A few years ago I compared Tom Hanks unfavorably to James Stewart. Both
started out as all-American farceurs and leading men who combined casualness and emotional transparency with impeccable comic timing. They shared a knack for mingling improvisational wit and loosey-goosey physicality. But Stewart maintained his deft touch for decades while Hanks became a sloppy and at times didactic heart-warmer.
Like Stewart, the young Hanks could get laughs while letting audiences cut through to his essential feelings. He delivered his most genuine anguished performance in the otherwise-lamentable "Punchline" (1988) as a comedian with unfunny real-life problems. And Hanks brought soft-shoe perfection to the romantic comedy "Splash" (1984) and the humorous fantasy "Big" (1988), just as Stewart did to the romantic comedy "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940) and the humorous fantasy "Harvey" (1950).
But Stewart won his first Oscar for a hilarious and touching satiric turn as a socially conscious reporter who falls for a high-society gal in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). Hanks won his first Oscar for jerking tears and raising consciousness as an AIDS-afflicted lawyer in Philadelphia (1993). (Stewart later won an honorary Oscar; Hanks scored back-to-back best actor wins when he followed "Philadelphia" with "Forrest Gump.")
Stewart gave his gnarliest and most trenchant performances in Westerns and thrillers that didn't require him to alter his gait or weight in any drastic way. Hanks' biggest swings for the fences have verged on being stunt performances, whether as the mentally challenged Everyman in Zemeckis' "Forrest Gump" (1994) or, in Zemeckis' "Cast Away" (2000), as the FedEx executive stuck on a desert island with a Wilson volleyball.
Even when Hanks was good in these movies (as he was in 'Cast Away'), they suggested that his idea of serious risk-taking rested on confronting obvious obstacles -- or, in the case of "Philadelphia," preaching good behavior.
Hanks has said he's grateful for starring in the light and fizzy man-and-dog comedy "Turner & Hooch" (1989) because it opened him up to new possibilities. I've been waiting for him to make another "Turner & Hooch."
Will "Larry Crowne," which he also cowrote and directed, do the trick and freshen him up? I think these days he seems most inspired in the "Toy Story" movies -- unlike Stewart, who stayed vital and limber no matter the circumstances.
When I compared Hanks to Stewart at the time of "The Da Vinci Code," the American Classical Music Guide Forums picked up on the piece and sparked a spirited online discussion.
A contributor from New Mexico wrote, "Hollywood has greater actors, even today, than Tom Hanks. For that matter, the same could be said of Jimmy Stewart all throughout his career. But both set a very high and formidable standard on the screen, and there is one thing at which Tom Hanks has no peer, let alone superiors, in the movie business today: promotion.
"Tom Hanks is a master of the talk show circuit. He is an absolutely tireless, charming, funny, and effective promoter. Anytime he goes on a talk show, he has about 6 funny stories ready to tell about the making of the movie. The only peer he ever had in recent memory was the late Richard Harris. Now that he is gone, Hanks stands at the pinnacle alone in this area, at least."
After watching Hanks on Jon Stewart, do you agree?