Tom Hanks made it all too easy for those of us wedded to the notion that he is a Jimmy Stewart for our times when, in 1998, he starred opposite Meg Ryan in the email-based romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail. This, of course, was a digital upgrade of the analogue 1940 favourite The Shop around the Corner, whose leading man was – you’re way ahead of me – James Stewart. They played the same part, one in black and white, the other in colour, separated by half a century.
Comparisons between the two decent, courteous, approachable, white, middle-class Hollywood everymen always prove irresistible – even though it might seem unfair to compare a living actor with an icon who could easily take his place in the cinematic equivalent of Mount Rushmore.
Though the Pennsylvanian Stewart’s screen career spanned over 50 years, we think of him most fondly in his first flush of super-stardom in the 30s and 40s, when he embodied affable honesty before and after the Second World War. He was pretty impressive during the war years, too; the first big Hollywood star to wear a uniform, he flew numerous missions as a decorated pilot. Though his tour of duty has only been on screen, the Californian Hanks brought empathy to a string of stock-heroic roles in the 90s: an astronaut in Apollo 13, a soldier in Saving Private Ryan, even the cowboy puppet he voiced in Toy Story and its sequels.
Both men made a mark in comedies – Stewart screwball-fast in The Philadelphia Story and other less illustrious MGM vehicles; Hanks goofing in 80s farces Turner & Hooch and Big – but each also won acceptance in straight roles. Stewart carved a solid reputation for westerns in the 50s – Winchester ’73, The Man from Laramie – and in the Hitchcock thrillers Rear Window and Vertigo. Hanks took a riskier path to legitimacy, playing the gay lawyer dying of an Aids-related illness in Philadelphia, for which he won his first Oscar.
Stewart died in 1997, aged 89, his final screen credit being for his vocal contribution as Sheriff Wylie Burp in the animation An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. His best actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story was followed by a lifetime achievement award from the Academy in 1985, although these couldn’t touch his 11 military honours and his Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Hanks has already notched up five Oscar nominations, with his triumph for Philadelphia being followed by a win for Forrest Gump, as the good-hearted chump who stretched “everyman” to breaking point by influencing US history from Elvis to Watergate and beyond.
After something of a dry patch, he’s tipped for awards glory again for the heart-pounding true- life maritime thriller Captain Phillips (in cinemas from Friday 18 October), and the biographical Saving Mr Banks (due on 29 November), in which he plays none other than Walt Disney to Emma Thompson’s PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. The two films bookend the London film festival this month with gala screenings, which is quite an honour in itself.
All seems well in Hanksworld. He’s been happily married to second wife Rita Wilson for 25 years and is a father and grandfather. A nice guy in real life (I interviewed him in 2002 for his one “nasty” role in Road to Perdition and he thankfully lived up to every one of my clichéd expectations), Tom Hanks is not someone you’d associate with controversy.
However, in 2010, while promoting The Pacific, the superb HBO mini-series about America’s conflict with the Japanese, which he co-produced with Steven Spielberg, Hanks landed himself in hot water with those on the political right when he compared that theatre of war with the ongoing conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He referred to both as wars of “racism and terror”, which was a bit like lobbing a live hand grenade into the bunker of entrenched US conservatism. Fox News attack-dog Bill O’Reilly interviewed a retired lieutenant colonel who accused Hanks of “historical illiteracy”, while hotheads on right-wing forums branded him “evil”, a “degenerate” and even a “douche-bag”, and vowed to boycott this films. More pertinently, they held up Republican war hero James Stewart as a shining example of American values.
There’s no escaping it, even when Hanks is betraying his “nice guy” image, the Jimmy Stewart comparisons persist.
Nice guys and gals don’t finish last
1. Julia Roberts: The toothy smile, the Hinduism, the eco causes, the childhood dream of being a vet – and she played an aspirational prostitute.
2. Michael J Fox: Never mind coping with Parkinson’s disease with dignity and humour, he looks 21 at 52 and has been married for 25 years.
3. Julie Andrews: Mary Poppins! Maria Von Trapp! Queen Clarissa of The Princess Diaries! Queen Lillian from Shrek! This Dame is our ultimate spoon full of sugar.
4. George Clooney: Men want to hang with him, women want to marry him. He’s “one of the guys”, but wants to save the world from war and hunger.