As prestigious an actor as Tom Hanks is, he arguably found himself trapped in a problem many great actors have had to endure: Suffering through a spate of films that just don’t work. When that happens, the acting is usually blamed, even if it’s always the script. It’s the same fate that’s plagued the likes of the late Sir Laurence Olivier right up to recently with Robert De Niro. But sooner or later, actors of this type manage to find their footing again and cap their careers with something worthy.
Hanks may have finally reached the above plateau with “Captain Phillips” after seemingly drifting for the last decade in variable movie projects. It almost hit a brick wall last year with “Cloud Atlas”, despite Hanks showing off some dexterity playing various odd characters in different eras. Nevertheless, there seems to be a pattern to when Hanks has always stepped up to greatness. In almost every role you can consider his best, he had to climb an allegorical mountain and do something overly physical in the role to push him to his limits.
This all started during the double whammy era of “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump.” Hanks will probably never experience the acting renaissance he experienced then, perhaps because he was still out to prove himself in 1993 and 1994. Both roles had scenes that were very demanding in more ways than one that went beyond just playing a character. While “Forrest Gump” might be arguable in how easy or hard it was to play the role, not many could have pulled it off like Hanks did. It was a role of complexity Hanks soon saw again playing Capt. Miller in “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 and as Chuck Noland in 2000’s “Cast Away.”
The above were more examples of how Hanks elevated his acting being in a physically demanding role. Not many actors today would go through the physicality of the opening scene to “Private Ryan” or the starvation of “Cast Away.” They seemed to prove that Hanks could reach some kind of peak being faced with these challenges. When acting in more static territory, things didn’t quite work out as well.
You can’t say “The Terminal” or “The Da Vinci Code” had as much Hanks magic in those parts as when his back was more against the wall. When acting in overly domestic situations (i.e. “Larry Crowne”), we seemed to see Hanks’s true weaknesses in doing more intimate scenes.
Perhaps it’s because when you think big in a big picture, your acting becomes big. It seems to work in reverse to the Norma Desmond philosophy of the actor becoming big but the pictures becoming smaller. Hanks had the fortune of being in big pictures while being able to think big. When he was forced to think smaller, he seemingly couldn’t get into that zone.
“Captain Phillips” takes us back to that thinking big in a big picture idea. It’s rife with all those gigantic sea metaphors that were all started with Herman Melville. And it all seems enough for Hanks to get back into the Oscar potential list.
The question now is if he’ll be able to continue in that mode due to his health. Now that he’s revealed he’s a Type 2 Diabetic, doing strenuous movies may not be in the cards much longer. It may be time for him to think small and see what he can do in a very small movie with big ideas rather than pull a Larry Crowne. “Saving Mr. Banks” might be the answer, despite depicting Walt Disney not being as epic as you might think.
It was challenging for people like Olivier, Brando and De Niro to think smaller. De Niro is only now recovering from the same scenario, and there has to be every hope Hanks doesn’t suffer from the same trajectory.