When The New York Times recently proclaimed two-time Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks a “modern-day Henry Fonda or James Stewart,” the comparison was meant to conjure up more than a good-natured image of all-American celebrity. Like his predecessors, Hanks has achieved a signature presence on screen. A consummate Hollywood professional, he has made a conscious commitment to populist forms and has imbued his roles across a range of genres with an aura of authenticity so unfailing that the results are deceptively effortless. It is more than his perceived geniality that has made Hanks a star; it is his ability to invest this bonhomie with an underlying integrity that has made him, like Stewart and Fonda before, the ideal of American ethos.
It is telling, perhaps, that Hanks began his youthful acting career as an intern with the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland—a company that suggests at once the unapologetically regional and the unabashedly noble. It is equally tempting to find meaning in his first professional role—the wise fool Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew at the Riverside Theater in New York. It is a role that he would seem to have reprised in many forms over the years, and the perfect metaphor for the kind of nascent intelligence he has bestowed on a range of beguilingly simple, comic characters, from the cross-dressing Kip/Buffy in the TV sitcom “Bosom Buddies” to the prematurely adult Josh in Big to that quintessential example of the sensible fool, Forrest Gump.
Hanks’ storied career has made him the first actor in 50 years to be awarded back-to-back Academy Awards as Best Actor (for his role as Gump in 1994 and, a year earlier, as Andrew Beckett, the lawyer with AIDS in Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia) and earned him Golden Globe, Berlin Film Festival, Screen Actors Guild, and Los Angeles Film Critics awards as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. More recently, he has joined the ranks of a select group of actors who have turned to directing with his recently completed That Thing You Do!
More than any other actor of his generation, Hanks evokes the distinctive pleasures of Hollywood’s past, when the studio system was able to create stars with remarkably coherent bodies of work and signature styles that often became the very message of the films in which they appeared. Even though it is expected that Hanks will continue to challenge himself by broadening the range of roles he undertakes, it is almost certain that he will continue to serve as that unwavering cultural barometer of the American character that he has come, through his extraordinary craft, to represent.
Bruce Jenkins is the Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He was previously the curator of the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department and the Harvard Film Archive.