Can’t Take It With You, How The West Was Won, Strategic Air Command, etc. Jimmy Stewart’s career sustained its pace because Hollywood, in its often clumsy way, understood how to treat its stars.
While Hanks too has had some talented co-stars (Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle), he has essentially carried his best known hits, such as Forrest Gump, Cast Away or Philadelphia. They were Hanks vehicles. His career, to be sure, originally took off as a result of light comedies like Splash and Big, but as a young actor he soon ran into a wall of losers like Punchline, Joe Vs The Volcano and Bonfire Of The Vanities. Jumping in desperation from William Morris to CAA, Hanks came to represent one of Mike Ovitz’s success stories, with the young agency helping connect him to challenging roles in Gump and Philadelphia. Like Spencer Tracy before him, Hanks won back-to-back Oscars as Best Actor. His career was also advanced through the establishment of Playtone with Gary Goetzman, a production entity responsible for shows like Band Of Brothers and John Adams on HBO.
Still, Hanks has not had the benefit of a studio machine behind him as Stewart had, and hence has regularly hit speed bumps. Films like Larry Crowne and The Thing You Do have apparently reminded him that his talents resided in acting, not directing. In recent years the Hanks name has appeared on curious projects such as A Hologram For The King – movies that would suggest he gets bored when not working.
As a professional celebrity, however, Hanks has retained a Stewart-like stature — a respected leader of his community but not an argumentative advocate. He remains active in Academy affairs, while avoiding day-to-day responsibilities on thorny issues. While he becomes ubiquitous when his movies open, he warily avoids the press between gigs.
He is, in short, Mr. Good Guy, and, as such, I would like to have Hanks at the controls of a plane if I ran into rough weather. But it would also be convivial to have the likes of Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich on board as well.