Calm down, most of the world. We know Tom Hanks is aggressively charming.
We live in a fractured culture, where establishing any sort of mass consensus is nearly impossible. Debating who’s the greatest basketball player of all time can get people from Chicago and Cleveland throwing chairs at each other. Bring up poké and you can see otherwise mild-mannered people turn into warring Scottish clans. And politics? Let’s not even start with politics or we’ll be here all day, and half of the people reading this will hate the other half. Instead, let’s discuss something everybody can agree upon: Tom Hanks! He seems like a really nice guy, right?
It’s rare to meet a Tom Hanks hater. Born July 9, 1956, the man has built each phase of his career around being likable — goofy comedian of the Big / Turner & Hooch / A League of Their Own days; Oscar-baiting leading man in Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan and Castaway. On-screen avatar for the personalities of big-name directors like Steven Spielberg, the Coen brothers and Ron Howard in too many mid-’00s movies to name. And the embodiment of every middle-aged white man who ever accomplished anything of note, in biopics from Charlie Wilson’s War to Captain Phillips to Saving Mr. Banks to Bridge of Spies to Sully to The Post. More than 50 movies populate Tom Hanks’ filmography, and there isn’t really much in the way of straight-up bad ones. His flops tend to be interesting, weird failures like The Circle and A Hologram for the King, and his paycheck roles are usually competently reliable examples of the craft of filmmaking, like the Da Vinci Code series, which Hanks has revisited in three different films in order to, presumably, buy himself a dozen rarer vintage typewriters.
Something else that’s largely missing from Hanks’ filmography? A pure villain role. There are a few stars who only play good guys. Harrison Ford has never cackled over a fallen hero’s body. Every character Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has played after launching his career as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns and its spin-off has had, at the very least, a heart of solid gold. But few of them possess Hanks’ talent. Stars like Ford and Johnson are terrific performers and delightful action heroes, but Hanks is a capital-A Actor with two Oscars and four Golden Globes. He’s got the range to play whatever part he wants (imagine him inverting his charisma the way similarly-perennial-nice-guy Henry Fonda did in Once Upon a Time in the West!), but thus far Hanks mostly just wants to play characters we admire.
Admiring the characters an actor plays is basically the same thing as admiring the actor himself. Mark Hamill is a very nice man with a keen wit, a generous spirit and an admirable willingness to express his values in public, but that’s not why countless grown men and women weep when they find themselves in his presence — it’s because he played Luke Skywalker. Hanks, whether intuitively or by design, seems to have understood that only ever being seen as a good guy is a great way to make sure people like you, so he made the choice to do that, and now basically everybody does like him. When we get glimpses of Tom Hanks, the man, they’re inherently simpatico with the version of the star we want to believe exists anyway. He’s used his clout in Hollywood to direct exactly two movies: 2009’s likable-enough Larry Crowne and 1996’s perfect rainy-Saturday-afternoon fare That Thing You Do! He published a book last year inspired by his typewriter collection! Thirty-five years after making his film debut, he appeared in his first music video, for a song expressing the Hanks-ian sentiment “I Really Like You” by the Tom Hanks of 2010s-era pop, Carly Rae Jepsen. He made a typewriter app called Hanx. He’s been married to the same woman for 30 years. We can only assume that when he signs a credit card receipt, he writes “T.Hanks,” to thank the waiter for providing him with such excellent service. It’s all on-brand for Hanks.
However: While all that makes Hanks one of the more universally beloved actors — nay, humans — in our increasingly fractured culture, his extreme likability does rub some the wrong way. I know this because I’m married to an avowed Hanks hater.
I’ll give you a minute…
“All he does is chronicle the great deeds of white men,” my wife, Kat, has explained to shocked friends and family when the subject of Hanks comes up over dinner. In her estimation, there’s something broken about a man who is so desperate to be loved that he only plays good guys, and has spent most of the past two decades of his career avoiding doing the thing that made people like him in the first place — namely, being silly. What is it that Tom Hanks is afraid we’ll see if he gives us another Turner & Hooch, anyway?
That’s a question without an answer, but while she’s certainly in the minority, she’s not alone in her antipathy toward Tom Hanks. Googling the phrase “I hate Tom Hanks” reveals people, mostly on slimly-read web forums, who violate the unspoken taboo around expressing anything but admiration for the star, and are summarily relieved to learn they’re not alone. And most of them have similar complaints: They liked the Hanks of Big and Splash but find the self-serious version he’s been committed to this century — starring in biopic after biopic about important men who are also nice and good — to be cloying. (In a rare display of Hanks-themed snark, The Onion once ran a headline that read “Tom Hanks Vows He Won’t Stop Until He Has Portrayed Every Last American.”)
But even an anti-Hanxer like Kat isn’t immune to his charms when he utilizes them in ways that make him a little less “trying to be everything to everyone” and demonstrate the sort of weirdness he had in him in the early days. After the credits of The Simpsons Movie, there’s an inexplicable cameo in which a cartoon Hanks, voiced by the actor, says simply, “This is Tom Hanks, saying, if you see me in person, please, leave me be.” When he appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2016, originating the utterly bizarre character of David S. Pumpkins, my wife watched the clip about 30 times that weekend. Which is to say that maybe it’s true — maybe nobody actually hates Tom Hanks. The 26 people in the “I Hate Tom Hanks” Facebook group probably have a version of Tom Hanks they like. All the people on message boards who boldly declare themselves free thinkers on the issue of Hanks who can’t stand the guy maybe still chuckle at the sight of the guy smashing furniture in the street and screaming, “We’re the lunatics!” in The Burbs. Ultimately, there may really be a version of Tom Hanks that appeals to all of us — the only real divide is whether we’re willing to let ourselves admit it.