Top Performances is a recurring feature in which we definitively handpick the very best performances from an iconic actor or actress. Once again, we’re revisiting Tom Hanks’ eclectic filmography in honor of his 64th birthday.
The cinema world still doesn’t know what it did to deserve Tom Hanks. The actor is a key part of the movie-going experience and always has been ever since his early days. Hanks is the guy in the role you can’t help but believe is totally real. He’s the man who warms your heart, even when his character doesn’t speak a single warm line. From his early ’80s charm to his later dramatic work, he’s present and tuned in, shifting his tone, lines, and presence to better fit the overall goal of whatever film he’s in.
Since he leapt out of comedies and into dramas, Hanks’ method for choosing which films he’s in seems to be somewhat random. But as he told USA Weekend back in 2004, there’s a way to pick the good apples from the bad. “[Since] A League of Their Own, it can’t be just another movie for me,” he said. “There has to be some all-encompassing desire or feeling about wanting to do that particular movie. I’d like to assume that I’m willing to go down any avenue in order to do it right.”
And that he has. Throughout his multiple decades’ worth of films, Hanks has shown his ability to not just to be a lovable character, but to be someone who can adapt to the genre of the film as well as he can push it further. Though often in understated ways, he brings a level of calmness to the movies he’s in, a reassurance that things will pan out how they’re meant to, even if that means a sad ending. That dexterity raises a toast or two. For now, a round of verbal applause will have to do — that is if he gives himself a big enough break between acting in films to actually hear it.
10. Viktor Navorski in The Terminal (2004)
For a film generally canned by critics, The Terminal sees Hanks portraying the internal fears and excitement of a foreigner with the external quietness and intrigue of someone that’s actually worth watching for two hours. Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man visiting New York from Eastern Europe, who discovers his homeland launched into a coup while he was mid-air. Now stranded at JFK with a passport deemed useless, he wanders the terminal’s international transit lounge, finding ways to pass the time until his country resolves its issues. True to life, subtle changes are the big moments, many of which stem from serendipity and generosity tied to Navorski, adding up to make a no-frills, heart-warming flick.
Hanks’ portrayal of Navorski sums up so many of airports’ aggravating and stressful actions, but it wrings a type of peaceful harmony in the process, a humanness that Hanks whips together by picking up coins from luggage trollies, sleeping across plastic seats, and stuttering his way through an exaggerated accent that becomes endearing in its good intentions. There’s no doubt that the film gets overly emotional come the end, in part because of its trite love story, but Hanks’ performance can stand on its own despite that. In fact, it may be the only time you wish you spent more time in an airport.
Hanks’ Moment: For JFK officials, one of the perks of having Navorski around is being able to use him as an unofficial translator. An immigrant carrying medication into the country gets interrogated about his intentions, so the crew brings Navorski in to clarify intentions muddled in the language barrier. In what plays out as equal parts terrifying — in its consequences, especially a few years after 9/11 — and charming — thanks to the giggles Hanks tacks on to the end of shrugged words — as the immigrant is nearly dragged out of the room for breaking the law, Navorski clears up the scenario, letting officers know that the pills are for a goat, not a dying father — an error brought about by the pronunciation of the two similar-sounding words.
09. Captain Richard Phillips in Captain Phillips (2013)
At this point in his career, Hanks seems perfectly set to biography and historical period pieces, particularly ordinary men thrust into extraordinary circumstances: the title hero pilot in Sully, a lawyer negotiating the cold war in Bridge of Spies, even the congressmen sticking his foot into the Soviet-Afghan conflict in Charlie Wilson’s War. But none yet has shown the depth and power of his starring performance in Captain Phillips, the 2013 biographical thriller about a merchant mariner taken hostage by pirates while crossing the Indian Ocean.
As a captive, he spends a good amount of time forced into silence, and yet Hanks shows the emotional depth to convey the terror of the moment, the anxiety of what’s to come, the anger at his captors, and the determination to save his ship, his men, and himself — doing all of this, at times, without speaking a word. As the captain of the MV Maersk Alabama, Hanks embodies survival, a complex concept carried out with real subtlety.
Hanks’ Moment: At the film’s end, Hanks’ Phillips has outlasted his pirate captors, rescued by the US Navy. Shock is a difficult thing to explain, let alone display, and yet as he’s being inspected by Navy doctors, Hanks portrays it with eerie, quiet intensity. He shakes, mutters, stutters, gestures, clenches his jaw without breath. When he starts to cry, the entirety of the moment floods into the man who has had to subdue every emotion to survive. He’s at once ecstatic to be alive and broken by the things he’s seen and done. He is finally feeling everything, and it’s as overwhelming for the viewer as it is for Phillips.
08. Woody in Toy Story (1995-2019)
Pixar always knows what they’re doing, and in the case of Toy Story, they really, really knew what they were doing. The classic film series sees a group of toys going on an adventure to stay loyal to their owner, Andy. In the first of the three films, Andy’s favorite toy, a cowboy doll named Woody, is forced to re-evaluate his place (and ego) in the toy box’s group dynamic when a brand-new toy, a space ranger named Buzz Lightyear, is gifted to Andy on his birthday. It’s a timeless feature that details the importance of friendship and growing up, and in the case of the first film, does so with the right mix of humor and child-approved adventure.
Any voice actor can tell you the struggles of making an animated creature become separate from their own individual personality. Despite being well-known before taking the role and well-known after taking the role, Hanks gives Woody a voice of his own, separating the person we know Hanks as from the person he is behind this microphone, becoming a character that is entirely unique. Every laugh, every eyeroll, and every decision made with a puffed-up chest comes from a persona he developed specifically for this cowboy. Hanks invents a personality that’s as tough as it is lovable, the type of doll that we want to see take control while also rooting for him to show his soft spot. Hell, he even makes a mocked stereotype funnier with disgruntled snippiness. Then he recaptured and expanded that personality for three equally excellent follow-ups.
Hanks’ Moment: When Woody finally starts to warm up to Buzz Lightyear, he gets caught looking like the jealous type yet again. The two are stuck at Sid’s house and are trying to break out. Woody calls upon the rest of the toy box to help bust ’em out, but Buzz, under a daze from too many tea party drinks, can’t come to the window to aid in the escape plan. Woody goes from desperation to inventiveness to hopelessness in a matter of minutes, and Hanks mirrors each emotion with the tone of a character that truly means well but is caught at the wrong moment. In fact, he does it so well that it’s hard to picture Hanks voicing Woody at all.
07. Carl Hanratty in Catch Me If You Can (2002)
Even when Hanks plays a grump, he’s delightful. As Carl Hanratty, the two-time Oscar winner gets to flex both his comedic and dramatic muscles in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, chasing after Leonardo DiCaprio’s ever-elusive Frank Abagnale, Jr. with both the wit of a mild-mannered suit and the heart of a lonely father. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is Leo’s film through and through (one might even argue, this writer perhaps, that the film arrived during DiCaprio’s peak era in sheer looks alone), but Hanks capitalizes on his versatility and elevates the cat-and-mouse game with benevolent charm.
You can’t help but root for him as he repeatedly stumbles two steps behind Frank at every moment. Which is why Catch Me If You Can is such an enjoyable film; there’s no villain. It’s just two good people trying to do the right thing, even if one of them is totally misguided and suffering from some nagging familial issues. There’s also this subtle backstory to Carl that Hanks enlivens with his passive aggressive responses and no-nonsense barbs, specifically alongside his doofus associates that follow him around like a pair of Keystone Cops. He’s the smartest guy in the room and nobody sees it.
Hanks’ Moment: There’s perhaps no better scene in the entire film than when Frank calls Carl one late Christmas night. They’re both lonely, a quality that intrinsically links them together, and the way they subtly flirt with one another is almost romantic. It offers a little depth to what could have easily been a fairly black-and-white relationship. Of course, Carl is too professional to submit to any emotional advances, especially after being completely humiliated by Frank, which is why he jokes and scoffs at him, insisting, “You have no one else to call.” But really, the two of them know they have no one else but themselves.
06. Chuck Noland in Cast Away (2000)
Few survival dramas are as unflinching in their depravity and solitude as Cast Away. Hanks portrays Chuck Noland, a FedEx employee stranded on a deserted island after his plane crashes in the South Pacific. As days turn into weeks and months turn into years, Noland is forced to confront humanity and time, the latter of which taunts him to no end. As rough and tough as the scenes of him learning how to build a shelter or hunting for food are, it’s the instances of him breaking down human values that show true strength. The packages he swore to deliver get ripped open. People’s trivial belongings and intimate messages become his own, and their weight — trivial or sentimental — break him. He makes it back to America four years later after a cargo ship comes across his handmade escape raft and, once there, is forced to face the other dark side of time.
Hanks’ performance excels for two reasons. First, he makes insanity palpable in what otherwise appears to be secluded paradise. Second, he goes out of his way to dodge what seems like the inevitable in this role: making Noland learn a grand epiphany or two. Cast Away rewards Noland’s efforts on the island with physical growth and spiritual survival, not revelations, which ultimately makes for a more gripping watch. With a lack of dialogue, it falls on him to flesh out the character’s emotions, and Hanks dodges those cliches while still playing into the absolute horror and primordial instincts of a man stranded on his own. It’s character acting at its finest — even if the scenario is far from fine.
Hanks’ Moment: There’s no more iconic scene from Cast Away than when Noland loses his beloved friend, Wilson. Tom Hanks gives it his all, and the desperation pooled up in his eyes feels so genuinely urgent as he sees Wilson bobbing in the ocean, as he tries to tug the raft, as he panics trying to decide if he should drop the rope and make a break for the ball, as his body realizes it only has so much energy to spare. Losing friends is hard. Losing inanimate objects shouldn’t be. Yet here, it is hard as Noland screams, “I’m sorry!” repeatedly. Let’s be real: You cried the first time you saw this. It’s probably the only time viewers will cry over a volleyball, especially one free from sporting context.
05. Jimmy Dugan in A League of Their Own (1992)
Irrational, flailing, put-upon Tom Hanks is a lot of fun, and that gets cranked up with the volatility of the drunk and angry Jimmy Dugan. The washed-up former baseball star and current women’s coach is a ball of insecurities and complete abandon, allowing Hanks to swing from drunken bathroom humor to righteous indignation. In fact, it’s so rare for Hanks to play the villain that the cursing, inebriated, slightly misogynist Dugan is one of the times he comes closest to being the bad guy. And yet Dugan is largely lovable (as any Hanks character must be), his many eccentricities softening the edges of every shouting match and condescending remark. Ever the dedicated actor, he reportedly put on some weight for the role, perfectly accentuating the idea that he’s an aging, lost man in a uniform.
Hanks shouts more in this role than perhaps any other in his career, and yet A League of Their Own leaves room for plenty of subtle moments, whether that means peeing for nearly a minute or clearing his throat to cover the tears when he leads his team in a pre-game prayer. As aggressive and big as his character is at the film’s start, Hanks is able to sell the small moments, to show the complete 180 his character has done, from hating his own station in life to loving and supporting the women he’s found himself coaching. Hanks has an innate charm, but his intelligent approach to the narrative arc of pathos and change are perhaps even more impressive.
Hanks’ Moment: “There’s no crying in baseball.” It’s one of the most iconic lines in film (number 54 of all time, according to the American Film Institute), and that’s thanks in large part to Hanks. His squawking repetition of those words shows his struggled attempt at displaying authority, and then he immediately flips on a dime, calling the intervening umpire “sir” in a tattletale whine, struggling to deal with others’ authority as well. Hanks does bluster so well, and this moment may just be his peak.
04. Forrest Gump in Forrest Gump (1994)
Despite the character’s apparent simplicity, Forrest Gump will always be one of the roles for which Hanks is most known. Whether you see the film as a bit of heartwarming pap, an underhanded condemnation of liberal lifestyles, or somewhere in between, Hanks took a role that could’ve been caricature and makes Forrest into a real person.
Rather than play the character’s intellectual deficits for broad humor, Hanks delivers his lines with a careful sincerity, never wavering in the reality that would exist in Forrest’s own mind. He moves with the same almost instinctual surety as well, making sure each and every movement is deliberate, to the point that when told to “keep his eye on the ball,” Hanks literally refuses to blink for the rest of the scene. As Forrest Gump, Hanks delivers one of the most brilliant performances of simplicity and subtlety, redefining intentionality.
Hanks’ Moment: Though he’s been through hell and back in his quest to be with his beloved Jenny, the moment that truly affects Forrest is the realization that he has a son. But, true to the depth of Hanks’ performance, even this realization takes a moment, at first seen in the ever-so-slight widening of the eyes and raising of an eyebrow. He starts to fidget, fighting back the urge to cry. And then, in the ultimate moment, Hanks sits down next to his son, folding himself up into the exact same position as the young boy seated in front of the television. This careful attention to detail can be overshadowed by the grander ones earlier, but this small moment exemplifies Hanks’ ability to convey the inner reality of his characters.
03. Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan (1998)
In one of his five Oscar-nominated roles, Hanks leads another motley ensemble of characters, this time acting as the quiet center of the storm. Hanks’ Captain Miller is tasked with the mission to rescue Private First Class James Francis Ryan (Matt Damon), a paratrooper who is the last-surviving of a group of four brothers who enrolled. The chaos becomes embodied in Hanks, his hands shaking, his voice stuttering, constantly on the edge of breakdown but holding it together to protect his men — and, just as importantly, to protect himself. This is conveyed, in part, because Hanks felt the realism of the film; his descriptions of getting off the troop convoy for the Omaha Beach scene and watching the men in front of him torn to shreds as if he were truly witnessing the war.
Hanks excels at pointing out the absurdity of emotions and providing a simple realism in the midst of absurdity. Saving Private Ryan sits somewhere in the middle, the terrors of war simultaneously real and absurd, his performance built on simplifying complex emotions in physicality and voice in order to hide them. Captain Miller is a complicated performance of simplicity and a deceptively simple performance of the complicated reality of war.
Hanks’ Moment: Saving Private Ryan will always be known for its startling realistic portrayal of World War II, the explosions and gunfire and blood and guts, but there’s a human heart at the core of the film. In a pivotal moment, Edward Burns’ Private First Class Richard Reiben insists that he’s going to desert his position after doubting Captain Miller’s leadership, at which point Technical Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore) steps in, threatening to kill him instead. To act as a calming force (something Hanks excels at generally), Miller finally reveals his job back home, and how badly he wants to get home. It’s a beautiful moment of humanity surrounded by terror and death, delivered in the low-slung sincerity that Hanks has perfected.
02. Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia (1993)
Prior to Philadelphia, Hanks had built his career largely on big moments, primarily played for comedy and romance. His role as Andrew Beckett, then, is not only his breakout dramatic role, but also the first key piece of evidence that he could play to more subtle emotions. In the film, Hanks plays a man who is unjustly fired from his job for having contracted AIDS, a bold choice for the theretofore box office-friendly actor, as it was one of the first major Hollywood productions to directly address the AIDS epidemic.
In the role, Hanks goes from the gregarious, boisterous, confident performer of his earliest roles, and everything about him starts to collapse: his gestures get smaller and smaller, his voice fades incrementally, his movements that were once fluid become languid. Both he and costar Denzel Washington tackle their performances with a quiet confidence, Hanks showing an amazing range from the film’s end to its tragically quiet conclusion. And so an Academy Award was given.
Hanks’ Moment: In a key moment of the courtroom proceedings, the attorney for the law firm that fired Hanks’ Beckett forces the cancer and AIDS-riddled man to face his own reality. She asks Beckett if he can see any lesions on his face when looking into a mirror, essentially forcing the now ashen, faded man to look his own mortality in the eye. Beckett admits he cannot, barely able to keep his head up yet trying to force out the explanation that he could then, that their lack presently doesn’t mean they weren’t there, each word another breath closer to the grave but ultimately necessary. As he then pulls off his shirt and tie to reveal lesions on his torso, he again seems beyond fatigued, holding out his tie like a noose. It’s heartbreaking, invasive, and painful, an encapsulation of the film.
01. Josh Baskin in Big (1988)
Relatively early on in his career, Hanks found himself cast as Josh Baskin, a boy who wants to be treated like an adult. When a Zoltar machine grants his wish to be older, Josh wakes up the following morning as a 30-year-old — and consequently is rushed into adulthood far faster than he could have imagined. Only his childhood best friend knows about the transformation (or rather, he’s the only one who believes Josh). As he begins to take on the responsibilities of being an adult, from landing an apartment to falling in love, Josh finds himself skating through the job world in a way that affects those around him, tapping in to their forgotten curiosities and playfulness in a way which revives them.
While Tom Hanks had already won over audiences with his boyish charm in Splash by the time this film came out, he upped his game here by delivering a range of emotions that extend beyond the usual endearing nature of a child. He balances wonder with disappointment without ever losing the film’s timeless tone. As such, it’s easy to believe the film’s plot. When Josh squirts silly string out of his mouth, a stream of faux vomit wretched onto the lap of his best friend, it feels like the work of a child at play. When he shoves a pile of caviar into his mouth and then scrapes it off onto a napkin, it actually feels like it’s his first time trying it. When he offers up a glow-in-the-dark toy ring to the woman he has a crush on, it comes across sweeter than any awkward kiss could. He fully embodies a child while technically being 32 years old at the time. That’s the early peak at an actor who never loses his control of character and never once dares to show us how difficult it may be to do so, too.
Hanks’ Moment: No scene summarizes the charm Hanks delivered via Josh better than the iconic piano scene. In the middle of a work talk-turned-play date, Josh leads his boss through FAO Schwarz, rambling on about the merits and errors of various toys, when he accidentally steps on a giant, touch-sensitive floor keyboard. In seconds flat, he begins tapping out tunes, and his boss hops up an octave to join in. As campy as its theme is (adults are kids, too!!), their synchronized harmonies, joyful laughs, and faithful leaps to keys too far to step on warm the heart. It’s a flash of Hanks doing what he does best: digging in to the desires of the character he’s portraying and delivering them in a way that leans on purity and genuineness above all else.