The Bridge of Spies poster shows Tom Hanks blended in the red and blue of an American flag. How fitting. Tom is the American man, more idea than celebrity. We love him because we feel as if we know him. His characters are often men of principle who fight to do the right thing, and no matter how demanding their circumstances, Tom Hanks’ on-screen characters are often optimistic and devoid of judgment. We like him because we feel he might like us in return. It’s the stuff of stardom.
There’s a moment in Bridge of Spies where James Donovan (Hanks) is shown face down on the edge of the bed after a long day’s work. He’s out cold and basks in the warm glow of the sun, suit and shoes still firmly in place. How many films show the protagonist taking a nap? Director Steven Spielberg knows the value of Tom Hanks’ everyman quality and bookends his strong performance by reminding the audience that we’re no different. We rise, we work and we sleep. And so does Tom Hanks.
Just in time for Hanksgiving, here are the 10 Best Tom Hanks Performances of All Time for you to consider to watch with your family on this special day, in which we are thankful for all the treasures that Mr. Tom Hanks himself has given to us over the years.
Josh – Big (1988)
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment Hanks became a household name, but Penny Marshall’s Big put him on the map. In a career-defining role, Hanks plays Josh, a prepubescent kid who puts a quarter in a Zoltar machine and wishes to be “big.” The cryptic magician grants his request and gives him an adult body, thus beginning his adventures as a grown man. Josh undergoes quite an education. From the throes of the working world to first-time romance, Josh’s genuine spirit and innocence help him stand out from everyone else.
He wins the heart of Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) almost by accident, and thanks to Hanks’ predilection for sincerity, Josh becomes a remarkably lovable adult. As with Cinderella, we know his time in the fairy tale world is limited. As he becomes more entrenched in that reality and further from the world in which he belongs, it becomes more crucial that he return to his childhood. Everyone dreams of becoming young again, even for a moment, but only Josh has the opportunity to experience both hands of the clock.
Jimmy Dugan – A League of their Own (1992)
Hanks started his career in comedy, and in Penny Marshall’s baseball classic, he gets to really show his chops. As manager Jimmy Dugan, Hanks taps into his funny bone and theatricality as he tries to coach his team of players to victory in the first female professional baseball league.
We first me
et Mr. Dugan, a former Babe Ruth-esque slugger for the Chicago Cubs, barreling through the door of the women’s locker room, drunk out of his mind. He barges past his new team and beelines for the urinals. The ladies (Geena Davis, Madonna, Lori Petty and more) all try to introduce themselves, but Dugan remains blissfully unaware and inebriated. Hanks expertly crafts a character who moves from utter indifference and mockery to one who devoutly works for the team.
If Dugan were in a Dickens novel, he’d have some Uriah Heep in him, what with all of his earthy impulses. Beneath the exterior, however, we see Dugan for who he is. We like him, even when he’s using the wrong bathroom.
Andrew Beckett – Philadelphia (1993)
Jonathan Demme’s classic film about prejudice puts Tom Hanks squarely behind the 8-ball of life. It’s not easy to do for such a charming guy. Andrew Beckett (Hanks) suffers widespread ostracization over his sexual identity, and corporate rejection and physical withering at the hand of AIDS. It’s a difficult role for Hanks and an even harder one to watch. For the entirety of the film, Beckett fights tooth and nail for justice over being fired for contracting the AIDS virus.
With the help of a complicated and bigoted lawyer (Denzel Washington), Beckett works against the clock. Released just after the AIDS epidemic reached the height of its scourge, Philadelphia humanizes the lives of those affected by the insidious disease. Given the hot button topic, Hanks proved to be the perfect casting choice. Despite his character’s difficulties, Hanks plays Beckett’s struggle with optimism and hope. He may not be quite the happy-go-lucky Tom Hanks we’ve come to love, but he never gives up the fight. Hanks deservedly won the Oscar for this performance.
Forrest Gump (1994)
In what may be his most iconic role, Tom Hanks played the slow-witted Forrest Gump to perfection. With an irresistible southern drawl and a complete sincerity normally reserved to kids, there’s more to Forrest than meets the eye. He’s observant, and in some areas, brilliant beyond measure. He’s got a bit of Being There’s Chauncey Gardner in him, but Hanks’ take on the character has more heart.
Whether director Robert Zemeckis and future collaborator Tom Hanks intended Forrest to be such a living metaphor remains to be seen. Like all of us, he moves through life and experiences things of great import without being aware of their value in the moment. Throughout his life, Forrest encounters some of the most significant events of the 20th century. He’s a witness in the development of human history without actually knowing it. Forrest’s naivety is a vehicle for his experience and success.
Jim Lovell – Apollo 13 (1995)
In Ron Howard’s space epic, Hanks captures the essence of a devout family man who has his heart set on the stars. We first meet Jim Lovell on the night of the Apollo 11 moon landing, being broadcast at the Lovell’s house, friends and family in tow. He’s a jovial and quick-witted man who seems content with being a patriarch and the life of the party. As “One small step…” creaks through Cronkite’s broadcast, a slow-zooming shot of Hanks changes the story. We see it all: this incredible longing to walk on the moon. How difficult and yet inspiring to watch another man live his dream.
Eventually, Jim gets his shot at glory, but fate and haphazard rocket construction ultimately threaten the mission. After all is said and done, we remember Hanks’ illustration of a man in great danger who remains calm under the circumstances. Houston has no problem with Tom Hanks.
Captain Miller – Saving Private Ryan (1997)
What better way to humanize war heroes than by making them English teachers. In his first film with Steven Spielberg, Hanks built a complex man out of Captain Miller. With shaking hands (through possible Parkinson’s onset), Miller has literally lost his nerve as he conducts a strenuous search for Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon) through war-torn France. He acknowledges that the mission is not one he would have chosen, but instead forgoes his professorial analysis and focuses his attention on simply doing his duty. Miller holds it all inside: the fear, the longing, the disillusionment.
Hanks imbues his man with great pathos, alongside his signature touch of fortitude, making Miller a memorable leader. The movie contains Hanks’ most legendary line, “Earn This. Earn it.” It serves as a call to action not only for Private Ryan but for generations to come.
Woody – Toy Story (1995)
Tom Hanks has mentioned that the recording process for Woody’s dialogue is exhausting. For a pull-string doll with a perpetual smile, Woody indeed lives life in perpetual panic. He shares more in common with Mr Potato Head than he might care to admit, with each of his cadences rising in intensity rather than dropping off. As Hanks records for Toy Story 4, he must have a laugh or two over the unexpected popularity of Pixar’s leading franchise.
Woody is the animated version of Tom Hanks’ persona. As with Andy, he’s our most loyal friend, the talisman we can’t abandon no matter how old or jaded we become. Toy Story uses our playthings to access the heart of our childhood, in all its simplicity and need. Tom Hanks never abandoned the enthusiasm of his youth, making his portrayal of Woody all the more unforgettable.
Joe Fox – You’ve Got Mail (1998)
What better opportunity to turn on the charm than in a Nora Ephron movie. In You’ve Got Mail, Tom Hanks has the upper hand over Kathleen “Shopgirl” Kelly (Meg Ryan). Loosely based on the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner and In the Good Old Summertime (starring Judy Garland), Nora Ephron’s classic film tells the tale of falling in love In a digital era.
Joe Fox (Hanks) is a corporate mogul who happens to be courting a woman whose business is on the brink of obsolescence. Kathleen Kelly has all of the spunk and righteous indignation of Elizabeth Bennett, while Fox channels the Darcy-esque haughtiness that belies his inner need. Hanks plays both sides of Fox with aplomb, toying with Kelly’s insecurities while simultaneously seducing her. It’s a more plausible Sleepless in Seattle that finds both Hanks and Ryan at the top of their game.
Paul Edgecomb – The Green Mile (1999)
Adapted from the eponymous Stephen King novel, The Green Mile tells the story of Paul Edgecomb (Hanks), a death row officer. He has seen every variety of killer and the executions that follow, but his newest inmate, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), throws things off kilter. As Edgecomb develops a fondness for this walking contradiction of Coffey, a simultaneously massive-yet-meek man charged with double homimcide, his life changes in ethereal ways. It becomes clear that Coffey is no ordinary man, but some kind of literal godsend who has a mission to be fulfilled.
The film is as touching as it is heartbreaking, often evoking both emotions in a single sweep. One of the final scenes in the movie has Edgecomb asking Coffey how he will survive Judgment Day, knowing he executed one of God’s angels. Hanks hardly blinks during the interaction, hanging on Coffey’s every word. It is one of his most moving moments on camera.
Chuck Noland – Cast Away (2000)
Stress and tragedy reveal true character. How fortunate, then, that the extreme misfortune of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) in Cast Away only highlights our affection for him. Just as he appears to be on the brink of life-long commitment to Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), Noland gets whisked away from the known world in a freak accident plane crash that leaves his FedEx crew dead in the water and any hope of civilizational contact impossible.
Hanks’ performance is the reverse of De Niro’s physical commitment in Raging Bull; he gained 50 pounds of middle-aged comfort for the beginning of the film, then taking several months to shed the additional weight. We get two Tom Hanks for the price of one, and as we discover, he remains eminently likable no matter the fluctuation of his body aesthetic. He can make friends with volleyballs, proving his sense of humor knows no bounds.
Michael Sullivan – Road to Perdition (2002)
To find the heart of the mobster is to find the secret of life. Sam Mendes’ Chicago-set classic casts a pall over Hanks’ likability, muting his most convivial tendencies in the hollow shell of his murderous self. Only John Rooney (Paul Newman) can bring out his warmer nature, turning water into blood as he chooses Michael Sullivan over his son Connor (Daniel Craig), to be his most trusted confidante. They’re the Jacob and Esau of the Chicago order.
Hanks and Newman share a powerful moment playing a duet on the piano, picking out the notes of an Irish song that tells us what their hearts are feeling, beneath the long black coats and snazzy hats of the day. Hanks’ Michael is a broken man who lives solely for the future of his son. Despite his blood-ties to black markets, he toils to provide a life for his son outside the family business.
Captain Phillips (2013)
“I am the captain now.” The Somali pirate’s (Barkhad Abdi) line is almost more famous than the film, but Paul Greengrass’ 2013 film put Tom Hanks back on the map with his strong dramatic performance.
In their portrayal of the 2009 hijacking of the Maersk Alabama, Greengrass and Hanks put a spotlight on unexpected heroism and the emotional fallout that accompanies it. Hanks’ portrayal is distinctly gentle, never overemphasizing the true fear of kidnap and possible murder. Instead, Hanks allows the situation to unfold in real-time, offering some of the most genuine and raw reactions scene in his previous work.
It’s ugly, and while the last scene is perhaps the best remembered from the film, Hanks’ convulsive reactions to spurts of violence are unexpected and gripping. This is Hanks at his most unselfconscious and instinctive.
There you have it! What’s your favorite Tom Hanks performance? Let us know in the comments below!