Tom Hanks is without question one of the finest acting talents of his – or any – generation. A career that spans over three decades, Hanks has been nominated for five Oscars (winning two) and has proven to be an extremely versatile actor by taking on a wide variety of roles across a variety of genres.
Hanks adds another terrific performance in his already illustrious filmography with his turn in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. Based on the true story of the 2009 Somali pirate hijacking, Hanks is earning high praise from critics for his latest work and is once again an early contender for Best Actor at the Oscars.
To coincide with the release of Captain Phillips, we’ve put together a list of the five greatest Tom Hanks performances. We only focused on his live-action roles, so his voiceover as Woody in the Toy Story franchise was not eligible.
In the late ’80s, one of the more popular film trends was the body switch comedy. The latest (and arguably greatest) of these is 1988’s Big, which starred Hanks as Josh Baskin. A teenager who wishes to be “big,” Josh gets more than he bargained for when he wakes up in the body of a 30-year-old man.
The role featured a high degree of difficulty, which is why Hanks received his first Academy Award nomination for this performance. Long removed from his teenage years at the time of filming, Hanks was able to sell the potentially goofy premise by committing himself to the part. Studying David Moscow’s (“young” Josh) mannerisms, Hanks accurately portrayed a youth of the times using great comedic timing and the dramatic chops he’s known for today.
Mixing child-like enthusiasm with emotional poignancy (while teaching viewers life lessons along the way), the actor is the main reason why this film is so charming and funny.
Hanks was already established as a titan in the industry by the time Steven Spielberg’s masterful World War II drama hit theaters in 1998. In a cast predominantly consisting of character actors, movie star Hanks gave viewers a clear protagonist to experience the story through while turning in one of the most nuanced performances of his career.
Nominated for the Best Actor Oscar again, Hanks’ authoritative presence made it easy for us to buy him as an Army captain. Always in control of the situation (at least on the outside), he uses a calm demeanor to fuel the movie’s many intense sequences. The multi-layered character of John Miller allowed Hanks to be emotionally vulnerable, particularly during the scene where he breaks down in tears while hidden from his troops.
Single-actor films are always a big gamble in Hollywood. So much of the their success rides on the performance of one person and how the audience responds. Luckily for Robert Zemeckis, he was able to have Hanks (in yet another Oscar-nominated turn) lead the survival-thriller Cast Away.
In lesser hands, this film could have been a disaster, but Hanks was up for the challenge. Using his natural everyman qualities and likability, he was able to give viewers a character who was easy to root for as well as pose some serious “what would you do?” questions. Despite acting against a volleyball for most of the running time, Hanks’ performance is so strong that some critics wish more of the drama took place on the desert island.
Even though the film features an unbearable terrifying real-life scenario, Hanks made the ride both enjoyable and captivating.
Prior to being cast in this film, Hanks was known primarily for his comedic talents, but was mostly unproven handling more serious material. That all changed after people saw Philadelphia, one of the first mainstream films to tackle issues of HIV and homosexuality.
Transitioning from comedy to drama is no easy task, but for him it was child’s play. Winning his first Oscar for this role, Hanks announced himself as a force to be reckoned with during this movie. Offering a realistic and heartbreaking portrayal of a man with AIDS in the early 1990s, Hanks’ Andrew Beckett is a sympathetic figure. Showing viewers an HIV-positive everyman that could easily be anyone watching, Hanks used his performance to help people change how they perceive those suffering from the disease.
Perhaps his most iconic role, Hanks won his second consecutive Oscar when he followed Philadelphia with Forrest Gump. Taking viewers on an odyssey through a tumultuous period in American history, Gump proves to be the ultimate tour guide through all the events.
Once again, if a different actor portrayed Gump, the film could have failed miserably, but Hanks delivers. The script calls for Forrest to be in essentially every scene, and Hanks’ innocence and charm prevents the character from becoming an annoyance. Instead, the part allows him to show off his impressive acting range while giving viewers a different viewpoint of the States in the 20th century. Crafting one of the most memorable film characters ever, Hanks makes Gump an endearing and inspirational figure, showing that even a simple man can accomplish extraordinary things.
Both moving and heartfelt, Forrest Gump is the quintessential Tom Hanks performance and an easy pick for this list.
These five performances would be enough to catapult any actor into “greatest ever” status, but Hanks’ resume is full of terrific performances that weren’t nominated for Academy Awards. His turns in dramas such as Apollo 13, The Green Mile, Catch Me if You Can, and Road to Perdition (among others) are just as deserving to have a spot on our list.
If his films this year are any indication, Hanks still has plenty left in the tank. Not only is he earning rave reviews for Captain Phillips, he also has Saving Mr. Banks due in December.
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share your favorite Tom Hanks performances in the comments section below.
Captain Phillips is in theaters October 11, 2013.
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