July 6, 2012

Top 5 Tom Hanks Performances

Tom Hanks

Following my post on The Money Pit this week, I'm ready to dig into Tom Hanks' career and lay out my favorite performances. I should clarify that some of these don't line up with my top choices of movies featuring the likable actor. For example, Saving Private Ryan is a worthy pick for that type of list. However, I don't believe Hanks is at his best in that straightforward role. Looking at my blind spots, I haven't seen The Green Mile, and I've yet to watch Cast Away in its entirety. I expect that those two performances would appear on many lists. I've also removed his voice work from the Toy Story movies from consideration. While he does a good job bringing Woody to life, I'm sticking with live-action performances. I believe Hanks is underrated because he makes acting look effortless. The issue in recent years is his choices, which leaned towards less-interesting roles. It's time for the list!

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Joe Versus the Volcano

Honorable Mention: Joe in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990)
Although he's delivered great performances in dramas, Hanks has untapped potential as a comedian. His work on Saturday Night Live only confirms that theory. I watched Joe Versus the Volcano for the first time last year, and it's a charming movie. This light-hearted fairy tale from John Patrick Shanley is a forgotten gem that deserves much greater attention. Hanks' Joe starts out the movie as a miserable guy with a terrible job, and watching his energy return is great fun. He has excellent chemistry with Meg Ryan (who plays three different characters), and the hokey comedy stays grounded because of their connection.

Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump

5. Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump (1994)
This is the prime example of a case where Hanks' performance outshines the success of the movie. Robert Zemeckis uses Gump's story to look back at U.S. history, but it feels too much like a gimmick at times. What saves the film is Hanks' understated performance, which brings tremendous heart to Gump. We care about the guy even when the screenplay lets him down. This role could easily become a caricature in lesser hands. Hanks never lets him go that way and understands the inherent goodness in the simple guy. I don't agree with the Best Picture win for Forrest Gump, but Hanks' Oscar was well-deserved.

Jim Lovell in Apollo 13

4. Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 (1995)
The role of astronaut Jim Lovell from Apollo 13 may appear straightforward, but it's one of Hanks' most deceptive performances. He brings such humanity to the character without making him perfect and keeps us with him on every step of the crew's dangerous journey. It's an iconic role from a movie that's surprisingly tense given the fact that we know the final outcome. Looking worn-down and exhausted, Hanks brings a quiet resilience to Lovell that's common among the astronauts. They faced remarkable danger on the new frontier and hardly blinked. I've read extensively about the Apollo missions and watched interviews with Lovell, and seeing those conversations just enhances my respect for Hanks' portrayal.

Tom Hanks in Philadelphia

3. Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia (1993)
When you think of roles that could easily fall into melodramatic traps, a prime example is Andrew Beckett. The fact that Hanks delivers such an engaging performance is remarkable. Director Jonathan Demme use a straightforward approach to present the story of a guy with AIDS who battles the close-minded law firm that fired him. I wouldn't call this film a complete success, but my issues aren't with Hanks' performance. He takes an understated approach to the role and doesn't overplay the drama during the big scenes.

Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition

2. Michael Sullivan Sr. in Road to Perdition (2002)
Although I enjoy Hanks' comic roles, his grave seriousness in this Sam Mendes film is pitch-perfect.   He doesn't seem like the right choice to play mob hitman Michael Sullivan but sells it completely. After most of his family is killed, Sullivan takes matters in his own hands. Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig (in an early role) are excellent as his adversaries and deliver a great mob movie. Road to Perdition is based on a graphic novel from Max Allan Collins and Richard Piers Rayner, and the adaptation maintains the dark atmosphere.

Tom Hanks in Big

1. Josh Baskin in Big (1988)
Although he's delivered plenty of memorable performances over the years, Hanks' signature role is Josh Baskin from Big. It's hard to think of another actor who could bring the right mix of youthful glee and optimism to this part. The premise is obviously far-fetched, but Hanks sells the idea that Baskin is a 12-year-old boy trapped in a man's body. Although it's generally a comedy, there's also an interesting sadness to the final resolution. Hanks sells both the joy and the difficulties for the boy in the strange adult world.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list. Do you think Hanks was at his best in Bachelor Party? You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.

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16 comments:

  1. It's a solid list Dan. Glad to see Josh taking the number one spot. He was incredible there... that was the role that launched him into mega stardom for good reason. Nice choice!

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    1. Thanks Fogs! Glad to hear from you in this neck of the woods. I kept thinking I should have a dramatic role on the top spot, but none stood out like Big. It still holds up really well too.

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  2. This is nothing against Forrest Gump, but I’m kind of glad you didn’t call that Hanks’ best performance. Great work there, but I agree that it isn’t his top role. For me, it’s all about the desperate, strong, tireless Andrew Beckett. What Hanks did there just floors me. But man, how can I argue with Big? Thanks such a complicated and layered performance; he’s just sensational in it.

    Once again, you’ve crafted a fine list here, sir!

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    1. Thanks Alex! I actually considered leaving Forrest Gump off the list entirely, but I think his performance makes it deserving. I can't argue with Beckett at the top. It was pretty close.

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  3. I haven't seen all the movies on the list, but I like your choices, especially Philadelphia and Big. It's been a while since I've seen them, but I also have fond memories of his performances in Nothing in Common and Cast Away.

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    1. Thanks Stephanie! I haven't seen Nothing in Common, and I really need to watch Cast Away straight through at some point.

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  4. I would probably put his role in the burbs at number one, if only because I was obsessed with that movie when I was a kid.

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    1. Dave, I actually hadn't seen The 'Burbs until last year for my first '80s Comedies marathon. I think seeing certain movies as a kid can be so different. There are some that I loved and haven't watched since, and I wonder how they would hold up.

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  5. Good list. My favorites would have to be FOREST GUMP and APOLLO 13. What a great actor.

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    1. Thanks Margaret! Those are both good choices. I know Apollo 13 received a lot of praise, but I still think Hanks is underrated in it.

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  6. I'd have to put his Saving Private Ryan role near the top. I suppose it is a bit straight forward but it's probably my favourite soldier in a film ever. And The Burbs would have to be in my top 5 too. Such a manic, hilarious performance. Great choices though. Glad to see Gump get a look in!

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    1. Pete, Saving Private Ryan is a good pick. He's strong in that movie and keeps the story grounded. I might put it on here after watching it again. Hanks has given a lot of solid performances over the years, so narrowing it down to five was tough.

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  7. Sorry - not gonna agree with you on the ROAD TO PERDITION. Hanks is completely miscast - he's a bad ass gangster? I think not.

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    1. Simon, your point makes sense. For me, that's exactly what draws me to this performance! Hanks is forced to shy away from being charming and play a different type of guy. That isn't easy for him to do, and it worked really well for me. He doesn't overdo it and try to play tough but just pulls within himself, which is definitely the right move for this part.

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  8. Great choice for number one. I think a lot of people will consider Forrest Gump or Philadelphia for that spot but Hanks was a great comic actor. For me, that was my favourite period and he's brilliant in Big.

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    1. Thanks Dan! I can't argue with putting a dramatic role at the top, but Big stands out as his best performance for me. He's just so good at depicting the right mix of charm and vulnerability.

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