Tom Hanks has been tired of the Jimmy Stewart comparisons for more than 30 years. “It’s Jimmy Stewart this, Jimmy Stewart that,” Hanks told Parade in 1987. “It’s as big a compliment as you can get, but it’s not anywhere near accurate.” Yet he can’t make them stop. “If I had made this in 1951, I would’ve wanted Jimmy Stewart to play the part,” Steven Spielberg told Cox News Service in 1998 while discussing Saving Private Ryan. One year later, in a widely reprinted piece for Knight Ridder, Elvis Mitchell asked, “Is Tom Hanks this generation’s Jimmy Stewart?” (Conclusion: yes.) Years later, while bestowing a 2014 Kennedy Center Honor on Hanks, President Obama also summoned Stewart, saying, “People have said that Tom is Hollywood’s everyman; that he’s this generation’s Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper.”
To be mentioned alongside Stewart is, of course, a lofty comparison. It’s also easy to see why Hanks might feel a bit penned in by it. Stewart’s name has become a shorthand for niceness and decency, for the all-American everyman. The comparison almost always refers to the Stewart of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Shop Around the Corner. It usually doesn’t touch on Stewart’s later work, the haunted men he played after serving in the Air Force in World War II. In Vertigo, Anthony Mann Westerns, and elsewhere, Stewart came to specialize in men who’d seen a little too much darkness and didn’t know whether they could ever find their way back to the light. Not the sort of men, in other words, Hanks became famous playing.
But like Jimmy Stewart, Hanks’s work playing darker characters has been overshadowed by his persona as the kindest man in the room, which only grows with the release of his latest film. In Marielle Heller’s remarkable A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Hanks plays Fred Rogers, the children’s TV show host who embodied kindness for multiple generations of kids. Hanks isn’t just playing a nice guy, he’s playing the nicest guy. Yet even though Hanks keeps returning to a comfort zone of decency, he’s ventured outside it more than a few times, breaking away from his nice guy persona, sometimes by degrees, sometimes radically. Yet those excursions have yielded wildly mixed results.
By the second half of the 1980s, Hanks had clearly started to wonder whether he could do more than play the glib but likable leads of mainstream comedies. Splash made him a star and films like The Man With One Red Shoe and Bachelor Party proved he could help elevate weak material. But Hanks had loftier ambitions. He made his dramatic debut (not counting the 1980 slasher film He Knows You’re Alone) in the little-seen 1986 film Every Time We Say Goodbye, the same year he found a comedy that pushed the limits of his familiar persona via Nothing in Common, in which he plays a womanizing—but charming—ad rep forced to grow up by his father’s (Jackie Gleason) illness. Two years later, he appeared in two films that essentially doubled as a referendum on what audiences wanted from Tom Hanks: Big and Punchline.
Penny Marshall’s Big features Hanks playing a kid trapped in a grown-up’s body in a performance that confirmed his range extended beyond the sorts of characters he’d been playing to that point. In Punchline, Hanks plays a character in a different sort of arrested development: Steven Gold, a washed-out med student whose luckless pursuit of stand-up stardom puts him on a self-destructive path. Sally Field costars as Lilah Krytsick, a fellow aspiring comic, and her first interaction with Steven quickly establishes him as a dick. When Lilah asks whether he’ll watch her set, he replies, “I’ve got to clean my fish tank.” He comes around, however, helping her with her act, developing feelings for her, then seeming to lose his mind when she doesn’t return those feelings, prompting him to re-create Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” dance as an angry act of self-abasement on a busy New York street.
Hanks commits to the scene and to the character, a hollowed-out wreck who might be more at home in a Scorsese movie. It’s the film around him that’s disappointing. Not only does it double as a showcase for the worst trends in ’80s stand-up—come for the prop gimmickry, stay for the ethnic jokes—it can’t seem to make up its mind about who Steven is. That’s the central problem when it comes to figuring out whether Hanks can play truly dark characters: Is it impossible to accept him as a bad guy or have his bad-guy movies let him down? Despite some praise for his Punchline work, the box office results clearly favored Hanks as a nice guy: Big outgrossed Punchline by around $95 million.
Hanks’s next attempt to play a darker character, Brian De Palma’s 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, clearly falls into the latter category. The film makes wild misjudgments from start to finish, but casting Hanks as Sherman McCoy—the Wall Street “Master of the Universe” whose involvement in a hit-and-run accident becomes a focal point for New York’s class, political, and racial tensions—didn’t have to be one of them. Yet the film tries to make Sherman, an unreflective asshole on the page, a nice guy. Rather than making Hanks bend toward the material, it reshapes itself as a Tom Hanks movie, never giving Hanks a chance to stretch beyond his amiable ’80s comedy persona. Even when he’s talking about suicide and waving a shotgun at some party guests, the scene more so resembles an outtake from The Money Pit. Critics savaged the film but mostly spared Hanks. In a typical review, The Chicago Tribune’s Gene Siskel suggested “the film was cast wrong.” (Seeming like a nice guy has its benefits.)
As if chastened, Hanks stayed away from bad guys for the rest of the ’90s as he became one of the biggest stars in the world. Sure, A League of Their Own’s Jimmy Dugan made one of his players cry, but he sobered up and felt bad about it, eventually. The closest he came to playing a shady character is in That Thing You Do!, his winning debut as a writer and director. As the music manager Mr. White, he shepherds a ’60s Pennsylvania band to stardom but does little to ensure their longevity. When they fall apart, he loses interest and drifts away. He’s as nice as he needs to be for as long he needs to be—but not a moment longer.
As the decade progressed, Hanks developed a specialty playing ordinary men tested by extraordinary circumstances in films like Philadelphia, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, and Cast Away. And though he played a man for whom murder had become just another part of doing business in Sam Mendes’s 2002 film Road to Perdition, his work as the Depression-era mob enforcer plays like an extension of that run. Sure, Sullivan isn’t afraid to spill blood, but he’s driven to his life of crime by the circumstances of his upbringing and embarks on a tireless killing spree only after losing most of his family. At the film’s end, Michael’s son finds himself unable to pass judgment on his father. It’s hard not to share that feeling.
A few years later, Hanks tried to play bad while keeping it funny. In Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ladykillers he stars as a Southern dandy con artist who tries to defraud a widow (Irma P. Hall)—and will go to extreme measures to get the job done. Hanks is fun, drawing out the syllables of his meticulously articulated dialogue but, again, the performance outdoes the film, which tends to compete with Intolerable Cruelty in assessments of the Coens’ weakest efforts. In the ambitious 2012 adaptation of Cloud Atlas, from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, Hanks had better luck playing some of the multitiered story’s grotesque villains but, perhaps tellingly, his focal role comes as a kind of postapocalyptic everyman, a decent guy trying to do the right thing under trying circumstances.
One of Hanks’s best bad guy turns happens to be in one of his worst films. James Ponsoldt’s timely but ridiculous 2017 adaptation of Dave Eggers’s The Circle offers a hysterical spin on internet privacy and social media’s political implications. Virtually nothing about it works except Hanks as Eamon Bailey, the eponymous web corporation’s genial CEO. A charismatic, aggressive visionary, Bailey’s Steve Jobs–like casualness masks a willingness to overstep boundaries and use people as guinea pigs. He rationalizes a dangerous global experiment as working for the greater good, conventional ethics be damned. Addressing his lack of a dark side in a recent Taffy Brodesser-Akner profile for The New York Times, Hanks admitted he learned early on that he could use his “ability to seduce a room, seduce a group of people” as a way of asserting power. With Eamon, he weaponizes that ability. If Hanks is ever to create a memorable bad guy, he’ll likely wear a winning smile and claim good intentions.
But that remains a big “if.” Smart actors understand their range and extend beyond that range at their own peril. As others have pointed out, for much of the ’80s, Hanks and Michael Keaton appeared to be on similar paths. For a good stretch of the decade, there was not a part Hanks played that Keaton couldn’t have played or vice versa. (Hanks’s son Colin even turned this into an annual birthday joke.) But regarding this point, the year 1988 once again proves instructive. Keaton was too worldly to play a little boy in a grown-up’s body, but Hanks would look just as out of place attempting Keaton’s role in Clean and Sober as a man whose wake-up call to seek help for his coke addiction comes when he wakes up next to a corpse. (Hanks played the alcoholic Uncle Ned on Family Ties, but somehow still remained funny and likable, even while guzzling vanilla extract in a desperate attempt to catch a buzz.) Keaton could suggest the kind of inner torment that could make a man dress up like a bat to fight crime. Hanks would look ridiculous wearing a cape. Some actors can summon up inner demons. Others always feel like they’re faking it.
But if Hanks never creates a memorable bad guy or even a character in the thrall of a dark obsession, that’s fine too. After evoking Stewart and Cooper, President Obama completed his Kennedy Center summation by saying, “But he’s just Tom Hanks. And that’s enough. That’s more than enough.” A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood offers further proof of that, digging past the parodies and the TV persona to create a portrait of a man whose virtue and serenity came less from innate qualities than constant reflection and effort. In one extraordinary scene, Hanks conveys a flash of anger and frustration when needled with a personal question, all without breaking his smile. Then he lets those feelings recede and answers honestly and compassionately. It’s hard to think of another actor—through a combination of skill and accumulated history—who could make that moment work, or make Rogers’s goodness feel like a hard-won achievement. Maybe that means someday some talented actor might find themselves fighting off a Hanks comparison because they can’t help embodying what we like best about humanity. As limitations go, that one isn’t so bad.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.