Tom Hanks’ 10 Best Film Performances to Date
Decades later, it’s still a telling fact that one of Tom Hanks’ key breakout roles was as an overgrown kid in Penny Marshall’s Big. That’s the Tom Hanks I’ve seen on the late night shows, the one who decides to star in the video for Carly Rae Jepsen’s “I Really Like You” and lip synch much of the cheesy lyrics in the same year that he does some of his best work to date in Steven Spielberg’s undervalued Bridge of Spies. He’s still a kid in an adult’s body, but he’s become better at acting like an adult when he needs to, more able to act serious when it’s called for and discuss “adult” subject matter when asked about such things. Underneath it all though, there is an exuberance that hasn’t quit in three decades that is at the heart of why he remains one of the most bankable movie stars out there.
Mind you, this honed adult routine has not always benefitted him. When he plays the self-serious, charmless detective of Ron Howard’s astoundingly misguided Dan Brown adaptations, he feels cold, as if he’s put himself on autopilot just to get through the shooting days. And though his acting in something like Saving Mr. Banks is still dutiful and endearing in a certain way, it reveals a level of business-minded blindness in how he picks his scripts, as one needs to stretch the imagination mighty far to believe Walt “I Heart Hitler” Disney as such a fluffy concoction of character. In comparison, the theatrical-bordering-on-cartoonish extravagances of his myriad performances in the Wachowski siblings’ Cloud Atlas feels adventurous and attuned to a more ambitious part of his instinct as a A-list Hollywood actor.
Adulthood hasn’t always steered him completely wrong (see: Saving Private Ryan, Captain Philips, etc.), but his most vital performances have balanced the duties and responsibilities of being a husband and/or father with the strangeness and inventiveness that’s often tied to youthful energy, which is so often bonded to boundless thought. This is the acting we’ve seen in such blockbusters as Cast Away and A League of Their Own, as well as out-and-out oddities like Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs and the Coen brothers’ undervalued remake of The Ladykillers. There’s palpable anxiousness with the serious tenants of adulthood in all these films, a wanting to subvert the vision of stern masculinity through madness, corruption, and curiosity. And with very few exceptions, including his long-awaited teaming with Clint Eastwood on Sully, that’s the Tom Hanks I look forward to showing up in movies: the man who refuses to fully embrace the popularly accepted vision of an adulthood that he nevertheless seems well-suited to.
So in celebration of this beloved actor, I decided to rank and explain my top ten favorite performances by Hanks.
[Note: This feature was initially published at a prior date, but we’re pushing it again ahead of the release of Hanks’ latest film The Circle.]
10. 'The Ladykillers'
Fans of Alexander Mackendrick’s The Ladykillers, with Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers in lead roles, were quick to dismiss Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2005 remake of the film, and there’s a certain legitimacy to that opinion. Where the 1955 classic played off of deeply British sensibilities in relation to class and crime, and was denoted by an exceedingly dry wit, the Coens’ adaptation includes Marlon Wayans as a stereotypical gangster-type and J.K. Simmons as an explosives expert with IBS, whose need to defecate interrupts at least one of the gathering of criminals’ plans to rob a gambling boat’s safe. And yet, as time has passed and I’ve been able to revisit the film, the comedy has grown increasingly ingratiating to me and its due in no small part to Hanks’ performances as the wicked leader of the criminal gang, draped in an ivory cape and speaking in a delightfully rhythmic delivery that at once parallels and parodies the Southern vocal timbre. Essentially taking on the Guinness role, Hanks taps into the most depraved, desperate, and manipulative parts of the character, but doesn’t forget the simple artistry of what Professor Dorr is able to accomplish through little more than his ability with words and dulcet tone. As such, Dorr becomes the perfect reflection of a performer who makes what might often be seen as a criminal living off of little more than one’s way with speech, invention, and physicality.
9. 'A League of Their Own'
Hanks is not the star of A League of Their Own. That title belongs to the sorely missed Geena Davis, one of the best actresses that the 1990s produced and who has recently stayed away from the spotlight, save for a few indie projects and the defunct Commander in Chief TV series. Davis, partnered with Lori Petty as her peppy, ambitious sister, makes great dramatic hash of this story of the first all-female baseball league, but what is most memorable about the film and most quoted is Hanks’ performance as permanently sauced Rockford Peaches coach Jimmy Dugan. Honestly, have you gone a year of your life since this film’s release without hearing someone saying, “There’s no crying in baseball!” to you? I haven’t and, frankly, I’m still not tired of it, even when I revisit the film every few years or so. Dugan is the film’s reflection of a male-dominated society that many don’t think is ready (or cares) about women’s baseball, and Hanks expertly conjures the skeptical sexist, the bitter baseball would-have-been, and, finally, the accepting professional coach all at once. The actor utilizes physical comedy, exemplary timing, and the hunched physicality of an alcoholic has-been to make the character one of the most quotable personages that the 1990s created, not far behind Forrest Gump.
The scene I come back to most consistently in Penny Marshall’s still-entertaining Big is when Hanks’ Josh is left alone in a sleazy Times Square hotel after being transformed from a frustrated adolescent to a tall thirty-something. Nothing particularly horrible happens to him, but the horrible noises of the city and the sound of his barking foreign neighbor yelling into the phone is enough to reduce him to tears. It’s exactly what one imagines a 12-year-old would do if left in the situation and Hanks so convincingly taps into that fright, isolation, and vulnerability in this moment that the ensuing hour or so seems like a cakewalk. The film goes onto explore concepts of puberty, growing up too fast, the scathing mentality of the business world, and the creativity of the adolescent mind, but the heart of the film remains in Hanks’ playful, soulful performance as a grown kid who scores his dream job of becoming a toy designer and marketer after a chance meeting with the CEO of his company, played by Robert Loggia, in the infamous piano scene in New York’s FAO Schwartz. The transition he makes from a thirty-something throwing action figures together and playing with all sorts of imaginative toys to a seemingly soon-to-be husband to co-worker Elisabeth Perkins is thoroughly effective and convincing. It makes his final decision to go through the pain and annoyance of growing up all the more hopeful and devastating at the same time, and the moment we see Josh back in his natural state, swimming in a business suit, through Perkins’ perspective still makes the heart swell.
7. 'Saving Private Ryan'
There’s nary a scene involving Hanks’ Captain Miller in Spielberg’s beloved World War II epic that doesn’t ring true, including the wrenching final moment between him and Matt Damon’s titular soldier, but there’s one moment that kills me more than even the astonishing D-Day opening sequence. Standing in a field, with his platoon at each other’s throats, Miller opens up about the life he leads back home as a schoolteacher and a husband to a loving wife. It’s a moment of personal stakes that reveals the biased, plot-driven mode that the film works under for nearly every minute of the rest of Spielberg’s three-hour national anthem. Spielberg overworks the heroism of the soldiers to the point that they no longer feel like real people, but rather thin representations of war-film types, and had the film been more stylized to underline the falseness of war films in comparison to the real deal, this could have been Spielberg’s masterwork. It’s not, sadly, but Hanks’ character remains an endearing vision of a regular Joe who got into the war for honorable reasons but clearly sees the horror and death of the war as essentially empty beyond the need to unseat the genocidal madman who is barely a part of the narrative. He’s the singular pulse of life in a brilliantly designed play of war that has somehow come to be thought of as one of the crucial works of the war genre.
6. 'Bridge of Spies'
Unlike the previous film, Bridge of Spies actually confronts Steven Spielberg’s obsession with American heroism, even if he doesn’t follow this conception to their logical yet radical conclusions. Hanks’ James B. Donovan, a talented lawyer, is matched against Mark Rylance’s Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy who he has been charged with defending against a death-penalty sentencing, right before he is asked to broker a deal between the Russians residing in Cold War-era Germany and the USA for a prisoner exchange of Abel for U-2 pilot Frances Gary Powers. It’s a convoluted schema but the film boils down an argument against the simple want for narrative catharsis in life, against killing someone simply because they have been marked as our enemy, because that gives them reason to kill us for the very same reason. It’s true that the character of Donovan could have been drawn a bit more complexly, but Hanks summons a sense of the exhausted, dutiful man of rare ability and power at the heart of the attorney, a man who believes in justice without the fuss and muss of what would make the public feel better or make the government feel more in control. Like Abel, he’s a talented man doing a job that has been colored in ways that are out of his control, and one can sense Spielberg as an artist trying to create a simple case for America being a country of great potential without being the dominant force that so many insist that it is. When one watches the film, you can almost imagine Spielberg, when asked to give more fanfare and buoyant Americana to the story, echoing Abel’s key saying: “Would it help?”
5. 'Toy Story'
Okay, so maybe this is a bit of a cheat, as this is a performance in voice only. In Pixar’s classic breakout hit, one of the greatest animated films to ever be made, Hanks voices Woody, the cowboy figurine who comes to be overshadowed by Tim Allen’s Buzz Lightyear, an adventuring space ranger with lazers on his arm and rocketing wings on his back. The subject of the film is primarily the corruptive power of nostalgia, as the cowboy begins to feel jealousy, anger, and feelings of mortality as Buzz becomes Woody’s owner’s new favorite toy with time, and here’s where Hanks’ familiar, easily ingratiating voice becomes so crucial. Toy Story, and its sequels, deal with an ambitious emotional landscape, and the way that Woody finds the words to express these feelings, both good and bad, are incredibly important to how the final product coheres. When he talks about being forgotten, about being useless and powerless, one can feel Hanks reflecting on the life of a figure of entertainment, which he himself is in a far more complicated way. The life of a toy is not unlike the life of an on-screen character, and the greatness of Pixar’s most substantial franchise comes from its attention to these more potent philosophical details in the narrative of two toys learning to be friends.
4. 'The 'Burbs'
Leave it to none other than the great Joe Dante to find the perfect expression of one’s fear and suspicion of the odd other in the American suburban landscape of the late 1980s. The ‘Burbs remains one of Dante’s most generous offerings and part of its exceedingly high rewatch appeal comes from Hanks’ performance as Ray Peterson, a stressed-out husband who begins to suspect that the new family on his block is a murderous cult of lunatics. Paired with the likes of Bruce Dern’s Lieutenant Rumsfield and Rick Ducommun’s Art, Ray begins to not-so-slyly investigate the odd sounds and happenings that seem to plague the home of the new tenants, digging up bones in the backyard and breaking and entering in his pursuit. The not-so-subtle hint is that no matter how odd your neighbors are – even if they are played by Henry freaking Gibson – you’re probably just as weird, if not much stranger in your own repressed way. The entire cast, which includes Carrie Fisher and Corey Feldman as well, is excellent and often hilarious but it’s Hanks’ central performance as a vision of anxious normalcy, of a wealthy workaholic who always wanted to be a private investigator or a supernatural hero underneath his acceptable guise, that highlights Dante’s war against the regulars.
3. 'Captain Phillips'
First of all, I think the accent is pretty good, all things considered. That’s what so many people remember about Hanks’ performance in Paul Greengrass’s thrilling telling of the hijacking of the MV Maersk Alabama cargo ship, when they’re not quoting scene-stealer Barkhad Abdi, but it’s far more important in its details than that. The risk with any Greengrass movie is that his astounding attention to the details of procedure will make the film feel cold, distanced from the human cost of major events, as much in the taking of the Maersk Alabama as in the hijacking of United 93 or the Bloody Sunday massacre. It’s Hanks and Abdi who provide that element so potently here, and when they are stuck together in the state-of-the-art lifeboat, the clash of the societies that they come from, as well as their similarities, comes into glaring relief. Through the Swiss-watch-like precision of America’s Navy SEALS and other governmental agencies, Greengrass brilliantly suggests that what drives Abdi’s hijacker and the unforgiving society he comes from is a lack of organization and a central, uncorrupt government, but that would all just be the stuff of a political essay were it not for Hanks’ depiction of a good man just trying to save his crew. The fear and disbelief he expresses in the final scene, after his bloody rescue, still has the power to send goose bumps up your back.
2. 'Cast Away'
It’s wrong to say that the ultimate test of a great actor is the solo movie – a film in which you are essentially the lone star, for most if not all of the runtime – as this requires little more than talk between the actor, director, and star rather than the infusion of a myriad of other opinions from co-stars. And though Helen Hunt and Nick Searcy both do incredibly admirable work here in small supporting roles, Hanks is the show in Robert Zemeckis’ superb Cast Away. In fact, the film could be perceived as a recitation on the importance of having co-stars, as it’s the extended time alone that Hanks’ Chuck Noland experiences that both proves the character’s talent for performance, both inward and outward, but also the psychological damage and trauma that comes along with not having people around you. Still, one cannot dismiss the sheer imaginative energy and astounding sense of timing that goes into Hanks’ performance here, not speaking much at all and yet expressing worlds of thought about the importance of simple physical skills of survival to the dangers of isolationism to the thrill of creation. Make the Wilson jokes all you want, but Cast Away is a film almost religiously devoted to the struggle of being and surviving as a human, which takes on its own connotations when you consider this film coming from one of the pioneers of special effects and mo-capping in film. Back to the Future will always be Zemeckis’ enduring classic but Cast Away, for me, is his singular personal expression as a filmic artist, and Hanks’ talents are tied directly to its tremendous successes.
Around the time that There Will Be Blood came out, I remember attending a talk with P.T. Anderson where he mentioned that, amongst all the directors whose careers he admires, he finally hopes that his is most akin to Jonathan Demme’s oeuvre. It sounds strange at first but when you start thumbing through the career of the man behind The Silence of the Lambs, the connection seems almost obvious. Demme has been allowed almost unprecedented freedom as a filmmaker and yet has also essentially remained a populist director, the kind of artist who can imbue a narrative with his idiosyncrasies and personality without losing its mass appeal.
The same could be equally said of Tom Hanks, ultimately, as he remains the gold standard even under the weight of some embarrassing missteps, from The Terminal to Larry Crowne to the catastrophic Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. When they paired on Philadelphia, one could have rightly been hesitant to see such personable artists taking on a story that screamed for showboating and sentimentality. And yet Philadelphia evades easy answers and depictions at every turn, and though Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner deserve premiere credit for this, as well as the inimitable Denzel Washington, Hanks’ invention of Andrew Beckett gives the film it’s unimpeachable soul. Just watch the way we jump from Andrew being an excited, ambitious young lawyer to a hesitant, melancholic, and eternally disappointed AIDS patient, and ask yourself if any actor could have made that transformation feel so instantly believable and equally heartbreaking.
Indeed, Beckett’s case against the masculine-as-fuck law firm where he work involves quite a lot of talk about law, prejudices, disease, acceptable social behavior, and family values, and the film itself can be interpreted easily as a nuanced statement on all these subjects if you watch it enough times; I certainly have. But what brings out the best in Demme and Hanks is the moments of artistry, of the power of brazenly emotional expression in a world ruled not by humanistic logic but by a hugely hypocritical moralistic code that only needs to look correct to be accepted. When Beckett dances with his boyfriend to a gorgeous cover of Talking Heads’ “Heaven” or walks Washington’s Joe Miller through a Maria Callas opera performance, you can feel a belief in art as the salvation of humankind, and it offers an elegant counterbalance to Beckett’s belief that Miller’s sentimentalizing of his story is wrong. Together, Hanks and Demme create an enduring masterwork of human behavior and storytelling, offering a vision of the AIDS crisis that condemns fear and panic, and sees the victims of the disease as not victims at all but as real people who are saying goodbye to everything they are and everything they love about life.