Monday, April 11, 2011

Major Leaguer

Burned by 'Bonfire,' Tom Hanks reached a new level of stardom by sitting on the bench

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Julie Salamon does not devote a tremendous amount of space to Tom Hanks in The Devil’s Candy – her protagonist is really the director Brian De Palma – but the portrait that emerges of Hanks, one that’s important to the degree to which it was relatively unmediated by the usual show-business filters, is intriguing in its very sense of understatement. We see him at the start of the book quietly but firmly advocating Melanie Griffith over Uma Thurman as his onscreen love interest for Bonfire of the Vanities, a clear case of a star exercising his leverage. For the most part, however, he is determined to be – or, as far as Salamon is concerned, seen as – a team player. So it is that he goes out of his way to be a model citizen on the set: showing up on time, even when his presence wasn’t really necessary, and minimizing requirements for attention. “Hanks always went out of his way to distinguish himself from other movie stars,” Salamon reports. “He believed, and wanted everybody else to believe, that he was just a guy doing his job. So he always showed up for rehearsals and endured the boredom without complaint.” In contrast to method actors underwent a flashy personal transformation (e.g. Daniel Day-Lewis), “Hanks, a pragmatic man, actually believed stars could simply pretend to be somebody else.” When Hanks goes down to the World Trade Center as part of his research on how to be a bond trader, Salamon describes him as “fully dedicated to the appearance of unpretentiousness at all times.” So it is, for example, that he refuses to take the stretch limousine the movie studio offered him, insisting on a plain black sedan the traders themselves – only relative slumming to be sure, but an act of moderation nonetheless.
  Salamon was probably right to be skeptical about Hanks’s modesty (even if part of her stance could have been a matter of frustration about how guarded her subject was), and the passage of time and the growth in Hanks’s clout has probably made him both more guarded and quite possibly imperious when there’s nobody around to report it. But there are at least two reasons to take his self-presentation seriously. The first is how much better he comes off relative to his co-stars on Bonfire, whose behavior was far more egotistical, childish, or both. Salamon depicts a Bruce Willis justifiably insecure about his acting talent; compared to him, she writes, “Hanks was diligent and uncomplaining – and he had talent.” Griffith, for her part, was downright embarrassing in her vamping. The actress had (unannounced) breast-augmentation surgery halfway through the production, was not shy about showing off her new assets. At one point she “totters” over to a seated Hanks and plops herself on his lap. Hanks, firmly ensconced in what would prove to be a second marriage, had just attended Lamaze classes for his first child with Rita Wilson. Griffith wants to know if he’s uncomfortable at the prospect of their upcoming love scenes. “Not at all, no” he replies, pulling his head back stiffly. Hanks then made a genial but pointed joke about having seen Griffith’s husband, Don Johnson, on TV recently. Griffith moved on. 
The other, and really more important, reason to take Salamon’s portrait seriously is that it comports with the choices Hanks began to make now that he had finally attained a durable degree of power in the movie industry. He not only slowed down his pace, but began to choose projects that had a more emphatic collaborative dimension in terms of his role – literal as well as figurative – and its content. If filmmaking is, among other things, a form of politics, Hanks now began to reveal real talent in the way he got things done. And at the heart of that talent was what might be termed characteristically Lincoln skills of discipline, understatement, and carefully wrought eloquence in expression.
One early indication of his was his participation in the 1992 film Radio Flyer. This was another one of those hot-properties gone to the dogs, a weird combination of lyricism and brutality in movie that is an extended childhood flashback about two brothers (Elijah Wood and Joseph Mazzell) and their abusive stepfather (Adam Baldwin). Besides the abrupt shifts in tone, the movie lacks credibility in the way it depicts the two children protecting a mother (Lorraine Bracco) who somehow manages to be completely oblivious to their ordeal. The story is bracketed on either side by brief unbilled scenes of Hanks as one of the brothers in adulthood.
More substantial – and for our purposes, a turning point, particularly as it concerns Hanks’s historical vision – is A League of Their Own. League was another Penny Marshall project, a plum assignment for a female director at what could be termed a feminist moment. The Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill controversy of 1991 generated new awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, and the optics of a row of older white males sitting in judgment of a female sparked the so-called “Year of the Woman” that brought fresh faces, like U.S. Senator Patty Murray, to Congress. This was also the moment of Thelma & Louise, a cinematic feminist manifesto by screenwriter Callie Khouri. The early nineties was also a time when a new wave of feminist scholarship committed to documenting the lives ordinary people began trickling down into popular consciousness.  And one when the passage of Title IX, a 1972 law that promoted equity in sports, was reaching critical mass in the nation’s schools. All these currents converged to create an audience for a film loosely based on a real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League founded by Chicago Cubs owner Philip K. Wrigley, which ran from 1943 to 1954. Women players in the league were inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1998.
A League of the Own is an ensemble piece whose somewhat novel cast included Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell on a team, the Rockford Peaches, that resembled the quintessential platoon in a typical Hollywood World War II movie: you got your wiseacre city kid, your hayseed, etc. There’s also a sibling rivalry between the two sisters that serves as the core plot engine of the story. The presiding spirit over the picture, in art and life, is Geena Davis, the star catcher who carries the film with understated grace. Davis leads a team embedded in a newly created, but nevertheless skillfully run, organization that includes Wrigley (played by Marshall’s director Garry, again involved in an Hanks project), a likeable rogue of a scout played by Jon Lovitz (who almost steals the picture), and a sympathetic PR man (the always excellent character actor David Strathairn) who bobbles a series of divergent agendas between the women and their male bosses.
Hanks, who doesn’t actually appear until a half-hour into the movie, plays the manager of the Peaches, Jimmy Dugan. His entrance is a bit startling: boozy, overweight, and unshaven, he’s pretty much the antithesis of any previous Hanks character. Dugan’s haplessness is also contextual: a former slugger who’s blown out his knee, he’s unsuited to join the war effort, much less play ball himself (“how did I get so useless so fast,” he laments under his breath at one point). Nor is there any charm in his loutishness, as there had been in previous Hanks characters; Dugan his prone to humiliate his players publicly when he’s not too drunk to notice. “Are you crying?” he asks a playing in the movie’s signature moment. “There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!”
Naturally, Dugan begins to change – but it only can when he begins to follow the example of Davis’s character, Dottie Hanson. At point early on in his tenure as manager, Dugan looks up from his newspaper to realize that Hanson, who has been functioning as a de facto coach in response to Dugan’s de facto absence, is foolishly signaling for a bunt.
“What are ya, stupid?” he says to her. Rosie O’Donnell’s character, also in the dugout, responds for her: “Somebody’s gotta run the game, Jimmy. You know, somebody who actually watches.” Dugan demands that another player – “blond girl” – tell him what the signal is to swing away (he never bothered to learn it himself). What follows is a comic tug of war with a bemused batter trying to figure out which set of pulled noses, ear lobes and touched caps she should follow. “Who’s the goddamn manager?” Dugan finally asks in exasperation. “I am!” An angry Hanson responds: “Then act like it, you big lush!” She steps aside, Dugan prevails, and his judgment proves sound: the batter responds with an extra-base hit that scores a run. Dugan naturally struts at this. Hanson turns away in the dugout, but can’t hide her smile: she’s happy about the hit (and perhaps that there’s a manager at the wheel).
Davis models team play a little while later at a lightly attended game in which a Time reporter is present. Strathairn’s PR character has asked the women to step up their game and impress the media, as the league’s fortunes are wavering. He dubs Hanson “the Queen of Diamonds,” maladroitly responding to her sister’s question about whether she had also been mentioned to the reporter, only to hear the answer: that the reporter had been told Hanson would only play ball if her sister could too (salt in a sibling wound, but one more indication of Hanson’s collective ethos). Hanson fulfills the request during the game with a spectacular split in catching a routine pop-up. “What the hell was that?” Dugan asks, appalled by the hot-dogging. “I dunno,” Hanson replies. “Just thought it would help the league.”
Hanson and Dugan gradually become more friendly, though any romantic relationship is blocked by the fact that Hanson is married to a GI  (Bill Pullman) fighting in Italy. The fear of permanent separation from loved ones looms over the women’s lives, and it’s in response to this that Dugan finally turns a corner and achieves a sense of real manhood. Though a better manager, he still views the team through a selfish lens, and is in the process of giving them a locker-room pep talk that he’ll get a bonus if they win the championship when a mail carrier arrives with an ominous telegram from the war department. The mailman clumsily notes that this is bad news, but then realizes he lacks enough information to deliver it to the right party (Hanson sits, bracing herself for news that her husband is dead.) Dugan, angry by the carrier’s intention to defer resolving the matter, literally manhandles him, yanking the telegram away, ripping it open, and gently delivering the bad news to another player.  As such he’s taken a significant step toward becoming a supportive organization man.

Next: Hanks heads toward Philadelphia