(Updated: July 9, 2020) Tom Hanks has been one of the brightest and most loved Hollywood stars, ever since the mid-1980s. From the early charming comedies to the later gritty dramas, Hanks fastidiously morphed into varied roles which we’ve always rooted for. Even though he often plays lovable characters, he brings a level of depth to the good-guy roles, unlike any other actor. There’s always a sense of calmness or exuberance in Tom Hanks’ onscreen presence which rarely fails to please moviegoers. Even in his 60s, the actor is playing challenging characters and is at the top of his game.
Today, on his 64th birth anniversary, here’s a look back at Tom Hanks’ most memorable performances:
Tom Hanks 17 Best Performances:
1. Big (1988)
When we are young and small, we wish to become big and grown up. The wish, of course, doesn’t magically come true. We live through the years, become an adult, and to our dismay find that the ‘grown-up’ phase isn’t all that appealing. But what if a child literally grows big, while, at heart, is still in the pre-adolescent phase? It may sound silly. However, Penny Marshall’s Big makes the best out of this fairytale premise. Perhaps, the wonderfully appealing aspect of Big is Tom Hanks’ central character of Josh, a 13-year old boy in an adult body. The film is memorable especially for Hanks’ brand of charm. He skilfully expresses the joyous as well as the agonized emotionality of a pre-teen boy. Along with Marshall’s sensible direction, the poignancy Hanks brings to each scene elevates it to one of the best comedy/dramas.
Watch Big on Amazon
2. The Burbs (1989)
Joe Dante’s The Burbs conveys typical American middle-class fears by blending horror with satirical humour. Tom Hanks was cast as Ray Peterson, an everyman who is curious about his weird neighbours Klopeks’. Naturally, Peterson’s curiosity provokes catastrophe, threatening the peace of the suburban neighbourhood. A guilty pleasure, The Burbs is an absolute joy to watch due to Hanks’ hilarious performance. Like his portrayal of a man-child hero in Big, The Burbs brings out yet another fine comedic performance from Tom Hanks. The film also had a good ensemble cast — Bruce Dern, Carrie Fisher, Corey Feldman, etc.
3. A League of Their Own (1992)
After the box-office flops Joe vs the Volcano, Bonfire of the Vanities and Turner & Hooch, Tom Hanks was looking out for a character that would redefine his career. He received the promising role of Jimmy Dugan from Big director Penny Marshall. Contrary to Hanks’ charming personality, Dugan is an angry alcoholic. He is a washed-up former baseball player, who is now given the job of coaching a women’s baseball team. Dugan’s volatility and insecurities provoke him to make condescending remarks on the sports-loving women. Hanks, the dedicated actor, put on some weight for the role and perfectly inhabited the ageing, beaten-down man with a shred of hope. Hanks excelled in showcasing subtle emotions and small gestures. He elegantly swings between displaying authority and poignancy.
4. Philadelphia (1993)
Jonathan Demme’s Philadephia served as a prelude to the great subtle performances Hanks delivered throughout the glorious 90s. His role as Andrew Beckett, a successful lawyer unjustly fired for having acquired AIDS, brought him the first Oscar statuette. It was a bold move from a box-office friendly actor to have played a homosexual character. Moreover, Hanks doesn’t play Beckett as a weird, miserable man waiting for death. He makes the character recognizably human, arousing us to root for the guy’s quest to restore his dignity. Despite the haunting physical transformation, the role became a huge success due to the manner in which Hanks inhabited the character’s suffering down to the little physical movements. The court scene in which Hanks painfully pulls off his shirt to reveal the lesions in his body serves as a testament to his nuanced acting.
5. Forrest Gump (1994)
In the hands of another actor, Forrest Gump could have easily become a caricature. Hanks turns Gump, a pure simple man with a below average IQ, into an utterly charming real person. Robert Zemeckis’ movie tracks down the life journey of an innocent guy, set against the backdrop of America’s turbulent history. In spite of the meandering and slightly mawkish narrative, the film stands out due to Hanks’ sincere portrayal of the titular character. He doesn’t try to extract lewd humour from the character’s intellectual deficits. He rather subtly conveys the inner reality and emotions of the character. When I first watched the film, there were several moments that made me cry. The three unforgettable ones among the tear-inducing sequences: Gump’s monologue, Bubba’s death, and the reaction Gump shows after realizing that he has a son.
6. Apollo 13 (1995)
On April 11, 1970, NASA launched Apollo 13 with a three-member crew. The spaceflight ought to be America’s third walk on the moon, which, of course, didn’t culminate in a happy ending. There was an explosion that depleted the flight’s oxygen supply and the question remained, whether the crew can get back to earth alive? Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 explores the mission through painstaking technical details, bolstered by yet another humane, instinctive performance from Hanks as Commander Jim Lovell. For its time, Howard’s recreation of space travel is both stunning and authentic. Although there are no big emotional moments for Tom Hanks, he gracefully gets inside the skin of a space-age pilot, making us wish for the character’s safe return. The strong supporting cast consisted of Bill Paxton, Kevin Bacon and Ed Harris.
7. Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is best known for its unflinchingly realistic portrayal of World War II. Amidst all the explosions, a river of blood, and splintered guts, the movie boasts of a heart-warming core, thanks to the formidable presence of Tom Hanks as Captain John Miller. Miller and his squad are on a wild quest to locate Private Ryan, the only surviving brother of four soldier brothers. Miller’s role strengthened Hanks status as the quintessential American actor, in the vein of James Stewart. Hanks’ calm, soothing performance stood as a symbol for hope and humanity in a hellish atmosphere. It could be a deceptively simple performance. Yet, I couldn’t hold back tears when Miller reveals his story and the desire to go back home.
8. The Green Mile (1999)
Unlike the sentimental, nice guy roles that Hanks predominantly played in his career, Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile had a bit of hard inner core. He deftly balances the darkness inside him and remains utterly convincing as a jailer, guarding brutal killers. The film’s fine ensemble cast was essentially popular because of the physically and emotionally effective Michael Clarke Duncan. Duncan plays Coffey, a black man convicted of killing two young sisters. Despite the threatening demeanour, Coffey possesses a child-like heart. Jailer Paul begins to question Coffey’s guilty status. The Green Mile has minor flaws and overly long running time. Nevertheless, the film works due to complex, individual performances from the fantastic cast.
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9. Cast Away (2000)
The unbridled media attention and public admiration for actors undergoing harsh physical transformation can sometimes work against a film. Viewers may focus less on the film’s quality and more on the eye-catching metamorphosis. Thankfully, Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away is fascinating enough. Hanks’ weight loss and the story premise mutually complement each other. Tom Hanks and Zemeckis’ potent visual sense take this beyond a simple survival story. Hanks, the everyman with little survival skills, brilliantly exhibits his characters’ apparent desperation. He highlights both the heightened emotions and the profound existential terror brewing inside him. His performance deepens after the return to civilization. To put it simply, Hanks makes Cast Away much more than a Hollywood spectacle.
10. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
After a string of lovable roles, Hanks took up an interestingly chilly character in Spielberg’s biographical story of a con-man. Tom Hanks plays FBI special agent Carl Hanratty, in pursuit of a big-time young fraudster Frank Abagnale Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). Although Hanks plays second fiddle to DiCaprio’s spellbinding central performance, he bestows considerable impact on the proceedings. Moreover, Carl’s relationship with Frank makes up for some interesting set-ups. They both don’t fit into the usual black and white characterizations. The scene that perfectly exemplifies this is when Frank calls Carl on Christmas night. Keeping off the sentimental advances, Hanks’ Carl makes us understand his loneliness and the emotional links that connect him with Frank.
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11. Road to Perdition (2002)
Sam Mendes’ Depression-era gangster flick tells the story of a father-son bonding over a six-week period in 1931. Tom Hanks plays the father, a ruthless hit-man working for Chicago boss. Michael Sullivan would be Hanks’ darkest or greyest role after Jimmy Dugan (in A League of their Own). Conrad L. Hall’s unarguably stunning compositions and Hanks’ intention to distance himself from his previous cinematic roles were the engrossing aspects of the film. Mendes does tend to add a bit of charm to Sullivan’s character in the latter half, undermining Hank’s low-key acting. Besides Hanks, Jude Law and Daniel Craig were also cast against the types in Road to Perdition.
12. The Terminal (2004)
Steven Spielberg’s airport drama might be overly exaggerated and sentimental, appended with a trite love story. Yet, its list of flaws is balanced by Tom Hanks’ fantastic performance. Hanks plays Victor Navroski, a man visiting New York from a war-torn Eastern European nation. He is caught in the bureaucratic cracks when he lands upon the JFK airport with a useless passport. Until his country resolves its problems, Victor decides to lead a harmonious life in the airport lounge. It isn’t a nuanced performance, but Hanks plays Victor with aplomb that often makes our eyes well up. The scene, where Victor becomes the unofficial translator for an immigrant carrying doubtful medications, is one of the most endearing in the film.
13. Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)
Mike Nichols’ overly sanitized political drama revolves around Texan Congressman Charlie Wilson. He and his socialite and CIA friends covertly funded Afghan resistance group to fight against the Soviets. Hanks’ performance is a lot more boisterous than his typical roles. He plays the kind of politician who doesn’t hesitate to get into a hot-tub with a couple of strippers, snorting cocaine. Hanks’ fiery exchanges with Philip Seymour Hoffman are an absolute delight to watch. These two great actors are the saving grace of this otherwise illusioned American political perspective.
14. Captain Phillips (2013)
American heroes often tend to finish a narrative by inflicting cathartic violence. They spew out a punch-line while committing this violent act. Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips, however, doesn’t experience catharsis at the end of the hostage drama. He only displays shock with a quiet intensity. Phillips’ face is tensed, jaws clutter, teeth clench, and no meaningful word are uttered. The man has just faced the most traumatic experience of his life. The subdued portrayal of trauma in the film’s last moments exemplifies why Hanks is one of the greatest actors. The film tells the real-life experience of a merchant miner, taken hostage by Somalian pirates. Tom Hanks, through silence and little gestures of terror and anxiety, brings emotional depth to his character.
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15. Sully (2016)
On January 15, 2009, Captain Sullenberger landed his defective plane on the icy waters of the Hudson River, saving 155 people onboard. The film narrated in a non-linear order explores the grounds that made Sullenberger execute this dangerous yet life-saving landing. It also chronicles the aftermath: legal hearings questioning the captain’s decision. Sully is a lot more nuanced and profound than an average Oscar-bait drama. Part of the reason is Hanks’ astounding low-key performance. Hanks spent a lot of time embodying the persona of soft-spoken real-life Sullenberger. From Sullenberger’s interviews, we can tell Tom Hanks disappeared into the role. Sully, once again, proves what a master of subtle brilliance Tom Hanks is.
Watch Sully on Amazon Prime
16. The Post (2017)
A gripping tale of a gruesome battle between the press and the government, two of the major pillars of democracy. One fights to conceal while the other fights to enlighten. The Post bashlessly tells the story of the many cover-ups and conspiracies involved in safeguarding the pride of America which was already internally tainted by its participation in one of the most futile wars ever fought – Vietnam. As a hollow government clings to the last straw of its consistently delegitimising reputation, one woman battling against views and gender equalities of her time and one man with an unwavering iron will toil relentlessly to show the true face of the government.
The Post is a much-needed wake-up call for all news outlets to rise up again for the cause of the people. With stellar performances from Hanks and Meryl Streep, this movie is easily one of the best historical dramas to date.
17. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
‘Tom Hanks is wholesomeness itself’, said Simran Hans of the Guardian in her critical review of Tom Hanks’ 2019 release. Well, we can’t disagree. Infusing the film with his characteristic acting while playing a popular US Children’s TV Star by the name of Fred Rogers, Hanks truly makes the film what it is. Besides just acting in the film, Hanks added a special layer to it by singing live during the shooting of the film with equal finesse.
Special Mention: Toy Story Trilogy
Pixar’s timeless tales on growing up and friendship roped in Tom Hanks to give voice to Woody, the pull-string cowboy toy. Hanks’ voice performance relegates his ‘star persona’ and perfectly bring out a distinct, individual identity for the animated character. The desired effect of having Tom Hanks voice Woody is that we stay empathetic to its plight. At times, the emotions flowing from the cowboy toy look so natural and spontaneous that we don’t even a carry a picture of Hanks voicing Woody in our mind.
There we are! These are some of Tom Hanks’ finest performances. Your thoughts? Which are your #top3 roles of the actor? Let’s talk in the comments below.
By Arun Kumar
(Additional writing by Deepjyoti Roy, Sanghmitra Jethwani)
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An ardent cinephile, who truly believes in the transformative power and shared-dream experience of cinema. He blogs at ‘Passion for Movies.’