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history repeating

Tom Hanks’s evolution from jerk ‘Bachelor’ to war hero with ‘Captain Phillips’

Tom Hanks in “Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters” (1982).
Tom Hanks in “Rona Jaffe’s Mazes and Monsters” (1982).Courtesy of The Lunder Collection, Colby College Museum of Art

To see the before and after graphic of Hanks, click here.

Looking at Tom Hanks’s prolific career, I have to wonder: How did the jerk of “Bachelor Party” (1984) evolve into the hero of “Captain Phillips” (opens Oct. 11), Paul Greengrass’s real-life thriller about the Vermont native who saved his ship and crew from Somali pirates?

Not only that, but was it even a good idea to make the change? I miss the Hanks of that proto-“Hangover” comedy, but an actor can’t win Oscars with a character who hits on nuns and pulls a sex prank on his future mother-in-law.


At any rate, the transformation of Hanks from childish smart aleck to paragon began with “Big” (1988). In it he plays a 13-year-old whose wish to attain the title state comes true when he wakes up to discover that he is tall, and hairy in strange places. After an awkward transition, this combination of puerility and maturity helps the boy-man succeed in business and love and yet still have a good time in a toy store. The performance earned Hanks a best actor Oscar nomination, but the strain of being both a goofy kid and a responsible adult not only proved to be a conflict in the movie, but in Hanks’s career as well.

In “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990) the crisis comes to a head. Hanks plays a guy disgusted with a life in which routine has suffocated spontaneity and imagination. So he agrees to throw himself into the title caldera. Noble gesture, perhaps, but the movie fizzled at the box office.

In Hanks’s next film, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” he plays an emotionally stunted Wall Street whiz. Nobody bought it. But in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” (1993), he took on his first genuinely adult role, playing a lawyer stricken with AIDS. It was good for his first Oscar.


With Robert Zemeckis’s “Forrest Gump” (1994) though, regression sets in. Why does everyone love this movie? The character is both witless and self-righteous and his trite “box of chocolates” shtick makes my teeth hurt. But Hanks won a second straight Oscar. Zemeckis and Hanks came back with “Cast Away” (2000), which featured an existential hero and a pared-down filmmaking style. They got a lot more feeling out of a soccer ball than from all the fancy effects in “Gump.” And a fifth Oscar nomination.

Which brings us to “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Maybe my favorite image of Hanks is as Captain Miller (another Oscar-nominated role) in the Higgins boat heading for Omaha Beach, his hand shaking, but his courage undaunted, waiting to lead his troops into the carnage to come.

It reminds me of an interview I did with Hanks when he was promoting “Big.” He talked about the lingering appeal of childhood, of being a kid dozing in the back seat as his dad drove the family home. At his best Hanks evokes that kid in the back seat, and the man behind the wheel.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.