Although just 45 years old, actor/director/writer/producer Tom Hanks has proven himself an extraordinarily versatile and talented artist. Be it comedy or drama, Hanks’ performances are masterful, refined portraits of men intimately recognizable to audiences. While Hanks’ complex exploration of each of his characters appears effortless, he consistently creates a three-dimensional personality, devoid of artifice or self-indulgence.
Significantly, many of the roles to which Hanks gravitates embody an aching loneliness. SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, PHILADELPHIA, APOLLO 13, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, THE GREEN MILE, CAST AWAY — they’re all about ordinary men dealing with agonizing pain, both physical and emotional. The gracefulness of a Tom Hanks performance lies in how delicately — yet profoundly — he reveals the inner core of a fully realized human being, complete with warmth, empathy and, invariably, humor.
Both a cerebral and physical actor, Hanks inhabits his characters without overpowering them. Chameleon-like, he literally reshapes himself to fit each singular identity; the results are startlingly believable. In 1989, his astonishing portrayal of a mischievous 12-year-old boy fascinated by his 30-year-old body in BIG earned him his first Academy Award nomination. Five years later, his physical deterioration as a gay lawyer dying of AIDS was agonizingly depicted in PHILADELPHIA. He received the Oscar for Best Actor, a feat repeated just one year later, when he again transformed himself for FORREST GUMP, playing a slow-witted, awkward man who finds himself in extraordinary situations. And, his most dramatic metamorphosis occurred in CAST AWAY, as he whittled his physique down to depict a man shipwrecked for four years.
Because his work is so honest, and because he is incessantly characterized as “nice,” we think we know Tom Hanks. Which is a facile presumption. The fact is he’s actually full of contradictions: He’s a movie star, yet never seems larger than life. He’s the quintessential romantic leading man, yet lacks typical leading man looks. He’s charming and forthcoming in interviews, yet never reveals any personal details.
But Hanks does tell us who he is — through his work. He tells us by the characters he takes on, as well as by the specific, intelligent choices he makes in playing them. They’re all innately decent men, yet remarkably human. Which means they’re all tested by their frailties. So, as AIDS-ravaged lawyer Andrew Beckett in PHILADELPHIA, Hanks sits in the witness chair — in front of family, friends, colleagues and his lover — and quietly, yet unflinchingly, answers humiliating questions about a past sexual indiscretion that is now costing him his life. The powerful restraint Hanks brings to the scene is nothing short of heartbreaking.
These quiet moments, wherein Hanks most intimately connects with another character, is where his artistic integrity shines most brilliantly. Eschewing grandiosity, he’s confident in his ability to communicate emotions with a minimum of noise. Hanks’ composed yet tormented prison guard in THE GREEN MILE walks slowly up to the electric chair where Michael Clarke Duncan’s innocent convict is strapped in, awaiting execution. After firmly shaking the condemned man’s massive hand and looking him in the eye, Hanks steps back, steels himself and finally — in a voice barely above a whisper — gives the death order. The moment is painfully exquisite — it’s all there on his face, particularly in the piercing eyes that have seen almost more than they can bear.
As accomplished as he is at playing dramatic roles, Hanks made his mark in comedies. Whether dressing as a woman in BOSOM BUDDIES, falling in love with a mermaid in SPLASH, portraying a washed-up, overweight baseball coach in A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN or discovering love via the Internet in YOU’VE GOT MAIL, Hanks is always delightful as he finds the perfect balance between piquancy and poignancy.
For his feature directorial debut, Hanks worked from his own script about the rapid rise and inevitable fall of an early 1960s rock band, The Wonders. THAT THING YOU DO! showcased Hanks’ light touch with the material, as well as his obvious ease with actors. He later directed one episode each of HBO’s 12-part mini-series FROM THE EARTH TO THE MOON and of HBO’s 10-part mini-series BAND OF BROTHERS, along with serving as executive producer and writer on both projects. These mini-series reflect two of his lifelong passions — the space program and World War II.
Tom Hanks is a man who finds refuge in his family — wife Rita Wilson and children Colin, Elizabeth, Chester and Truman are the ones who keep him grounded in the realities of day-to-day life. His family is sacrosanct, and he’s acutely aware and appreciative of the sacrifices they make to ensure that he continues working in the profession he loves. In accepting his second Best Actor Oscar, for FORREST GUMP, Hanks said of Wilson: “I’m standing here because the woman I share my life with has taught me, and demonstrates for me every day, just what love is.”
Through Hanks’ ability to render recognizable the most disparate of characters, along with his inventiveness as a writer, producer and director, he has established himself as one of the great talents of American cinema. Because of his uncommon commitment to his craft, his artistic excellence, and the profound way he captivates us with his passion for storytelling, the American Film Institute is honored to present Tom Hanks with AFI’s 30th Life Achievement Award.