Tom Hanks: The most famous man we know nothing about
The actor has written a book of short stories. Do they contain any clues to the real man?
Tom Hanks at his office in Santa Monica, California. Photograph: Jake Michaels/The New York Times
Lovely, lovely Tom Hanks – whom only a heel could dislike – has just published his first collection of short stories. If we know anything about Hanks we know he wouldn’t turn in shoddy work. Uncommon Type (the title references the author’s passion for antique typewriters) features a good story about space travel. We get a clever dissection of an awkward romantic relationship. There’s a particularly revealing tale about a young boy juggling divorced parents. That will surely tell us something about Hanks’s own, troubled childhood.
Here is the problem with delivering such a collection when you are as famous as Hanks. We all want this book to reveal the secrets he won’t tell interviewers. More particularly, we long to find a crack in the amiable facade that has encased Hanks since the Reagan years.
“I think what I am is that I am not cynical,” he once said. He has been a committed supporter of the Democratic Party throughout his career. But he has also been happy to front such unapologetic celebrations of the American Way as Forrest Gump. One son – Truman Theodore – seems to have been named for two American presidents. He turns up early on set. He is never rude.
There must be a crack somewhere. Where is the grit in the smooth mechanism? If Hanks had been born 40 years earlier he would surely have acted for Frank Capra, but even George Bailey, the hero of that director’s It’s a Wonderful Life, gave in to a very un-American class of mortal despair. The Tom Hanks we know would never have imagined himself out of existence.
A faint hint of cynicism does arrive in a story entitled A Junket in the City of Light. We travel with a newly discovered star – plucked for an increasingly inane franchise – as he suffers a hurried, impossibly trivial series of press junkets. “What’s it like working with Willa Sax?” everyone asks him. “Is that really your butt in the hurricane scene?” Is Hanks actually complaining about the trials of being a movie star? Not really. It ends in a gentle moment of acceptance. No cracks are yet visible.
Look what’s coming next on the CV. Early next year we’ll see him as Ben Bradlee, the Washington Post editor who helped break Watergate, in Steven Spielberg’s promising The Post. After that he returns as the voice of Woody, the embodiment of frontier decency, in Pixar’s inevitable Toy Story 4. Despite the advance of Donald Trump, Tom Hanks’s Kinder Gentler America project remains unimpeded. They should put him on the $50 bill.
It adds to the heroic image that Hanks did not have a happy childhood. In a recent episode of Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4, Hanks wept as he recalled escaping loneliness with trips to the theatre. “Look what you’ve done to me!” he said to Kirsty Young. He soon pulled himself together and finished the job.
When Hanks was just five, his dad, an unattached chef, left his mother and took the kids with him. Hanks was born in the Bay Area of California and grew up in a series of homes throughout the western states. He reckons he had two stepmothers and three stepfathers. One of 11 step siblings, he joked that he was sometimes referred to as “number eight”. He is not the first actor to have developed his skills as a way of melding in with new environments. Tom was the class clown, but he was not any sort of rebel. The young Hanks became involved with religious groups and (if we don’t believe him, then who can we believe?) arrived at college as a virgin.
Vincent Dowling had a hand in discovering Hanks. The Irish director and impresario, then director of the Great Lakes Theatre Festival in Cleveland, Ohio, brought Hanks in as an intern when the young actor was still at college.
A break came in 1980 when he was cast as one of twin leads in an ABC sitcom that sounds like a parody from South Park. In Bosom Buddies, which ran for an astonishing 37 episodes, Hanks plays one of two men who must pose as women to secure housing in a desirable apartment. This really existed. Excerpts are on YouTube.
Years of bits and bobs followed before he broke out as a man romancing a mermaid in Ron Howard’s still delightful Splash (1984). Four years later, Penny Marshall’s Big, concerning a boy magically transformed into an adult, won Hanks the first of his five Oscar nominations.
Light comedy is what he does best. He does it better than any contemporary. There is no shame in that. Just look at him driven to hysterical, deranged despair as his house falls about his ears in The Money Pit (1986). Nobody else could so effectively capture that sense of an everyday Joe pushed towards madness by unhappy circumstance.
The lead role in Big should have been impossible to pull off. Josh Baskin, a 12-year-old from New Jersey, gets translated into a handsome 30-year-old and goes on to secure a managerial role with a Manhattan toy company. Along the way, he becomes involved – she believes romantically; he thinks not – with a clever, beautiful colleague played by Elizabeth Perkins. Josh mistakes a sexual advance for an invitation to a sleepover. It could have gone so wrong. One dreads to think what a queasy, sentimental mess the late Robin Williams would have made of the role. A few years later, Jim Carrey might have chewed the scenery to pieces. No actor of Hanks’s generation has that gift for comic ingenuousness. His timing is excellent. He knows how to have fun. But what wins us over in Big is the sense that we’re watching a man who really does have a child’s lack of guile. What’s the old gag? The secret of success is sincerity. Fake that and you’ve got it made. If Hanks is faking it then nobody has yet found him out. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t really a robot from the future. But Tom Hanks does really seem to be a sweet, ingenuous man with no sharp corners.
A distinguished line leads from Tom Hanks back through other comic geniuses such as Jack Lemmon, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. As those actors would have agreed, however, you don’t get the big awards for playing the amiable suitor or the frustrated idiot. In 1993 Hanks caused some controversy by taking the role of a saintly gay lawyer in Jonathan Demme’s Aids drama Philadelphia. There were complaints about straight-washing, but he won the Oscar anyway and – in an incident that later inspired the Kevin Kline movie In & Out – credited his drama teacher as a fine gay American at the podium.
A year later, he joined Tracy to become one of only two men to win back-to-back Oscars. Forrest Gump, in which he played a holy idiot, famously beat Pulp Fiction to the top prize. Hanks was established as Hollywood royalty and nothing has come along to disturb that status. He’s the centrist it’s okay to like.
Hanks attributes his disciplined attitude to the fact that he first got married at the age of 21. It was 1978 when he tied the knot with Samantha Lewes, also an actor, and, in the succeeding tricky years, he had to keep a family afloat between intermittent jobs. There was little drunkenness on the Sunset Strip. “The kids’ mom and I had restrictions upon us that meant we could not spin out of control,” he told the Guardian recently. “If we did, shame on us.” His son from that marriage, the actor Colin Hanks – so good in season one of Fargo – could easily be mistaken for a younger brother.
Those early experiences also helped him to appreciate the security when it finally arrived. He has been married to the actor Rita Wilson since 1988 and, with characteristic humility, refuses to regard the longevity of their relationship as in any way remarkable.
“They remember when life was normal,” he says of Colin and his older kids. “When we lived in standard houses and I sometimes had work or not. And there was not the ballyhoo that goes along with everything. My younger kids have always had this other guy who was their dad.”
We can invent reasons to complain about Hanks. Yes, he was solid and watchable in films such as Bridge of Spies, Sully and Saving Mr Banks. But would it kill him to give us another great full-on comic performance such as those in Big and Splash?
There are only so many homespun authority figures available in any year’s middle-brow Oscar-magnets. The Academy may be more prepared to honour roles in which the actor dies slowly than those in which he marries a mermaid, but, whereas Hanks acquits himself admirably in he former, he is quietly transcendent in the latter (if quietly transcendent isn’t an oxymoron).
If he won’t go in that direction, would he not consider taking a risk with a genuinely unlikeable, boundary-pushing role? Think of Henry Fonda, another obvious predecessor, as the ruthless psychopath in Once Upon a Time in the West. Nicole Kidman is prepared to chance being a punk matriarch in the upcoming How to Talk to Girls at Parties or a victim of occult menaces in Killing of a Sacred Deer. He came close as the mob enforcer in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition (2002), but Hanks was still playing the father figure. Fonda’s killer was a genuine psycho.
Tom Hanks seems content to remain being Tom Hanks and, amazingly, that character doesn’t seem to be a construct. In her excellent book on Marilyn Monroe, Sarah Churchwell noted how many writers thought it clever to put the star’s name in inverted commas. But Tom Hanks isn’t “Tom Hanks”. It seems that we have been looking at the real man for 30 years.
Either that or he’s an even better actor than we have been led to believe.
EIGHT ACTORS WHO HAVE WRITTEN FICTION
A woman of great versatility, Fisher wrote plays, memoirs and screenplays. She remains best-known for her hilarious semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge.
Yes, we know, James. You are the polymath to beat all polymaths. If he’s not making art, he’s making albums. His collection of short stories, Palo Alto, received strong notices and was adapted into a decent film.
The actor has been writing fiction for more than 20 years. His 2002 novel, Ash Wednesday, remains his best-received. Rules for a Knight, a historical yarn, was published in 2015.
The boffin comic wrote pieces for the New Yorker throughout the 1990s. His fine novel Shopgirl was made into a touching film starring the author and Claire Danes.
Here’s an odd one. The Australian actor published two teen novels, Bewitched and Seduced by Fame, when she was just 18. If she hadn’t become a soap opera star, she might have followed that path.
The Italian Stallion wrote Paradise Alley – the tale of a family of wrestlers from Hell’s Kitchen – as a novel before he got his break with Rocky. In 1978 the not-terrible film version became his directorial debut.
In collaboration with Jeff Rovin, the durable star has written a sequence of fantasy novels known as The Earthend Saga. Honouring the X-Files brand, the books concern a mysterious force causing the world’s young people to behave strangely.
Well, if her sister Jackie can do it… Joan has published a series of racy novels, but her most notable literary achievement was negotiating $2 million for a book that the publisher deemed unsatisfactory. Guinness World Records cites this as the world’s largest payment for an unpublished manuscript. Good for her.