Tom Hanks' latest movie, The Da Vinci Code, opened May 19, a day before Jimmy Stewart's birthday. (Stewart was born in Indiana, Pa., on May 20, 1908.) Entertainment writers have often called Hanks today's Jimmy Stewart. That comparison has never looked shakier than it does right now.
Stewart's most famous suspense films were obsessive and erotic fables for Alfred Hitchcock, leagues away from Ron Howard's stodgy, cautious The Da Vinci Code. Indeed, throughout his career, Stewart drew inspiration from a score of strong, diverse directors, from Ernst Lubitsch to Otto Preminger.
Hanks has repeatedly fallen back on a handful of A-list moviemakers - Steven Spielberg, Bob Zemeckis, Nora Ephron - with ever-sorrier results, including Spielberg's The Terminal (2004), which buried Hanks' Chaplin-esque sentiment and humor in a ton of bathos. Hanks worked wonderfully with Howard 22 years ago on Splash, but Da Vinci Code marks the first time Hanks hasn't even seemed present in a movie: He registers as more of a Tom Hanks clone than the multiple digitally animated figures he played in Zemeckis' The Polar Express (2004).
Both Stewart and Hanks 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.
Like Stewart, 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.)
And Stewart gave his gnarliest and most trenchant performances in Westerns and thrillers that didn't require him to drastically alter his gait or weight. 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 he 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. He needs another Turner & Hooch right now.
In the meantime, he and the rest of us should savor the career of Jimmy Stewart, who stayed fresh and limber no matter the circumstances. Here's my own list of top Stewart performances. All but one are out on DVD (and you can still find The Naked Spur on VHS):
Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Stewart plays a rural-Michigan lawyer who's so homey that he fashions bullfrog-bait to settle his mind. He uses his rustic charm as a weapon - which allows Stewart to spoof his own hemming and hawing persona.
Bell Book and Candle (1958). Stewart's Manhattan publisher succumbs to Kim Novak's sensitive sorceress; she's part of a witch-and-warlock underground with a crazy club scene. Stewart responds to his screwball-comic co-stars (including Jack Lemmon) with a masterly array of quizzical expressions. He's a great straight man - especially in the Zodiac Club, which comes off as a gay bar in disguise.
Broken Arrow (1950). Stewart's distinctive, warm-yet-reedy voice pulls the audience into this Western set in 1870 Arizona. As the narrator, a former Union soldier who befriends the fearsome chief Cochise (Jeff Chandler) and marries an Apache (Debra Paget), Stewart sustains a humane, never wishy-washy tone.
Destry Rides Again (1939). The best cowboy comedy ever made features a Western hero who is not a strong, silent type. Stewart's Destry is a strong, talkative type - a lawman who won't use a gun until he's pushed to extremes and a tale-spinner who rarely trips over his own lengthy yarns.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Until an angel shows George Bailey that the village of Bedford Falls would be a moral cesspool if he'd never been born, Stewart punches home the point that Bailey is a reluctant rube. He streaks his down-home enthusiasm with smoldering ambition and frustration.
The Naked Spur (1953). Stewart's at his orneriest as a bounty hunter who captures a grinning sociopath (Robert Ryan). The hero needs the $5,000 reward to buy back a ranch his ex-fiancee sold out from under him. Stewart plays him harrowingly, as a fellow at odds with his better nature.
The Philadelphia Story (1940). Stewart stole large portions of the picture as a scandal-mag reporter who catalyzes the reconciliation of a forbiddingly virtuous rich girl (Katharine Hepburn) and her alcoholic first husband (Cary Grant). Whether he's getting Hepburn to say, "Golly," (after he kisses her) or Grant to say, "Excuse me," (after he drunkenly hiccups), he nurtures the mildest germ of a comic idea - and it becomes uproarious.
Rear Window (1954). Alfred Hitchcock toyed with Stewart's neighborly image in this tale of a photographer who indulges in nonstop voyeurism when he's laid up with a broken leg - and witnesses a murder in the apartment house across his Greenwich Village courtyard. The director tapped his star's capacities for prurience, self-disgust and queasiness; Stewart responded with what amounts to a virtuoso silent performance.
The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Stewart is the top employee at a Budapest leather-goods shop; Margaret Sullavan is a salesgirl hired over his objections. What we know, and they don't, is that they're also pen-pals, conducting a wild romance in an anonymous correspondence. The proud Stewart and the passionate Sullavan embody enchantment. (It was remade poorly by Ephron, with Hanks and Meg Ryan, as You've Got Mail in 1998.)
Vertigo (1958). Stewart's at his peak as a retired police officer afflicted with fear of heights and determined to crack what appears to be a case of demonic possession. Has a striking senorita from San Francisco's outlaw days taken over the spirit of a high-society gal (Kim Novak)? The smitten private eye thinks it may be so. Stewart is amazing at expressing the mingling of chivalry and desire in the man's white-knight fantasies. In reality, he's off-white.
To listen to a podcast of Michael Sragow talking about Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart, visit baltimoresun.com/sragow.