4. Woody in “Toy Story” (1995)
Buzz might have been the toy phenomenon, but Woody is the heart of the “Toy Story” films. Correction: Tom Hanks is the heart of the “Toy Story” films. Coming off back-to-back Oscar wins (the first person to do so since Spencer Tracy), Hanks was the new Jimmy Stewart, a natural choice to play a simple wooden cowboy doll, an embodiment of classic American childhood. But Hanks, like the filmmakers, wasn’t tempted to go down the aw-shucks route, making Woody into a sort of middle-management figure, a kind of proto Michael Scott, and one capable not just of goodness but of deep envy and selfishness as well. Hanks finds every comic and dramatic beat (“You! Are! A! Toy!” reads as both a gag and a howl of existential despair in his hands), but also stops Woody from tipping too far into being unsympathetic. We have a tendency to underrate voice performances, perhaps because we’re used to the “Shark Tale” school of stars turning up and basically just being themselves. But Hanks, perhaps more than anything else, makes “Toy Story,” treating the role like a complex, living, breathing person, and one who, oddly, never quite sounds like Tom Hanks. He’s great across all three films, but it has to be the original that gives Woody his defining outing.
3. Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia” (1993)
These days, a straight actor playing a gay character is seen as being as Oscar-baity as any Holocaust film, let alone playing a gay character with a terminal disease. But 20 years ago, for one of the biggest stars in the world to take on such a role was a brave decision, particularly as the film in question, Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia,” was the one of the first Hollywood pictures to tackle AIDS, then a decade into the public’s consciousness. And, while the film doesn’t always escape the danger of turning into a well-meaning but obvious Stanley Kramer-style picture, there’s no denying Hanks‘ performance, which saw the actor undergoing a physical transformation just as impressive as the one in “Cast Away,” seemingly aging decades over a period of months. The character risks coming across as a little saintly, but Hanks undercuts it in one of the best scenes, where he admits how he contracted the disease, and the actor refuses to ever make him a victim. His chemistry with co-star Denzel Washington (who’s equally good) is very strong, so much so that you wonder why they haven’t worked together since. The film hasn’t aged well — the belief shared by virtually every character that AIDS can be contracted like it was the flu was overblown even then — but for the most part Demme keeps it just the right side of sentimental. Hanks won his first Oscar (having been previously nominated for “Big”) and it’s a much more deserving victory than his one the following year for “Forrest Gump.”
2. Josh Paskin in “Big” (1988)
It isn’t just Tom Hanks that elevates “Big” above the fates of similar ‘80s body-swap type comedies “Vice Versa” and “Like Father Like Son.” However, he’s certainly the biggest part of the success of this winning Penny Marshall film, which has aged far better than its often-awkward protagonist does. A lesser actor would have been all goofy and gawky – an element which Hanks nails – but the future Oscar winner scored his first nomination for a layered performance that goes beyond just impersonating a 13-year-old stuck in a 30-year-old’s body. He’s alternately vulnerable, silly, sad, gleeful and terrified. We can’t decide whether we like him best when he’s romancing fellow toy company exec Elizabeth Perkins, playing “Heart and Soul” with boss Robert Loggia or crying in a hole of a New York hotel room. This film distills everything we love about Hanks into a single role and it was an indicator of things to come: his seemingly effortless facility with drama, comedy and romance would later manifest itself in “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Toy Story,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and dozens of other films. When we watched it as kids, we could identify with the desire to grow up fast, and now as adults, we’re nostalgic for the freedom of childhood, all thanks to Hanks’ near-perfect work here.
1. Chuck Noland in “Cast Away” (2000)
Whether you hate on Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis for “Forrest Gump” if you want or are angered at the exclusion here of Hallmark Zelig, but we’ll still take the duo’s collaboration on “Cast Away” over it any day of the week. A one man show that’s all Hanks (it earned him his fifth Best Actor Oscar nom), he carries the hard-to-pull-off film in two excellently bifurcated notes. Initially, Hanks gained weight to portray the paunchy FedEx executive everyman who is stranded on a desert island when his rush delivery airplane crashes over the South Pacific. Production then stopped for an entire year so Hanks could drop almost 60 pounds and grow a woolly beard to play the emaciated man trying to survive on an island with only his volleyball friend Wilson to keep him company. Throughout, Hanks’ various stages of despair, loneliness, resolve and surrender are acutely real and poignant, filling in the contours of a $85 million picture that is essentially a man talking to himself on an island. But in fact, the middle act of the film is almost silent: no dialogue, voice-over or score. It is simply Tom Hanks and the grimaced emotions on his face. Perhaps just as moving is the film’s sentimental, but still affecting conclusion. Hanks returns to civilization years later, his fiancée having moved on with a new husband and children. His quiet resignation is devastating but ultimately, his where-will-life-take-us-now acceptance and curiosity is a hopeful and life-affirming reminder that, as cliche as it sounds, tomorrow the sun will still rise.
There isn’t really such a thing as a bad Tom Hanks performance — even in a ropey, disposable movie like “The Da Vinci Code,” “Angels & Demons” or “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” he brings his A-game. As such, we could have done a list twice as long as this and felt that we were leaving something out. But particular heartbreakers in narrowing this down to ten included “Splash,” “Punchline,” “Joe Versus The Volcano” (yes, really), “A League Of Their Own,” “Sleepless In Seattle,” “Apollo 13,” “The Green Mile” and the impressive range of “Cloud Atlas.”
As for “Forrest Gump,” his second Oscar-winner? There was some spirited debate in Playlist HQ about it, but even the film’s fans weren’t too adamant that it made the list — while Hanks is very good, despite the film’s flaws (particularly some of the tear-jerking moments in the second half), there were ultimately other picks that felt deeper and richer.
Complain about that, and other decisions, in the comments below, and praise your favorite Hanks performance too.
– Oliver Lyttelton, Kimber Myers, Matthew Newlin, Rodrigo Perez, Kevin Jagernauth