YouTube Hall of Fame: Tom Hanks

Columbia Pictures Tom Hanks in 'A League of their Own'

Arguably America’s most beloved living movie star, Tom Hanks is back in theaters this weekend with the release of Paul Greengrass’s Captain Phillips, and we here at Grantland couldn’t help but dive into his decade-spanning filmography and relive some of the highlights. Chocolates, volleyballs, and giant keyboards abound in this week’s YouTube Hall of Fame.

Saving Private Ryan

Chris Ryan: If you want to know what “carrying a movie” means, just watch Apollo 13, or better yet, watch Saving Private Ryan. As a film, Private Ryan‘s reputation probably hasn’t aged all that well. It was tied up with a lot of Greatest Generation myth-making that seemed to exhaust people after a while, and despite its still-heart-stopping opening act, the rest of the film is very much hokey Spielberg parachuted onto the French countryside. But that shouldn’t take away from Hanks’s performance in the film. He has very little to work with; we know very little about him other than he is suffering from PTSD from the battles he’s fought, and that he was a teacher back in Iowa, and that he has to spend an entire movie walking around with Ed Burns, which seems like a crueler sentence than having to fight in a war.

In the scene above, you can see Burns, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, and Jeremy Davies all do varying levels of good jobs making sure we know who their characters are. They have accents and mannerisms; the actors are doing their damnedest to make sure we notice who they are. In the middle of it all is Hanks; he doesn’t have to try. He’s got something they don’t.

Hanks is in pretty much every scene of the film. He does quiet, he does monologues, he gives jargon-heavy instructions, and he convincingly grapples with demons. But what he really does is radiate just enough good ol’ charming Hanksiness, without overshadowing the proceedings around him. You went to see Saving Private Ryan because it was Spielberg going to war, but when you got there, you were happy Tom Hanks was your guide through it all. This was a gritty, hand-held, extremely violent trip to a place most of us were lucky to never have to experience before. To have Hanks there — his warmth, humor, vulnerability, and strength — makes the experience palatable.

Before Apollo 13, nobody would have guessed the guy from Sleepless in Seattle could carry a set-piece heavy period film. After Saving Private Ryan, it was hard to imagine anyone who could do it any better. I don’t know how to define “movie star,” but I know it when I see it. In Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks is a movie star.

A League of Their Own

Jonah Keri: Half the teams in Major League Baseball should, at the very least, consider hiring Tom Hanks as their bench coach. In this clip, we see Madonna’s “All the Way” Mae Mordabito crack a leadoff triple, bringing big-hitting second baseman Marla Hooch to the plate. Geena Davis’s Dottie Hinson character, running the team because Hanks’s Jimmy Dugan is too drunk and uninterested to do it, signals Hooch to lay down a squeeze bunt. Dugan immediately calls Hinson on this feeble attempt at Gene Mauchery.*

Dugan: “What are you, stupid? You’re gonna squeeze-bunt with our best hitter?”
Hinson: “The infield’s deep, it’s gonna work.”
Dugan: “Stop thinking with your tits. We want a big inning here.”

We’re not advocating casual sexism or anything. But there has to be an appropriate, less offensive insult that would get the message across in today’s game. While we try to think of one, let’s all acknowledge Jimmy Dugan, a manager with a better grasp of sabermetric principles than far too many real-life managers, so tuned in to the nuances of the game that he can lead his team to victory while three sheets to the wind and reading the paper.

*I am well aware that this movie took place in the ’40s, well before Gene Mauch made his bones as a supreme small-ball enthusiast. Still not backing off my pun game for even a second.

The Green Mile

Dan Silver: Despite all the accolades Hanks has received in his storied career, he has never gotten just dues for his superb porcelain work. In his arsenal of thespian behaviors, this is one of Hanks’s most underrated tools, as nothing reveals the soul of a character quite like the act of emancipating a bladder. And locale be damned — the White House (Forrest Gump), a locker room (A League of Their Own), a deserted island (Castaway), and, of course, space (Apollo 13 and the “Constellation Urion”) — Hanks executes this act with charm and ease. Yet all of these moments pale in comparison to his micturition in the interminable, tonally unbalanced, yet ultimately enjoyable The Green Mile. Combined with a subtle dolly-in, Hanks’s facial expressions delicately yet thoroughly display every human emotion. It’s a master class for acting, and henceforth should be the first thing shown to theater majors in college, if not a graduation qualification. “No, I’m sorry, son. But you simply didn’t splash the pirate quite like Hanks.” In this moment, one of Hollywood’s all-time top talents delivers a truly textured performance.

Forrest Gump

Brian Phillips: There’s too much to say about Forrest Gump, and about this clip, and about Vietnam, and about running, about AIDS, about shrimp, about Alabama football, about Ping-Pong, about CGI, about innocence, about orthopedic shoes, about Apple stock, about mass-market chocolate packaging — there’s too much to say about all this for one YouTube Hall of Fame entry. And that’s before you even get to the idea of Tom Hanks as the proxy by which ’90s and ’00s America genially re-experienced its own troubled history, and not just in this movie but in Saving Private Ryan (WWII), Apollo 13 (the space program), The Green Mile (the Depression, race), and so on, as if he were the Hollywood equivalent of the guys who drive you around at Gettysburg. That’s too much for this space, so I’ll just say this: The key to Tom Hanks’s performance in Forrest Gump is that he’s playing an enormous frog that is swallowing Tom Hanks. Watch it again. You’re welcome.


Charles P. Pierce: I lost track of Hanks when he became the Unofficial Historian Of Great Things Done By White Men — when he began to act like he’d actually landed on Omaha Beach or circled the moon — but his performance in Philadelphia as a corporate lawyer dying of AIDS is almost enough to make up for all of that. OK, the movie’s a bit much. Andrew Beckett’s family is almost comically supportive, and the procedural portion of the movie gives up on actual legal procedure almost entirely. (The judge seems to have learned the law 15 minutes before the beginning of trial.) Neil Young’s song is better than the Springsteen one that won the Oscar that year. But Hanks’s performance in this one scene, where he wrenches out a reaction to La Mamma Morta, is almost unwatchably beautiful, and tougher than anything he did in Saving Private Ryan. This is how a man dies. This is the last music he hears.

The Ladykillers

Mark Lisanti: The Ladykillers occupies a strange pocket in movie history in that it is considered both Minor Coen Brothers and Minor Hanks, a tough trick to pull off given the unquestionable, multiple-Oscar talent level of both directors and star. It arrived at the tail end of the three-picture run that followed masterpiece O Brother, Where Art Thou?, beginning with the (underrated) noir exercise The Man Who Wasn’t There, meandering through the (also underrated) screwball divorce comedy Intolerable Cruelty, and resolving itself in this (you see where we’re going with this? Yup, underrated) Southern heist farce. OK, so I suppose what I’m saying is that there is no such thing as Minor Coens, just Minor Dismissers of Coens; this is the point at which I’d normally doff my shirt and show you the Hudsucker Proxy hula-hoop tattoo ringing my navel, and then spin around for the dramatic reveal of the Burn After Reading tramp stamp, but I digress. This is about Tom Hanks. The Miller’s Crossing ankle band is also choice.

Given the rest of his career, maybe the Minor Hanks label will stick here, unfairly lodged between the Larry Crownes and Terminals on his résumé. It’s an occupational hazard when you’re playing Danny Ocean by way of an Edgar Allen Poe–reciting Colonel Sanders casino-booster. This movie deserves better. Even Mountain Girl deserves better.

Family Ties

Sean McIndoe: Long before he was fighting wars, yelling at volleyballs, or even dancing on pianos, Tom Hanks was showing off his acting chops with the role of a lifetime: emotionally traumatizing a generation of children with his portrayal of Ned, the alcoholic uncle on a very special episode of Family Ties.

For the record, Ned wasn’t the mean sort of drunk. He was the funny kind, the type who wouldn’t let a little buzz stop him from trading PG-rated zingers with Alex and the rest of the Keaton family. In previous episodes we’d been introduced to Ned as a corporate protégé who’d learned to see through the soullessness of the system and embezzled millions from The Man. There was something almost valiant about him. Sure, he’d occasionally chug an entire bottle of vanilla extract, but otherwise he was harmless.

Well, at least until he drunkenly KO’d Alex P. Keaton after a fireplace incident. I suppose you could call that a low point. The episode ends with an emotional Ned calling AA, then fades to the credits at the exact moment when you turned to your horrified parents to ask what the hell that was all about.

Did Uncle Ned stay dry? Ironically, we never found out, because Tom Hanks started making movies about splashing around with mermaids.

Charlie Wilson’s War

Holly Anderson: There are three factors at work here that deserve special recognition:

  1. Tom Hanks has the requisite facial and vocal gymnastics skills to perform Aaron Sorkin dialogue without sounding like a sketch comedian sending up the era of talkies,
  2. Tom Hanks can do this with an accent that is not his own, which necessitates a skill bordering on witchcraft, and
  3. Here is Tom Hanks using a CIA-bugged bottle of scotch as a microphone.

Carry on.

Joe Versus the Volcano

Sean Fennessey: I love the searching moments between stardom and world-stopping fame. Those times when the currency of a hit — in Tom Hanks’s case in 1990, life after Big and Turner & Hooch — can lead to strange, wonderful choices. Joe Versus the Volcano, just one of those choices, exists in the binary: It is either a baffling miss forgotten by time or the keeper of the universe’s secrets. (I go the latter.) It’s the first film directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley, who had won an Oscar for writing Moonstruck three years prior. He got a staggering amount of freedom for this movie, which bombed. It’s technically about a hypochondriac named Joe who learns of his impending death and agrees to hurl himself into a volcano for a loopy tycoon played by Lloyd Bridges. It’s got Meg Ryan — super-cute, hilarious, weird, impossible, proto-manic pixie dream girl Meg Ryan — playing three different roles. It’s got Abe Vigoda as a native chief, and Ossie Davis as a chauffeur with taste, and Dan Hedaya as the corpo-middle manager from hell. It’s got Shanley’s cockeyed story, and the moon and the stars and the greatest set of luggage man has known. It also has Hanks, the Hanks I’ve always liked. We watch the change in him, from bleary-eyed drone diagnosed with a “brain cloud” to gussied-up death letter-clutcher to moonlight-hailing man of the gods. No one transforms before us like Hanks. He is crushed and joyous and daffy here. Just look at him dance to “Come Go With Me” in the above clip. What a guy. Hanks gets a lot of credit for playing the Everyman. I think what we mean is Every Kind of Man.


Tess Lynch: I was going to go with the high-five scene from Big because it’s such a good high-five. But there’s something unsettling about Big. Maybe there are a lot of unsettling things about Big. And so, instead of a high-five, I give you this re-cut trailer, which was a genre-flipping assignment for a class.

The Terminal (2004)

Bryan Curtis: At first, Tom Hanks’s performance in The Terminal seemed as familiar as a pre-flight safety demonstration. He had a thick accent (like in Forrest Gump). He was a romantic lead (like in Sleepless in Seattle). He was marooned (like in Castaway). He was paired with Spielberg (like in Saving Private Ryan and Catch Me If You Can). He was a blithely naïve kid (like in Big). Sit back, relax, and enjoy the sentiment.

But The Terminal is one of those movies that gets better every time you watch it on TV (which is handy, since it always seems to be on TV). It turns out Viktor Navorski of Krakozia is not a gimmick or a pastiche. Hanks is funny and actorly and full of grace — even with a thick accent, he somehow manages to be Tom Hanks.

Back in 2004, it was easy to take these kinds of performances for granted. There would be plenty more, right? Maybe Hanks as a menschy web entrepreneur whose site is sold to an Australian media mogul played by Naomi Watts. Well, minus Toy Story 3, Hanks wound up doing a lot of Robert Langdon and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the holy mess that was Cloud Atlas. His performance in The Terminal stands out — it was the last time Hanks was himself.

Sleepless in Seattle

Emily Yoshida: When I was in elementary school, my best friend’s older sister was obsessed with Tom Hanks. Like, posters-plastering-every-square-inch-of-her-wall obsessed. Bought-any-magazine-with-even-the-smallest-picture-of-him obsessed. I’m pretty sure it was a romantic obsession, and I figured that my not being able to figure out the appeal of Tom Hanks as a sex symbol was due to my being 9. It turns out this was not the case. He’s at his most graceful when he’s playing a dad (You’ve Got Mail) or a child (Big, Forrest Gump). In Sleepless in Seattle he’s scandalized when his son informs him of some of the more aggressive bedroom behaviors of the opposite sex, but he plays it less like a protective father and more like someone who honestly had no idea what would drive a woman to use her fingernails like that. This isn’t a criticism. Hanks is a comforting presence in just about any movie he’s ever been in, especially these talky Nora Ephron rom-coms, because of his neutral sex appeal. It probably even makes you feel a little weird to read “sex” and “Tom Hanks” in the same sentence, right? OK, I’ll stop. (Hanks sex Hanks sex.)

Toddlers & Tiaras on Jimmy Kimmel Live

Rembert Browne: All of your vintage Hanks chocked into one bit: dancing, pageantry, fatherhood, heartbreak, and Ron Howard. VINTAGE HANKS.

Cast Away

Mallory Rubin: Tom Hanks did a lot of amazing things in Cast Away. He lost a bunch of weight. He sported a crazy beard and wig. He wore a pretty memorable loincloth. He pretended to lance a festering tooth with the blade of an ice skate. He earned an Oscar nomination despite primarily acting alongside wildlife and inanimate objects.

But most amazingly of all, he made viewers care about a volleyball. Not just care, but love. Truly and deeply. He made his bond with Wilson feel as palpable and meaningful and real as the bonds we share with our friends and families and loved ones. He made us wonder: When we punch volleyballs for sport, are we hurting something more than synthetic material and air? He made us question the very foundation of intimacy and understanding. He made us cry.

(This is all totally normal and fine to admit, right? OK, cool. Good talk, guys.)

Filed Under: Tom Hanks, Youtube Hall of Fame