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A life on screen

As Oxford prepares to welcome Tom Hanks, Paul Furey reflects on the star’s career and impact

Many claim that the age of the movie star is dead, but Tom Hanks can definitely give them a run for their money. Recognised globally, with 43 years in the film industry and countless accolades behind him, Hanks has cemented himself as one of cinema’s golden boys.

On December 1st, the Oxford Union will host this titan of acting for the first time to deliver a speech to students, with his arrival guaranteeing queues unravelling from St. Michael’s Street and a strong media presence. 

And rightly so! At a time of heightened scepticism towards the cult of celebrity and the disproportionate presence of ‘Nepo babies’ on screen and stage, it is refreshing to be reminded that there are still those who have reached the peak of fame through pure dedication to their craft. So whether you know him best as Forrest Gump, crying out “Wilson!”, or simply as the voice of a toy cowboy, Hanks’ undeniable talent deserves a deeper look.

Hanks began his movie career acting a small role in the low-budget 1980 slasher, He Knows You’re Alone. Even with Hanks’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance as Elliot the student, he ostensibly impressed filmmakers so much that they decided to cut out his death scene which was originally in the script.

It wouldn’t be long until he earnt lead roles, such as the ABC television series Bosom Buddies, running between 1980 to 1982. Hanks, alongside Peter Scolari, starred as two advertising men disguised as women living in a dirt-cheap, female-only apartment. Playing on gender stereotypes that usually involved Hanks, the show became known for its use of improvisation. “I knew he’d be a movie star in two years”, said co-producer Ian Praiser about him. Bosom Buddies held solid reviews until its cancellation and became the foothold for Hanks to launch a successful stint of comedic performances.

Take his first lead role in Splash, a surprise box office hit which earnt $69 million in 1984. It was a fantasy rom-com where Hanks’ character falls in love with a mermaid.This was immediately followed by the sex comedy film Bachelor’s Party where Hanks’ character embarks on a quest to remain faithful during an epic bachelor party.

The highlight of Hanks’ early career in comedy was no doubt the 1988 fantasy comedy Big, which earnt him his first Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe win for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. Grossing over $150 million worldwide and earning critical acclaim for his lead performance, Big cemented Hanks as a Hollywood star.

It wasn’t until 1992 that Hanks experienced his next big hit in A League of Their Own. A sports comedy-drama based on the real-life All American Girls Professional Baseball League. The film grossed over $130 million and proved a critical success, with Hanks at the lead once again. In 2012, the Library of Congress agreed to preserve it in the United States National Film Registry for its cultural significance.

 1993 was another pivotal year for Hanks’ career seeing the release of the rom com classic Sleepless in Seattle, which remains widely touted by critics as one of the greatest of all time. 

His role in Philadelphia earnt him an Oscar, where Hanks plays a gay lawyer with AIDS who sues his former employer for wrongful termination. Philadelphia is significant, not only for addressing HIV and AIDS, but for portraying gay people in a positive light which wasn’t common at the time. Hanks has commented that the movie would be difficult to make today. He questioned if audiences would “accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy”. 

Forrest Gump, is a name synonymous with Tom Hanks, a role he truly made his own. Personally, it was my first memory of him on screen and one that has always stuck in mind. The role made him only the second man, after Spencer Tracy, to win back-to-back Oscars for Best Actor. Grossing over $600 million and solidifying him as a household name, the movie also graced popular culture with “run Forrest, run” and “life is like a box of chocolates”. The film follows the life of slow-witted Alabama man Forrest Gump. It recounts his journey unwittingly bumping into key historical figures and events including Elivis Presley, JFK, the Vietnam War, Lyndon B. Johnson, the March on the Pentagon, John Lennon, and Richard Nixon.

Hanks’ next role after his string of successes was as astronaut Jim Lovell in 1995’s docudrama Apollo 13. It depicts NASA’s aborted third attempt to land on the moon and the improvisation and brains behind bringing them back to Earth safely. This was another smash hit to put under Hanks’ belt, grossing over $350 million. Hanks had been hoping to do a film on the Apollo 13 mission and was ultimately cast due to his knowledge of Apollo and space history. He even had to attend U.S. Space Camp to prepare for the role.

Voice acting was the next fortuitous step Hanks took in his career. He took a chance on the first ever computer-animated comedy film by the small Pixar Animation Studios. In a world where toys come to life when no one is looking, Hanks filled the snake-housing boots of Sheriff Woody. The Toy Story franchise would go on to have three sequels and a prequel, grossing $3.3 billion worldwide. Again, Hanks’ performance provided notable moments that would last as memories in the collective consciousness of viewers, such as his rendition of You’ve Got a Friend in Me, or yelling into the face of an unconvinced Buzz Lightyear, “you are a toy!”

Maintaining his newfound dynamicism, Hanks ventured into his writing and directing debut on That Thing You Do! In 1996. The comedy told the tale of a fictional 1960s one hit wonder band, Hanks starring as the band’s manager. Although critically acclaimed to this day, That Thing You Do! has not held up to be as culturally significant as Hanks’ other works. Hanks would go on to found a Playtone, a record and film production company, named after the record company in the film. Another writing and directing project he undertook played on his passion for space, just as in Apollo 13. The HBO docudrama From the Earth to the Moon chronicled the space program and particular hot points such as the moon landings. The show would go on to bring home multiple Emmys, including one in Hanks’ name for Outstanding Miniseries.

The next step for Hanks was teaming up with Steven Spielberg for the war epic Saving Private Ryan. Portraying a US army captain suffering from PTSD through the landing of Omaha Beach to the rescue of Matt Damon’s Private Ryan picked him up yet another Best Actor nomination at the Oscars. Widely considered one of, if not the, best war movies ever made, Hanks certainly put his stamp on the genre. Most memorable was his desperate taking on of a Tiger I tank with a mere pistol, and coming out alive.

Hanks would continue adding to his successful career in acting with roles in the adaptation of Stephen King’s The Green Mile, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can, and the Coen brothers’ The Ladykillers. He maintained his impressive knack at collecting prestigious awards and recognition. He earned another Oscar nomination for Best Actor for playing a marooned FedEx employee who bonds with a Wilson volleyball in 2000’s Cast Away. He took home Emmys for direction and production work on the HBO television series Band of Brothers.

In the last ten years Hanks has kept his career in the spotlight, receiving critical acclaim for portraying a captain taken hostage and Walt Disney in 2013’s Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks. He became the first actor to portray Disney in a mainstream film. He made the move to Broadway with his debut coming through Lucky Guy. His portrayal of journalist Mike McAlary earned him a Tony Award nomination for Best Actor in a Play. All the more culturally significant was his appearance on the music video for Carly Rae Jepson’s I Really Like You, where he appears lip-syncing all the lyrics to the song. The video sits on 300 million views as of time of writing.

Hanks would go on to earn his final Oscar nomination for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood for Best Supporting Actor, becoming the TV presenter Fred Rogers in his biopic. His latest pictures saw him portray Tom Parker, the manager of Elvis Presley in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis and a disaffectionate father-in-law in Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City.

Hanks now has a trophy cabinet of two Oscars and twelve Emmys. In 2002 he was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award and in 2016 he picked up both the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the French Legion of Honour at the rank of Knight. Worldwide, his films have grossed nearly $10 billion and he regularly tops the lists compiling the best actors and most influential celebrities of all time. Who knows what he’ll make of little Oxford? 

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