Hanks, 38 this week, is the actor who takes dangerous themes or recycled plots and, with his craft and decency, makes them esteemed hits. The rare flops (Punchline, The Bonfire of the Vanities) don't stick to him,and his past three films (A League of Their Own, Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia) have earned 0 million at the domestic box office. Now Hollywood routinely assigns its Missions Impossible to Captain Nice.
Nice is not a quality often associated with movie actors. Today's typical film star - Arnold, Jack or post-modern Keanu - radiates danger; he's a wild guy to take a wild ride with. The nice guy is on TV: he's the genial, comfortable friend you want to invite into your home each week. They are two distinct breeds, the domesticated husband of TV and the movies' demon lover. One does the dishes, the other smashes them.
Hanks is a TV type who made a big splash in movies (first in Splash, then in Big). He is a throwback to old Hollywood, when everybody went to the movies, when movies were the world's TV, when the norm was more ... normal. Back then, quiet types like Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper played the extraordinary ordinary man. That's Hanks. Offscreen, apparently, he leads a calm, happy life. Onscreen, he is less likely to explode than to simmer and smile. With his suburban niceness and elusive, rubberized features - any photo of him is bound to look smudged - he is a '40s fella for the '90s.
Nearly any Hanks character is an intelligent guy who wants to make sense out of the chaos of his life, trying to sustain his dignity when everything has gone horribly weird. He's your best self having your worst day. You are, for example, a man who must dress in drag (in Hanks' 1981 TV series Bosom Buddies). You're a 12-year-old kid who literally grows up overnight (Big). You're a detective whose top informant is a slobbery dog (Turner Hooch). You're the manager of a baseball team, and your players are all girls (A League of Their Own). Or your girlfriend is a fish (Splash). Your wife has died (Sleepless in Seattle). You think you're dying (Joe Versus the Volcano). You are dying (Philadelphia). Whether the dilemma is fantastic or tragic, Hanks gives it an apt, gentle heft.
Like the best movie actors, Hanks is a superb reactor. His theater-trained voice often breaks into gentlemanly whining. His fretful brow expresses perplexity - a thoughtful "Huh?" And then, in the subtlest shift, comic exasperation plummets into agony. Hanks justified his Philadelphia Oscar in one early scene outside Denzel Washington's law office. With no more than a long, longing look, he registers the despair of a dying man who feels utterly bereft, unheard, dismissed. This lovely little revelation has an antecedent in Big, when the overgrown kid sits alone in a creepy hotel room and ponders his dreadful solitude. He's wonderful at portraying someone who's just been sucker-punched by fate.
Hanks is a kid again in director Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump. Slow-witted and likable, Forrest races through the rubble of the '50s, '60s and '70s. Thanks to novelist Winston Groom's cunning plot (Eric Roth wrote the script) and some nifty visual effects, Forrest pops up in many a historic venue: with George Wallace at the schoolhouse door, in the seared rice fields of Vietnam, along the Great Wall of China, at the Watergate Hotel during a third-rate burglary. As his mother and his pals die around him, he pursues his life's love; the movie might be called Four Funerals and a Wedding.
Like the new Wyatt Earp, this episodic ersatz epic feels more like a mini-series than a movie. It's a long drink of water at the fountain of pop-social memory. It wants to find an optimism in survival: if we somehow got through the past 35 years, we must be O.K. So Forrest comes across as a sweeter Zelig, a candied Candide, as the film strains to find America's inner child. But Hanks holds it together because he is working to discover Forrest's inner adult - the mature man under his infantile guilelessness. This effort pays off magnificently in Forrest's climactic declaration of love. Hanks' tone is both operatic and judicious; he makes passionate sentiment seem the highest form of common sense.
Other stars attract audiences by saving the world or stopping a runaway bus. A Hanks movie deals with more mundane imperatives: doing your job, staying alive, getting the girl. Simple things seem unattainable; when attained, they feel sublime.
In Splash, Hanks sits at a bar and pours out his lace-valentine heart: "I wanna meet a woman and I wanna fall in love and I wanna get married and I wanna have a kid and I wanna go see him play a tooth in the school play. It's not much." But to ordinary, unique people - the folks Hanks appeals to, and the folks he so smartly plays - it's everything.