Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Best Tom Hanks Movie (That Demonstrates That He's Always Playing Himself.)

You know why we love Tom Hanks so much as an actor? Because he really sinks into every role.
You know why he sinks into every role so well? Because we don't know anything about him as a real-life person.

You know why we don't know anything about him as a real-life person? Because Tom Hanks deliberately keeps himself separate from his fans and most of society.

You know how I know that Tom Hanks doesn't want anyone to really know anything about him and deliberately cuts himself off from people? Because that's the role he plays in every movie.

Psychoanalysis by movie role can be tricky, so I don't recommend that everyone try it, but I am a certified expert in this field, as I always assume that the character an actor is playing is pretty much the character that actor plays in real life.

(Yes, that's all it takes to become certified in the field of Movie Role Psychoanalysis.)

So Bill Murray is a sometimes-thoughtful, mostly goofy guy with some issues about getting older, in real life and the golf course and movies. Angelina Jolie is a self-important trampy narcissist. Bradley Cooper is that guy in The Hangover, exactly. Jennifer Aniston is Rachel, period.

That's how it works: actors (and I say actors because both women and men can be actors, in the sense that an actor is a person who acts) try for roles here and there, getting big roles mostly by chance rather than skill or looks. Skill and looks are about even, in Hollywood, by my estimation, and in the estimation of anyone who's ever seen one of those Life+Style exposes showing stars without their makeup. Celebrities... they really are like us, in that they, too, look pretty terrible without four-plus hours of work by a professional makeup artist and good lighting. That makeover they gave Golden Voice Ted Williams proved that: if a homeless guy can look that good, then all men are pretty much Tom Cruise, absent the Hollywood effects.

No, looks don't differentiate celebrities, from each other or the rest of us. Do you think that there aren't 1,000,000 girls as pretty as Megan Fox in Hollywood? How long did it take them to recast the new Transformers movie, 3.2 seconds? It probably took longer for them to announce they were going to do that than it did to actually replace her, what with nerve impulses just meandering around at their own pace.

Nor does talent really differentiate actors. Take Harrison Ford, a guy who's always been playing "Harrison Ford." Does he strike you as especially talented? Does this take a whole lot of talent?

That scene actually featured the real Harrison Ford, in a cameo. (He was the drink glass on the table.)

That scene also is included specifically because even I'm not immune the siren song of the extra hits that come from mentioning Star Wars.

Harrison Ford isn't any more talented than any other actor working in Hollywood, and he might be a lot less talented than some. (Or all.) But he's a big-time actor, because he found his niche.

That's what big-time celebrities and actors have to do: They have to become one-hit wonders, of a sort: They have to find a role that suits them -- suits them because it is them-- and then run with that role in every movie, TV show, television commercial, and other media outlet until the public tires of it and goes back to watching Star Wars' mashups:

Actors find a niche and run with it: Steve Carell is Michael Scott. He was Michael Scott on The Daily Show, then Michael Scott on The Office, and since then he's been Michael Scott the married guy and the spy and more Michael Scotts, but he's always Michael Scott, just as Bob Denver was always Gilligan.

If that niche is popular enough, then Hollywood will create roles for it, like it did with Julia Roberts for years, allowing her to be Pretty Woman in a variety of different settings, ranging from Pretty Woman Marries Richard Gere repeatedly to Pretty Woman busts up a toxic chemical scandal. But it won't let people break out of that niche -- Pretty Woman couldn't go to Transylvania, as Julia Roberts found out. (But she can go to Italy and fall in love with Javier Bardem.)

That's how Hollywood really works: actors and actresses, all about even in talent and looks, get lucky enough to be noticed (Harrison Ford was putting cabinets into George Lucas' house when Lucas decided to cast him in American Graffiti) and get put into a role that mirrors their personality, and if that movie or TV series becomes popular, they're set for life.

(If you want absolute proof that this is how Hollywood works, you've got it: Look at Charlie Sheen, who's career arc absolutely mirrors his life.)

That's the key to superstardom and career longevity in Hollywood: be an actor who's lucky enough to land a role that mirrors your personality, and a role that happens to be superpopular. Bruce Willis probably is a wisecracking, pretty tough guy, in real life as he is in his movies.

This all makes sense, too, on a gut level: what role would be easier to play than yourself. What role is more believable than yourself?

So big actors are always playing themselves, which brings us back to Tom Hanks and how I cracked the code about him the other day while I was jogging and listening to Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me and thinking about the movie The Terminal and how it was underrated.

That's really what I was doing. I'm an odd guy.

That's The Best Tom Hanks Movie (That Demonstrates That He's Always Playing Himself), the movie The Terminal, because it really was a great movie and very clever and different and kind of sad and kind of funny and because Tom Hanks genuinely was very good in it; it's the kind of movie that should be heralded as a classic but for some reason isn't, probably the same reason that Better Off Ted isn't on the air and The New Pornographers aren't constantly on the Top 4o: people don't like good stuff.

Well, not good stuff that's a little unusual or quirky or requires a lot of attention and intelligence.

Tom Hanks, in The Terminal, is a man who's entirely cut off from the world around him, an unknowable enigma who, if he doesn't exactly want it that way, can't help being that way. He's arrived in our country without the proper papers and he can't leave the airport. But he can't go back, either, and he can't really speak our language very well, and he doesn't know anybody, so he has to craft an entire life, surviving and making friends with people in a very limited area with few tools to go by and nobody to lean on. Following his adventures as he does that is both thrilling in a small way, and interesting in a larger way, and I loved that movie.

But, as I got to thinking-while-jogging, I realized that "he has to craft an entire life, surviving and making friends with people in a very limited area with few tools to go by and nobody to lean on" sounds a lot like another great, and not under-rated Tom Hanks movie. You know the one I'm talking about:

Toy Story 2.

Wait, what?

You thought I was going to say Cast Away, didn't you? And I could have, because that obviously mirrored Hanks' experiences in The Terminal, but so did his roles as Woody The Cowboy in Toy Story and its sequels.

As Woody, Tom Hanks is a toy cowboy living in a little boy's room - -but he's an old toy, near the end of his life and not as cool as newer toys like Buzz Lightyear. He's not like any of the other toys around him, in fact -- because, as it turns out, he's a collector's item from the 50s and there's not really many of him around, so he's insanely valuable. He might be the only Woody toy left in the world, judging by how Al got excited when he found him.

In other words, he's all alone. In a small world. Trying to build a life. As a cloth toy. And people don't get his fears and he can't relate to them and he's always going it alone only to try to bring the group with him -- he never goes with the group, he's always on his own or they join him.

Just like The Terminal.

And just like every other movie or TV show Tom Hanks has ever made. I even went and checked them, on IMDB. Going all the way back to Bosom Buddies, Tom Hanks is an outsider in whatever world he's in: he's a cross-dressing guy in a woman's hotel. A nerd who plays D&D. A loner who falls in love with a mermaid. The only guy who doesn't want to be at his own Bachelor Party.

He's an iconoclastic musician who's entirely unaware he's at the center of a spy drama, and who's cheating with his best friend's wife. He's a lawyer fired for suffering from AIDS at a time when people were still suspicious that they could catch AIDS just by looking at you. In The Money Pit he literally was trapped in a hole and cut off from everyone for hours - -and he lived in a house in the middle of nowhere and almost never saw anyone else. His wife went off to work in that movie, but did he? I don't remember it.

A man suffering from a brain cloud adrift in the ocean all alone on his way to jump into a volcano. A soldier without a name (in Saving Private Ryan). A cop partnered with a dog, a man on vacation in his own house who sends away his wife and kids. All people living in one small geographical area almost or entirely on their own, surrounded by people who don't understand them and are not part of their world.

Tom Hanks The Loner exists even in characters that would seem not to be loners. Sherman McCoy is a part of society... or is he? His character in the book, remember, was teased by other rich kids as being Sherman McCoy the Mountain Boy, and he was accused of murder, which will tend to isolate you from your peers. He was a man coaching a woman's league while other men were at war. He was a bookstore owner who's main connection to the world was his email account.

And, in the role that perhaps made him the most famous of all, he was Forrest Gump, possibly the most misunderstood and alone character ever created, outside of Darth Vader.

(See what I did there? I created an opening for this:

I'm no dummy.)

I've sort of driven the nail into the ground here, or whatever the metaphor is, but I think you'll have to agree I'm on to something, and that something is that Tom Hanks is playing Tom Hanks, in every movie and TV show he appears on -- even as a guest on talk shows, where you'll see he rarely talks about himself. He's always willing to join in the fun, but he's never very forthcoming about details, is he, just like his character in Volunteers. Or That Thing You Do! Or Apollo 13, where his world consisted of a tiny space capsule and two crew members.

And the Tom Hanks that Tom Hanks is playing -- the real Tom Hanks -- is someone who, by choice or fate, is not part of our group; he's a misunderstood loner who can't ever quite fit in, and maybe doesn't want to. He's only going to run away with a mermaid, after all, or leave you on your own while he tries to win the stand-up competition, or, ultimately, reverse his wish and move back home as a kid who didn't fit in as a kid before, didn't fit in as a grown-up, and now doesn't fit in as a kid again, because he's been Big.

Looked at in that way, it kind of makes me feel sorry for him -- why should Tom Hanks, who seems like a nice guy and pretty talented, be all alone in the world? I'd be his friend, after all. We'd probably all be his friend, given the chance.

But he won't give us the chance. Not according to his movie roles.

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1 comment:

Rogue Mutt said...

Tom Hanks is like the Peyton Manning of actors. He's really talented and everyone likes him, but no one really knows much about him. Do we know who Tom Hanks or Peyton Manning are married to? How many kids they have? I really have no idea because they don't show up on TMZ and the gossip rags. They keep their noses clean and that makes them really boring.

There is something to be said for diversity, but if you're really good at what you do like Harrison Ford, then keep doing it. Unfortunately Adam Sandler has also been good at what he does and keeps doing it.