Tom Hanks

journalism

THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – December 17, 1998

 

The Tom Hanks Phenomenon

How did he pull it off?

EVER SINCE THE GOLDEN twilight of the eighties,
there has been a kind of national consensus about Tom Hanks, abetted by the
American publicity machine: he is our cinematic saint next door, the perfect
baby boomer, Hollywood’s
shining exemplar of unpretentious goodness and decency in an age and an industry
where nice guys finish closer to last than first. However, in the course
of a few months spent interviewing his friends, acquaintances, and colleagues,
and several days talking to the actor himself, I discovered the dark side
of Tom Hanks:While he was starring in the sitcom “Bosom Buddies,” in
the early nineteen-eighties, he tried cocaine.

During one six-year period after he tried cocaine, he starred
in the movies “Bachelor
Party,” “Volunteers,” “The Money Pit,” “Dragnet,” “The ’Burbs,” “Turner & Hooch,” “Joe
Versus the Volcano,” and “Bonfire of the Vanities.”He was
rude and uncoöperative with a magazine
reporter in 1986; his publicist gave the excuse that his marriage was falling
apart.
His first marriage fell apart.

He gets a little peevish about the relentless comparisons
between his screen persona and the personae of an earlier generation of
movie stars—particularly
Jimmy Stewart’s, despite the fact that his new movie, “You’ve
Got Mail,” is a remake of Stewart’s “Shop Around the Corner.”

Speaking to a Spanish movie-industry reporter at
the Venice Film Festival, in September, Hanks said, apparently forgetting
the job of the man interviewing him, “There are people who make careers
of talking about movies!”

Again in Venice, when his “Saving Private Ryan” co-star Tom
Sizemore thanked him for sharing some press attention, he replied, with his
mouth full of pasta, “Yes, I’m throwing you bones—and I
had a boner as I was throwing them.”

He expresses existentialist qualms using profanity,
as in “How the
fuck do you stay happy in this godforsaken world?”

He made a large donation to Bill Clinton’s
legal-defense fund.

He thinks the sitcom “Friends” is “hilarious.”

That is the extent of the case against Tom Hanks.
In other words, he is, as billed, the most disarming and successful of
American movie stars. He has starred in seven movies in the last seven
years, and, contrary to predictions in Hollywood, every one of them—“A
League of Their Own,” “Philadelphia,” “Sleepless
in Seattle,” “Forrest Gump,” “Apollo 13,” the
computer-animated “Toy Story,” and “Saving Private Ryan”—was
a big hit. Nora Ephron’s “You’ve Got Mail,” which
stars Hanks and Meg Ryan in a smart, charming cryptosequel to “Sleepless
in Seattle” (same director, same co-stars),
will almost certainly keep this run intact. Seven for seven in less than
a decade is unique in modern Hollywood. Tom Cruise, for instance, is currently
just six for six.

When I informed Hanks of this box-office record,
he repeated the phrase “Seven
for seven!” in the half-serious, half-jokey way in which he says many
things, then knocked on wood. Working back through the movies, he checked
his score out loud, like a pitcher who knew he was playing well—very
well—but didn’t realize until the ninth inning that he had a
no-hitter going.

How has Hanks managed this feat, particularly after starring in so many
bad movies and box-office duds in the eighties? A decade ago, he was more
or less on the same level of the Hollywood food chain as Steve Guttenberg
and Jeff Daniels. Why does America love Hanks so much now? Is he just lucky?
Or is he somehow perfectly in synch with these fat and happy times?

Tom Hanks is not one of those people in the entertainment
business whom friends and defenders describe as “a complicated guy,” the charitable
synonym for “jerk.” But almost every explanation of Hanks’s
success feels insufficient, or improbable. He is a movie star, but his manner
in person lacks that quality of narcissistic celebrity reverb which one senses
in so many other stars—their tendency to feed on civilians’ awe
at being in the star’s presence. He is a movie star, but he is physically
unremarkable. At forty-two, he has the beginning of a double chin. Every
actor in his league is sexier or more handsome than he is. At the Film Festival
in Venice, he had a large pimple on his forehead, and his Armani suit, cut
clunky but cool, in the late-nineties fashion, looked merely clunky on him.

Hanks’s friends describe him as reticent, yet while answering the
questions of a hundred foreign journalists in thirty interviews in Venice,
he seemed both forthcoming and scrupulously candid. When he repeated certain
answers a third and fourth time, he evidently felt obliged to let the reporter
know that the lines were retreads, with an odd sort of meta-candor: “My
stock answer in Venice is . . .”

Hanks’s most frequent verbal tic is the phrase “in all honesty.” And
he seems to mean it. He doesn’t hem and haw about his failures. “ ‘Bonfire’ was
a horrible movie,” he told me. Nor does he dissemble about his success.
Except for extremists like Donald Trump, almost every media-canny famous
person slips automatically into mock humility when asked about the magnitude
of his or her triumphs. Hanks is neither coy nor arrogant. “I have
at my option the ability to do anything that I desire,” he said when
he was asked about future movie roles, but he admitted that this situation
can stoke his vanity and create its own problems. He said he “screwed
up” the writing and directing of his first movie, “That Thing
You Do,” for Twentieth Century Fox, partly because he had succumbed
to a classic Hollywood yes-man syndrome. “I honestly thought, No, I’m
too smart for that. I won’t fall for it. Yet at the same time I was
saying, ‘Hey, you guys have got to make this movie because I’m
a big star. What, you’re going to say no to me? No way.’ ”

Hanks is a decent guy, as everyone says, but he makes
no treacly show of saintliness (with the possible exception of his 1994
Oscar acceptance speech for “Philadelphia”). He is sincere,
but he can also be ironic, and, in a particularly modish way, he is often
simultaneously sincere and ironic. He refers to his “crack team of
show-business experts,” but,
of course, he does employ a crack team of show-business experts: his agent,
Richard Lovett, is the president of Creative Artists Agency. “Yes,
I am a celebrity,” he told an interviewer in Venice, making the sentence
sound as if it were an ugly confession. One morning in October in a hotel
suite in Nashville, where he was shooting an adaptation of Stephen King’s “The
Green Mile,” he called to order fresh coffee, then imagined the room-service
panic downstairs: “They’re all running around. ‘Mr. Hanks
wants a pot of coffee. I’ll take it! I’ll take it!’”

When Hanks is talking to foreigners, his chronic
American irony doesn’t
necessarily play. In his first interview in Venice, a translator served as
his intermediary to two dozen Italian journalists. “Am I the first
this morning? Make a note of that. Everyone’s fresh. No one’s
cranky.” They didn’t smile. Someone asked about Steven Spielberg,
who directed “Saving Private Ryan,” and Hanks called him “a
chucklehead,” and said, “I want to slap him sometimes. Not that
I have.” The journalists didn’t smile. Someone else asked if “Private
Ryan” would lead to a resuscitation of the war-movie genre. “It
had been declared dead by those incredible crack show-business experts who
run motion pictures,” Hanks said. He turned to his translator and said, “You’ll
translate that in a way that makes them laugh?” The Italians still
didn’t laugh, and he finally gave up.

Hanks’s reflexive irony owes a lot to Steve Martin, whom he sees as
a pivotal cultural figure. “If you went to Cub Scout meetings in the
seventies, they’d do Steve Martin bits,” Hanks said. “Everybody
was ‘Yeah, I’m a wild and crazy guy.’ Instantaneously,
it just seemed to permeate society. It was like a comet—white-hot at
the front, and then the intensity kind of dissipated as all society changed,
because of Steve Martin. And now everything is essentially like that. The
sense of humor really hasn’t changed that much.”

Part of Hanks’s appeal is his boyishness, which is evident when he
talks about his job. “The thing I like about working in films is it’s
a blast,” he said. Discussing the filming of “Private Ryan,” he
told me, “We got to dress up as Army men and carry cool weapons.” Yet
Hanks also displays a very grown-up moral seriousness. About the “message” of “Private
Ryan,” he said, “It’s ambiguous in the exact fashion that
the experience was. Is it worth risking eight men for one? There is no answer.
The vast majority of movies that are going to try to communicate something
do it in ways so there’s just no question what the filmmaker’s
point is. ‘These people were bad’ or ‘Cancer is a terrible
thing.’ ”

Hanks is serious about yeoman-actor professionalism
as well—being
punctual, knowing lines, chatting with the crew. He seems to think of himself
as a sort of super-duper character actor. “He carries with him a sort
of very old-fashioned pull-up-your-socks, let’s-get-the-job-done, there’s-no-crying-in-baseball-or-in-any-other-aspects-of-my-life
kind of thing,” Nora Ephron said. “The older I get, the more
interested I am in people who are not going to tell you their innermost hopes
and fears. It’s what he’s pulling all these performances out
of. But he isn’t going to tell anyone about it, partly because it’s
none of your business, and partly because it’s bad manners. It’s
America at its finest, at its most absolutely pre-Freudian finest.”

 Hanks’s attraction to old-fashioned mid-century Americanism
is thorough. He has an overriding interest in the big sweep and the tiny
artifacts of the American century from the thirties through the sixties.
When I asked him what he’d been reading, he said he had just bought
A. Scott Berg’s biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Maxwell Perkins.
The one TV show he made a point of watching recently was “The Cold
War,” on CNN. A number of times, he compared his generation’s
experience to that of his parents: “What is the great national consciousness
we have participated in? The rock-and-roll culture. Not hugely demanding
of us from the point of view of sacrifice.” He has a production company
that he named Playtone, as if he were a Brill Building impresario from 1964.
He uses (earnestly and ironically) corny vintage phrases such as “jeepers
creepers,” “for crying out loud,” and “Oh, landy.” He
collects portable manual typewriters, and the model he longs to find is called
a Skywriter, which, he said, “was made specifically for using on the
fold-down trays of the first transcontinental passenger planes.”

Although he’s nostalgic about the era of his boyhood, his personal
fifties and sixties weren’t particularly golden. His parents separated
when he was five, and he was brought up by his father and two successive
stepmothers in tatty apartments and houses in California and Nevada, with
a shifting array of siblings and many step-siblings. His father was a kitchen
manager, and worked long hours. Yet Hanks told me that his upbringing has
been depicted in the press as unhappier than it really was. His father is
dead, he said, and his mother lives in Northern California. I asked if he’s
in contact with her. He said, “See, the thing is I never lived with
my mom. So she’s tighter with the other kids in the family. I was the
only one who just never lived with her. Sometimes we talk really honestly
about this. I say, ‘Mom, you didn’t raise me!’ There is
a brand of peace that had to be made.” His relationship with his sister
and brothers, he said, was “not the tightest. We’re kind of terse.”

I told him one might easily imagine the opposite.

“That adversity brought us together?” he
asked.

“That’s the movie version,” I said.

“Well,” he told me, “life didn’t
quite work out that way.”

When Nora Ephron first met with Hanks to discuss “Sleepless in Seattle,” she
recalls, he talked about almost nothing but his wife, the actress Rita Wilson.
(The couple live in west Los Angeles with their two sons, aged eight and
two, and with his sixteen-year-old daughter.) “He said that he had
finally got the family he had never had,” Ephron said. “That
fact, I think, is the most important thing about him.” Indeed, when
we stopped talking about Hanks’s family and started talking about his
wife’s, he brightened visibly, describing in detail his in-laws’ escapes
from Communist Bulgaria and Albania, and how he has embraced Greek Orthodoxy.
(“It’s all music and dance and food and smells and tradition.
It’s guilt-free.”) He told me, “I have no best friend.
The family is what takes up the vast amount of time.”

“The whole thing is about luck,” Hanks said of his professional
success. His first bolt of good fortune came in 1983. He was an out-of-work
twenty-six-year-old co-star of a cancelled so-so sitcom. Ron Howard was casting “Splash,” his
third picture, for Disney, which was then a second-rate movie studio, and
the era’s really big stars—Dudley Moore, Burt Reynolds, Chevy
Chase—passed on playing the lead. Hanks got the job.

Howard hired him again, a decade later, to star in “Apollo 13.” In “Splash,” Howard
said, “his instincts were good, but they were verbal. And now he’d
found this very powerful way to apply his imagination and his instincts in
nonverbal ways. In the opening of the movie, he’s watching Neil Armstrong
walk on the moon. It’s a group scene, and Hanks, as Jim Lovell, is
feeling sort of wistful about the fact that he didn’t get to be the
first guy to step on the moon. It’s a wide shot. All of a sudden, I
see what Tom’s doing as he’s watching this thing. So I quietly
put a little dolly track in and zoomed in on him. He was communicating so
much without saying a word, and it was a powerful moment.”

In “You’ve Got Mail,” scenes cut back and forth between
Meg Ryan, who plays a bookshop owner, and Hanks, who plays a chain-store
mogul, each sitting alone with a laptop, writing and reading E-mail. Ryan’s
scenes are fine, but to keep the audience entertained she does plenty of “business”—smiles,
squints, grimaces. Hanks does much less apparent acting, but he’s more
interesting to watch. “I just don’t know an actor that you could
film sitting at a computer and be completely riveted by what he’s doing,” Ephron
told me. “And he isn’t ‘doing’ anything.”

This gets into the slipperiest part of understanding
Hanks’s particular
talents. Is it the movie character’s regular-guy anguish and decency
we feel or Tom Hanks’s? If it’s the former, he’s a great
actor. If it’s the latter, the performance is less a display of craft
than an appealing celebrity being appealing as the cameras roll. Hanks is
riled by the idea that it’s all easy for him. “Because I am that
nice-guy Everyman, people say, ‘Well, he’s just playing himself
again.’ That’s right, clear the set. They’re all the same.
Andy in ‘Philadelphia’ is just like Jim Lovell, and Forrest Gump
is just like all the rest.” He paused. “Maybe I’m oversensitive
about it.”

Hanks tries to prepare for his roles straightforwardly.
He’s amused
by actors who attempt to erase the distinctions between fiction and reality. “You
work with these guys who try to embody the character all the time. ‘Call
me by my character’s name.’ ” Hanks screwed up his face
in derision. “Then what are you doing in the makeup trailer?” I
asked Hanks if he would ever star in a nine-million-dollar independent film.
He said, “I’m open to any sort of suggestions. The problem is
I read those things and say, ‘Look, I don’t get it. This is just
the same scene over and over and over again. You don’t get any credit
from me because it’s only a nine-million-dollar movie.’ ‘What
do you mean?’ ” he said in a parody of an artiste voice. “ ‘Don’t
you want to be a renegade?’ If someone had come to me and said, ‘Do
you want to make “Fargo”? ’ I’d have said, ‘Well,
yeah.’ But I didn’t get to read that.

“I can tell in seven pages of reading a screenplay if I’m interested
in doing it,” Hanks told me. “More often than not, you read stuff
that just doesn’t work. It has no surprises in it. The character for
me always has to have some logic to him that I understand. You can’t
project upon a role something that really isn’t there. You can’t
say, ‘Oh, see, I’m going to have this funny walk, and that’s
going to make people understand.’ But it doesn’t say anything
about a funny walk in the script, and chances are the director is going to
say, ‘Hey, stop doing that funny walk.’ ”

In fact, a funny walk was his key to turning Jimmy
Dugan, the women’s
baseball manager in “A League of Their Own,” into a character
who made sense to him. “The script described the character as a fifty-two-year-old
broken-down alcoholic. I said”—to Penny Marshall, the director—“ ‘Look,
I don’t want to play a fifty-two-year-old broken-down alcoholic. I
want to play a thirty-six-year-old broken-down alcoholic.’ That ended
up changing the whole dynamic of the character. I said, ‘Look, if he’s
thirty-six, how come he’s not still playing ball? How come he’s
not serving in the war? This way, I just have to show up with a limp, and
the entire character is explained.’ And Penny said”—he
mimicked her nasal Bronx whine—“ ‘I just don’t want
you to be cute. Because then everybody’s going to wonder how come the
girls don’t like the cute guy.’ So I said, ‘How about if
I get fat?’ And I’ve been fat ever since.”

Hanks will laboriously force a script into shape. “One thing I find
myself doing is removing the question marks from my dialogue,” Hanks
told me in an E-mail. “Characters often ask bullshit questions like ‘Are
you saying you’ll actually run for water commissioner?’ I don’t
know how to do that—ask the expository question.” Nora Ephron
recalls that before Hanks had committed himself to making “Sleepless
in Seattle” they got together every day for weeks with her sister and
co-writer, Delia Ephron, to work on the script. “We essentially rewrote
every scene he was in. We would have these meetings where he was extremely
cranky, and he would say, ‘Well, this isn’t what I would say
in this scene,’ and he would crankily explain what he might say. It
was always funny and we’d type it up. He knows what he needs in a scene.
If it’s a comedy, he needs a joke. He doesn’t always have to
have the last word in the scene, but if he has the second-to-last word it
should probably be the funniest line.” “Private Ryan,” he
told me, started out as a mess. “Captain Miller was a stock, one-dimensional
war hero who’d won the Medal of Honor and chomped on a cigar and said, ‘Come
on, you sons of bitches.’ There were so many degrees of falsehood.” He
talked to Spielberg, and “they changed every word of it.”

 On a day off from shooting in             Nashville,
Hanks was hanging around his hotel room in a T-shirt and jeans, eating a
club sandwich, thinking about searching for the original Grand Ole Opry,
or visiting Civil War battle sites, which he’d just found on the Web.
I asked if there were any movie-star careers that he regarded as a model.
He considered the question.

“Is there anybody who started making movies
in the eighties, which is essentially when I became a movie star?”

“Tom Cruise,” I said.

“Tom’s a very smart guy. He takes none of this stuff lightly.
He’s very focussed and very energetic.” Hanks paused, tensed
a little, and in what he left unsaid I may have detected a whiff of rivalry
or disrespect. “But I look at my own career and think, Hey, that’s
going pretty good. Hey, I’d like to have a career like . . . like I
have!”

Hanks likes his knack for career management to look
improvised. “The
Soviets had five-year plans,” he told me, “and look where it
got them.” The line is something that Ronald Reagan might have said.
In fact, Hanks’s career is Reaganesque—Reagan as politician,
not Reagan as movie actor. Hanks started out in the seventies with a clear
idea of what he wanted: to act well in good movies. He has tried to hold
to his vision, but not in any doctrinaire way, or with a lot of introspection
or tactical fussing.

There are two reasons that Hanks made so many awful
movies during the eighties: because he is an agreeable guy, and because
the cash was irresistible. He was paid a hundred thousand dollars to star
in “Splash.” Immediately,
his fee increased tenfold. “I made a particularly disappointing string
of cheap comedies in which there was a goofy guy who does or does not get
laid by the woman of his dreams,” he recalls. “My own rationale
for taking them on wasn’t what it should have been. I took whatever
gig I got, whether I was tired, or whether I understood the material or not.”

The last terrible movie he talked himself into making
was Brian De Palma’s
unfunny, tone-deaf version of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which
came out in 1990. De Palma’s Sherman McCoy was not just flawed but
weak through and through—callow rather than hubristic. “Ultimately,
he was a pussy,” Hanks said. “It comes down to that.” Not
far beneath his jocularity, though, was residual bitterness. “In the
nature of how Brian wanted to make that movie, McCoy couldn’t be anything
other than a pussy. Therefore, there was no mystery to it. He was a pussy
from the beginning, and he was a pussy all the way through. He was just a
big fat pussy.”

“After ‘Bonfire,’ ” Ron Howard recalls, “Tom
came into my office. He basically said, ‘I’m getting these leads
in these movies, but how do I not do what happened to Elliott Gould?’ ” Hanks
told me, “I realized that it was much more important to say no to stuff
than it was to say yes. I had fuck-you money.” First he signed with
Creative Artists, which was the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood. “My
agent said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s
not like I know what I want to do, but I sure know what I don’t want
to do. And I don’t want to play guys anymore going “Oh, I’m
not in love and I wish I was” ’ ”—the voice is an
unfunny funny-guy whine—“ ‘ “and I’m just trying
to get to work today but my car keeps breaking down in funny ways.” They’re
boring, they’ve got nothing to do with my life, and I don’t want
to have to waste time even considering them.’ And that was that. It
was like a huge stack of work on my desk that just got thrown away, and what
was left was, you know,” he recalled with a grin, “much less
to choose from.”

Hanks’s fee in 1991, when he made this decision, was around five million
dollars a movie. I asked if it was easy to turn down all those five-million-dollar
paydays. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “I mean, how much money do
you need?” He paused to consider his rhetorical question, and added, “I’ve
since got more.”

 This is the way that doing the right thing is supposed to work in
America: virtue as its own reward, plus a cash jackpot. Describing his dizzy
good fortune, Hanks said, “You just keep walking into some new brand
of bonanza.” He got twenty million dollars to star in “You’ve
Got Mail,” which was paid as an advance against a large share of the
gross. In Venice, an English reporter asked him if “Private Ryan” was “the
proverbial movie you’d do for nothing.” “We did it for
nothing!” he replied. “I mean,” he immediately corrected
himself, “we do have a piece of the back end.” A huge piece.
His share of the worldwide box-office take, which stands at three hundred
and eighty-three million dollars and counting, will earn him many tens of
millions for playing Captain Miller.

 Despite Hanks’s follow-the-bliss philosophy about choosing movie
roles, he’s not naïve about show business. He once referred to “a
franchise sensibility that isn’t just about fast foods.” Meaning
Tom Hanks the brand? “Yeah,” he replied seriously. “And
you’ve got to be really careful. You’ve got to protect it. Because
otherwise . . . You don’t want to become that brand that nobody— You
don’t want to become Palmolive soap.” Hanks understands that,
as with any established consumer product that is perpetually tweaked to remain
novel—miniature M&M’s, fat-free Häagen-Dazs, the all-color
Times—managing his movie-star brand presents difficulties. “The
thing that’s the most difficult is the power of the new. If you’re
not being new somehow, there’s something wrong.” He recited again
his string of seven hit movies, and then said hopefully, even a little anxiously, “Well,
there was something new in all of those.”

So Tom Hanks’s career has bloomed because he is pretty smart, pretty
talented, and very lucky. Still, why is he so singularly successful, and
why right now? The conventional wisdom is that he benefits from being nice-looking
but sexless. “Male stars who achieve mega-stardom have the quality
of being attractive to women and non-threatening to men,” said Bob
Zemeckis, who directed him in “Forrest Gump,” the most successful
non-extraterrestrial, non-dinosaur, non-passenger-ship-disaster movie ever
made. “For you to be a giant male star, men have to want to go have
a beer with you.”

Another of Hanks’s directors told me, “I don’t think you’ll
ever see him playing a part where he has to be sexual.” I asked Hanks
about that. “I don’t actively avoid roles that are robustly sexualized,” he
replied. “It’s just that the stories I have been drawn to have
not had sex as one of the motors that drove the narrative. There are so many
other things to explore.”

He doesn’t play Lotharios, and he doesn’t play villains. “I’m
always dealing with ‘When are you going to play a bad guy?’ And
the answer is so simple: As soon as I find one I can understand.” Hanks
plans to take his first post “Bonfire” half step in the dark
direction next year, by starring in Martin Scorsese’s “Dino,” a
life story of Dean Martin. But while the singer may have been sexy and unheroic,
he definitely wasn’t evil. In trying to figure out how to play him,
Hanks seems, unwittingly, to be digging out parallels between Tom Hanks and
Dean Martin. On stage and TV, he suggested, Martin played “Dean Martin,” a
semi-fictionalized character, distinct from Dean Martin the person. Also,
Hanks told me, “He couldn’t say no to anybody.”

But, for all his shrewd career management, Hanks
himself has only the vaguest idea about what drives the Hanks phenomenon. “In order to explain this
cockamamie career I’ve had?” he said. “I do not know. And
I do not want to know. Because then I might do something different.”

This is the secret of Tom Hanks’s success: Almost all the movies in
which he has starred during the nineties have had big social themes—women’s
equality (“League”), aids (“Philadelphia”), the sixties
and Vietnam (“Gump”), American national purpose (“Apollo
13” and “Private Ryan”), and, next year, capital punishment
and racism (“The Green Mile”). Even “You’ve Got Mail,” in
which a big chain bookseller puts a little Upper West Side store out of business,
is a nuanced depiction of the mixed blessings of late capitalism.

In his hit films, Hanks is not just the protagonist
but a real hero. “I
don’t think I ever play anyone larger than life,” he told me.
But that is the point. Hanks has created human-size heroes whom jaded contemporary
audiences can accept and embrace not in spite of the characters’ flaws
and contradictions but because of them.

His accomplishment comes at the end of a classic
dialectical evolution. Movies from the thirties through the fifties had
plenty of traditional heroes, the John Waynes and Errol Flynns, essentially
transplanted from pulp fiction. In the sixties and seventies, such old-fashioned
heroes came to seem untenable to the younger mass audience—not just ridiculous but retrograde. Then
came the cool outlaw antihero—the sorts of characters played by Steve
McQueen and Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. During the eighties,
there was a pseudo revival of traditional heroism, superheroic icons in cartoony
quotation marks—Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Indiana
Jones, Superman, Batman. And in this decade the genre has been retrofitted
yet again, by Tom Hanks, who has almost single-handedly modernized and revitalized
the American movie hero.

In Venice, he told an interviewer, “I think I represent the sensibilities
of my generation.” He knows intuitively what it takes in a script and
a performance to allow people like him—younger people, ironic people,
people who came of age in a cynical, relativistic, media saturated era—to
really believe in a hero as they have not done since childhood. Hanks is
also able to portray a credible modern hero persuasively because of those
blurry lines between him and his characters. It’s a kind of movie-star
fusion energy. When people see him on television, they see his capacity for
being inspired (by the gay high-school teacher he thanked in his Oscar acceptance
speech for “Philadelphia,” by the soldiers on Omaha Beach, by
the space program) and sense its authenticity, which persuades them to believe
in his make-believe heroes all the more.

 The man who still believes in heroes and the old-fashioned virtues
also maintains a faith in politics, and what he unself-consciously calls “the
good fight.” His own politics are almost oxymoronic: He’s a moderately
conservative Hollywood Democrat. He’s a death-penalty proponent who
said “God bless America” at the end of an Oscar speech but finds
the “religious right that controls the Republican Party kind of scary.” He’s
an actor-director-producer who decries the “despicable, shallow” run
of Hollywood entertainment and “pornography delivered to the home” on
cable TV. Yet he believes in “this concept that the government can
do work that is really good. And it’s not just building roads and bridges.
I think that the government can do things that truly do better society and
give people a hand up and still let them do what they want to do.”

Hanks and his wife have stayed overnight at the White
House three times during the last five years. About Bill Clinton he said, “I’m
friendly with him. But I don’t think I’ve ever had a true connective
conversation with him. I just can’t. I’m still too much in the ‘Jeepers
creepers, he’s talking to me’ kind of thing.”

When Hanks bought a new house in Los Angeles not
long ago, there were rumors that he was buying it for the Clintons, just
as the President’s friendship
with Spielberg and his two partners, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen,
has propelled rumors that Clinton will become a DreamWorks executive after
he leaves office. The house is definitely for the Hanks family, not the Clintons,
but Hanks did write a check for the President’s legal-defense fund,
a donation he now says he “regrets.” “We gave ten thousand
bucks. Very early on. In all honesty, in the light of events since, it would
be awfully hard to say now, ‘Oh, here, let me help you out with this
problem.’ ”

“Or buy him a house,” I joked.

“Or buy him a house. But—well, the other side has plenty of
figures that pony up an awful lot of dough, too. So you try to fight fire
with fire, or something.” He paused, unwilling to finish the thought
earnestly, and added, “But he ain’t getting that house. I’ll
tell you that right now. Forget it. And he ain’t workin’ at the
Playtone Company, either.”

The definitive President of Hanks’s lifetime was a charming, friendly
movie actor from modest middle-American circumstances. Given the example
of Ronald Reagan, who didn’t enter politics until his fifties, the
idea of Tom Hanks, candidate, does not seem so far-fetched. What about a
term in the Senate, I suggested half seriously, followed by a run for the
Presidency? I expected  a snort, a roll of the eyes, an emphatic disavowal.
But instead he said, vaguely, “I’d have to know more about law
or economics.”

Later, Hanks sent me an E-mail that was a squishy
non-denial denial of political ambition but addressed his potential at
length. “My image is really
a good one,” he wrote. “I made a nice acceptance speech on TV
a couple of times. I handle myself pretty well in the glare of the entertainment
media. The actual ideology that anyone can glean as projected by my appearances
on TV is that America is good because we are all so different and respecting
each other is not so hard a thing to do. Not a bad platform, I suppose, to
run for some office.”

Yet he does not seem to yearn for political office,
or even to direct more films. He professes to be a man who has already
fulfilled every ambition. He swears there are only two things he wishes
he had done differently: “I
wish I had learned how to floss my teeth sooner. I wish I had taken piano
lessons when I was eight years old.” He added, “If I wanted to
go way, way, way, way, way, way back, I could say, ‘Jeez, I should
have got out of high school and gone right across the bridge into San Francisco,
and tried to get into the American Conservatory Theatre.’ But, hey,
you know what? I turned out to be a movie star! So it worked out O.K.”