Thursday, April 28, 2011

Capital gains

In The Siege of Washington: The Untold Story of the Twelve Days that Shook the Union, John and Charles Lockwood capture the rebirth of a nation

The following review was posted earlier this week on the Books page of the History News Network site.
Historians like to remind us that collective memory is a process of remembrance and forgetting. In the case of contemporary Civil War historiography, there is a growing recognition that historians themselves have lost sight of something important in recent decades: the depth and power of Northern unionism. Much of the work of the last half-century has focused on American racism (cause in its own right in the case of the Confederacy, fact of life in the case of the Union), or impersonal structural forces like capitalism, whether industrial or slave-based, in the coming of the conflict. And the major social changes of the sixties -- that's the 1960s, not the 1860s -- have placed great emphasis on the role of individual struggles and collective oppression of important demographic segments of the population. Amid these legitimate and useful avenues of scholarship, it is sometimes hard for students of the war to imagine, much less remember, that millions of Americans had a deep and abiding commitment to the idea of a constitutional republic, one for which hundreds of thousands proved willing to risk their lives. Books like Joan Waugh's recent biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Gary Gallagher's newly published The Union War and Adam Goodheart's recent 1861: The Civil War Awakening have reconnected with these currents. In an indirect but powerful way, so do brothers John and Charles Lockwood in The Siege of Washington.

This volume is the first book-length treatment of a standard episode of the master narrative: the tense two-week period in April 1861-- exactly 150 years ago -- following the fall of Fort Sumter, when Washington DC was essentially a federal island in a Confederate lake, situated between a Maryland itching for the chance to secede from the Union and a Virginia that would formally succeed in doing so. In these desperate days, with railroad and telegraph lines cut, the national capital was extraordinarily vulnerable. Nearby Baltimore was ruled by mobs determined to prevent Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New York regiments from reaching the District of Columbia, and the mayor of that city as well as the governor of Maryland were at a minimum enablers that obstructionism. The soon to be retired General Winfield Scott showed tremendous energy (notwithstanding some sagging spirits) in trying to maintain order in the capital and managing the destruction of Union munitions at Harper's Ferry, to prevent its resources from falling into the hands of the rebels. In these tense days, we see a stream of other characters -- Benjamin Butler, Robert Gould Shaw, and Dorothea Dix, among others -- crossing the Lockwoods' narrative of this episode, on their way to exploits for which they would be better remembered.

What the brothers are best at, though, is capturing the awakening of Northern patriotism in the face of the crisis. This was apparent in the enthusiasm with which the the Union states responded to President Lincoln's call for volunteers, but also a newly assertive unionism that surfaced in what had always been a de facto Southern city. Lincoln himself, a recent arrival to the District, became a potent symbol of that unionism. The Lockwoods describe a moving moment when Pennsylvania soldiers arrived at the capitol and were met at the House of Representatives by the president. "Here, towering tall over the room was the great central figure of the war," they quote a private recalling. "I remember how I was impressed by the kindliness of his face and awkward hanging of his arms and legs, his apparent bashfulness in the presence of these first soldiers of the Republic."

The Confederate side of the equation is a bit more murky. The Lockwoods periodically check in with the Davis administration, still in Montgomery, as well as Virginia politicians and Robert E. Lee, who declined Scott's offer to command the U.S. army. We learn at one point that Washington never fell in large part because Lee commanded that Virginia troops would not take the city, but we get no clear sense of why, or why the Confederacy as a whole did not capitalize on what appeared to be a golden opportunity. (The early Civil War is typically told as a story of Northern failure to act decisively in moving on Richmond, but here it's the Confederates who appear afflicted by what Lincoln would call "the slows" in moving on Washington.) In part, the problem here seems like a function of the Lockwoods' perspective; both lifelong Washingtonians, the locus of their interest is clearly the city. In part, too, it's a function of the way the book is organized, as a dense narrative of day-by-day developments. But this granular rendering of the trees does sometimes leave one wishing for a bit more forest.

Still, The Siege of Washington manages to seem like a synecdoche for the the war as a whole. When the Seventh New York regiment finally manages to make it into the nation's capital, it feels like a whole war has been won already. The Union would go on to experience a seemingly unending string of setbacks that would extend from Manassas to Chancellorsville and beyond. But the will of the Union's people, and their belief in power of the federal government as a force for good, would prove mighty when finally unleashed against those who had spent decades denying its legitimacy and sapping its strength. May those politicians who would do the same 150 years later be mindful of this useful precedent. Long live the Union!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Following Leader

In Apollo 13 and Toy Story, Hanks characters offer lessons in leadership modeled on strong teamwork

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

In Apollo 13 (1995) Tom Hanks again teamed up with director Ron Howard, who helmed Splash eleven years earlier. More than any other film in the Hanks canon, it represents his most full-throated expression of affection for a government institution: the large bureaucratic federal agency known as The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA). Hanks’s childhood passion for the U.S. space program has been well documented; what’s worth emphasizing here is that this formative hobby took root at the very moment in American history where collective confidence in the federal government was at an all-time high, and one in which vast public projects – the interstate highway system and the early Internet, to name two other examples that come to mind – were undertaken in a can-do spirit. Though the film is a chronicle of a real-life near- disaster, there is never a sense that this is the fault of individual government workers or the agency generally. Indeed, we learn at the end of the movie that the cause of the mysterious spacecraft malfunction that endangers the life of the three astronauts on board was caused by equipment malfunction – which is to say the private sector to which such tasks were subcontracted were the ones who screwed up. Apollo 13 is an unabashed story of heroism of the part thoroughgoing organization men.
At the center of this heroism is Hanks’s character, astronaut Jim Lovell, who led the mission. But for all the excruciating planning that we see goes into planning moon exploration, we also see how much is left to chance. Indeed, Lovell only leads the mission because the team slated to go is unexpectedly scratched, and he subsequently makes the reluctant decision to scratch of his own team (played by Gary Sinise) because it’s believed he’s coming down with measles. Sinise’s character is replaced by another played by Kevin Bacon, who, it is clear, is not as well prepared. So when disaster strikes on the very cusp of success, the third member of the trio (Bill Paxton) cannot repress his suspicion that Bacon precipitated the crew’s problems. But in a crucial scene in the movie, Lovell simply shuts this carping down. But by power of his disciplined leadership, the three men – especially the increasingly ill Paxton – maintain their emotional equilibrium under extremely arduous conditions. Meanwhile, the crew on the ground, including Sinise, strains their own internal resources to bring these men back safely.  In an ironic but real way, Apollo 13 is a story of systemic success.
Hanks reaffirmed his commitment to his vision of teamwork with his participation in the now-classic Pixar Studios animated trilogy Toy Story, the first installment of which was also released in 1995 (the other two installments followed in 1999 and 2010). He is the voice of Woody, the TV tie-in cowboy figure and beloved companion of Andy, a suburban child unaware that the toys that populate his room have a life of their own when people aren’t watching. Like a lot of communities, this one is populated by diverse collection of individuals (loosely defined, in that many are reproductions of one kind or another, like the Mr. Potato Head voiced by Don Rickles), who did not necessarily arrive there by active choice, and who must – in any number of meanings of the term – find their place.
Andy’s toys are fortunate in this regard in that they are unofficially led by Andy, who governs this motley crew with a notably graceful hand: he’s smart, funny, and genuinely appreciative of the specific skill sets (like the plastic soldiers who perform routine reconnaissance missions to protect their secret state) particular toys contribute to the community.  His Achilles heel is his vanity, which gets wounded by the arrival of a rival for Andy’s affection: the outer space action figure Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen). Buzz, who is genial and generous, but who has an elevated view of himself, irritates Woody, who ultimately succeeds in puncturing his illusions by showing him an television advertisement for other versions of himself. “You. Are. A. Toy!” he shouts at Buzz. “A child’s plaything!” But Woody pays for this transgression in forfeiting the goodwill of his fellow toys, which directly leads to him falling into the clutches of the evil Sid, the child next door who brutally rips apart and reconstructs toys in the service of his own imagination (I suspect there may be good doctoral dissertation there). Only when Woody and Buzz achieve some sense of clarity of themselves – and, most crucially, only when they demonstrate a willingness to collaborate – can they and the other toys overcome the series of serial crises that include covetous toy collectors, a dastardly toy cabal at a child-care center and near-incineration, not to mention the tragic inevitability of Andy growing up and leaving them behind. In Toy Story III, Woody, who still holds a place of honor in Andy’s heart, is thus slated go to college with him. But the moving conclusion of the saga suggests that a meaningful life is best found with one’s colleagues in the service of the next generation.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cultivating 'Forrest'

Flashy footage of real events notwithstanding, the real historical vision in Gump is hard to find -- but it's there

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

Philadelphia was a complete triumph for Tom Hanks, part of a string of unbroken critical and commercial successes, and one that culminated in his first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1994. What was even more remarkable that he followed it up with Forrest Gump (1994), one of the most commercially successful movies of all time, and one for which he was paid with 8% of gross receipts (estimated to be many tens of millions of dollars).  Hanks also scored a second Oscar for Best Actor – one of only two serial winners (the other was Spencer Tracy). The one-two punch of Philadelphia and Forrest Gump – a combination all the more powerful for Hanks’s markedly different performances – completed his transformation from promising-but-wobbly journeyman actor to a Hollywood phenomenon.
This does not mean Forrest Gump is a good movie.  Actually, while it would be hard to say it is anything but expertly made – the special effects, which show Hanks’s title character spliced into any one of a number of historical scenarios – was positively amazing in the age before Photoshop – there are plenty of reasons to at least regard it with skepticism.
A good place to begin is the source material, Winston Groom’s 1986 novel of the same name. The filmmakers took the core of the novel for their plot: mentally handicapped mid-century Alabama man stumbles into a series of famous historical moments while pining away for his childhood sweetheart. But in an unusual reversal from what one typically expects, Forrest Gump is a far more nuanced character on the screen than on the page. Even with a deadpan expression, Hanks manages to endow the character with more psychological complexity than Groom does. Screenwriter Eric Roth (and presumably uncredited collaborators) took the opening line, “Bein’ an idiot is no box of chocolates,” and refashioned it into the still trite, but more resonant, “Mama always said life is like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get.” The signature line of the novel is variations on “I am tryin to do the right thing.” But “stupid is as stupid does” has a lot more zing. Both versions note that Forrest’s name, derived from Klu Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, was given by him by his mother (played in the movie by Sally Field) as a cautionary tale, but the movie hits this irony more cleanly. The filmmakers took a lot of incidents from the book and incorporated them into the movie, but left others, like Forrest’s stint as a professional wrestler, behind. (Would have liked to see him rescue Chairman Mao from drowning, though.) And they dropped his sweetheart marrying another man in favor of having the joylessly sybaritic, but unmarried, Jenny Curran (Robin Wright), who dies of AIDS, more dramatic choice that makes the story more relevant even as it somehow makes her a more pure character. They also replaced the hulking figure of the novel and clapping braces on his legs that he only sheds when fleeing bullies – hence Jenny’s famous line, “Run, Forrest Run!” With the proper support, literal and figurative, the film suggests, weak children can still make strong adults. So it is that Sally Field’s mama Gump resorts to sexual barter so that Gump can attend the local public school. The overall effect of these changes makes the movie a more deft, but also more sentimental, story.
I was teaching freshman composition at Harvard at the time Forrest Gump came out, and at one point included it on a list students could write comparative essays about. But I could never resist offering my own one line review: “This is a movie a fascist would love.” I’d explain that Forrest is a man who simply does what he’s told, an utterly passive figure who makes no real contribution to the world historical events – the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, Watergate, Alabama football under Bear Bryant, et. al. – with which he accidentally intersects, like the allegorical feather in the wind, an image that opens and closes the movie. This effect is reinforced by the filmmakers’ attempt to strive for ideological balance. Forrest braves an angry crowd of racists to pick up the dropped books of an African American student at the University of Alabama, but the hippies with which Jenny throws in her lot come off as a narcissistic, even hypocritical bunch. Forrest stumbles his way to the microphone at a war protest at the Lincoln Memorial while wearing his army uniform, but the power gets cut so that no one can hear what he says – a moot point once he spots Jenny in the crowd and splashes his way into the reflecting pool. Though drenched in the recent history of the United States, the movie is a dispiriting experience for anyone who considers the social upheavals of the late twentieth century as more than a set of costume changes in a movie that floats from one scenario to another.
It was my oldest son, on the cusp of taking freshman composition himself, who forced me to revise my view of Forrest Gump. He pointed out that Forrest does not only observe, but acts, and has a specific contribution to make in the various institutional settings in which he finds himself: his speed. However dull-witted, his natural physical quickness allows him to make important contributions as a kick returner for the Crimson Tide; to win the Medal of Honor rescuing his comrades in Vietnam; to go on a global good-will tour as a ping pong champion, and to inspire a legion of followers when he takes up cross-country running. His speed is both comic and moving when he senses, not always accurately, any harm to Jenny, the only time he resorts to physical force (and again, this is something that Hanks shows better than Groom tells).
This is an important point. But it should also be noted that Forrest lacks any particular feeling or loyalty for the various institutions he joins – educational, military, commercial – as institutions. In all cases, he comes and he goes. His loyalties – to Jenny, who he meets on a school bus; to Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise), his former commanding officer; his late comrade, Bubba (Mykelti Williamson), in whose name he starts a shrimping business – are personal. On the other hand, such connections are the foundation of any abstract sense of institutional loyalty, and abstraction is certainly not Forrest’s strong suit. Moreover, one can begin to appreciate what institutions do for Forrest when one considers that Jenny’s tragic fate can be explained precisely by their absence. She’s rootless. And that begins with the institution of the family, where in the movie it is strongly hinted that Jenny is a victim of abuse at hands of her father and effectively spends her life running away, including running away from the one man who can heal that psychic wound. In an ironic act of compassion, Forrest later sees to it that her house is torn down. Perhaps there is a historiographic argument embedded in the movie after all: Jenny’s rebellion is a dead end because she lacked functional social institutions into which to channel any hope for change, instead drifting in and out of casual relationships, personal as well as collective. Forrest may have been dim-witted. But he always had a home. And he always had some other place, a real community, to join. Institutional communities have limits. But it’s only within limits that possibilities can take shape.

Next: Apollo 13 and Toy Story

Monday, April 18, 2011

Jim is on the road, trying to help his son decide between college acceptances at Davidson and the University of Chicago. Welcome company on this trip has been provided by Lucinda Williams, with her new album Blessed, which may well be her best since the magnificent Car Wheels on a Dirt Road (1998). The new record, whose artistic locus appears a bit closer to Memphis than Nashville, is a beautifully produced record (no surprise there; Don Was pitched in) notable for some wonderful guitar performances by Val McCallum, whose playing swings between Stevie Ray Vaughn blues and Van Morrisonesque plucking that's sweeter than Tupelo honey. The songwriting is also strong; the opening track, "Buttercup," is tart and true, while the title cut unwinds like a hymn. Threading through it all is Williams's voice. She sings like a drunken angel, miraculously pure and incisive even as she sounds perpetually off balance. There's nothing like it in contemporary pop music, and it will surely wear well.

The ongoing series on Tom Hanks will continue, as will some book reviews that are in this blog's docket. For now, this goyim will end on the eve of Passover by saying: Shalom.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Bishop of 'Philadelphia'

With a career finally on track, Tom Hanks began to pursue an institutional vision of American History

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

After a string of disappointments, Tom Hanks had to be pleased by A League of the Their Own, which was a surprise box office success, breaking the $100 million box office benchmark for a blockbuster of the time. This was a group triumph – Madonna and Davis were at the zenith of their careers; Rosie O’Donnell would soon have a hit TV show – but allowed him to move on to a more decisively starring vehicle. This was Sleeping in Seattle (1993), a movie, which it bears mentioning, was also co-produced, co-written, and directed by a woman (Nora Ephron). The “team” in this case is a family that consists of the widowed Hanks and his son. This storyline converges toward that of Meg Ryan’s character, who lives on the other side of the country, culminating in a finale strongly reminiscent of the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr classic An Affair to Remember. Sleepless in Seattle consolidated Hanks’s status as a leading man, significant when one considers he lacks the chiseled good looks of an Eastwood, Day-Lewis, or Washington. His appeal as such would appear to be that of an everyman: He makes it plausible for a man to imagine that he, too, might land Meg Ryan.
More relevant for our purposes is Hanks’s next movie, Philadelphia (1993), among his best. I’ve already discussed this film from the point of view of Hanks’s co-star, Denzel Washington, and the way it reflects Washington’s career-long engagement with issues of family and faith. Here, though, Philadelphia’s importance is somewhat different: it is a story about one of the more hallowed institutions in American life – its legal system – and what happens when it becomes an instrument of oppression, a refuge for the wicked.
The movie opens with Hanks’s character, Andrew Beckett, as a rising star in a powerful corporate law firm in the Philadelphia. The first scene shows him dispatching with a restraining order brought by Washington’s character, clearly a lower-rent attorney, who is waxing rhapsodic with a judge about how the limestone powder at a construction site is essentially a form of environmental racism. Hanks, however, can also wax with the best of them. He notes that the construction site is responsible for over 750 jobs, and granting the injunction would “lend validation to this contemptible and groundless nuisance suit. It’s an example of the rapacious litigation that today is tearing at the fabric of our society.” His little speech is something of an inside joke that both his opponent and the judge recognize as frothy, and evidenced by their facial expressions, and she chastises both lawyers for their inflated rhetoric before ruling in Beckett’s favor. The sequence is almost a piece of legal kabuki theater in which social conflict is resolved in terms of linguistic posturing.
But more serious issues lurk. We get a foreshadowing of this in the next scene, which begins with both attorneys entering an elevator with an injured man. As the elevators doors close, we see (as they do not) graffiti bearing the famous words long associated with the Civil Rights movement: “No justice, no peace!” We also see Beckett going to a clinic for treatment of AIDS, a condition he is clearly hiding from his employers. When they find out, they frame him for the misplacement of an important document, which then becomes a pretext for firing him. Beckett goes from a Bonfire of the Vanities-styled Master of the Universe to social death within his chosen profession. A most valuable player has been kicked off his team – indeed, has been effectively kicked out of the game altogether.
The rest of Philadelphia is essentially a process whereby Beckett creates a new team in the form of a partnership with his erstwhile rival, as they launch a wrongful termination suit against Beckett’s former employer that rests on their interpretation of the American with Disabilities Act. While the damages they pursue are financial (though his lover, played by Antonio Banderas, has no obvious means of support), one never gets the impression that Beckett, who appears to come from an affluent family, particularly cares about the money, except insofar as it is a means of holding the partners responsible for their malfeasance. To put it another way: he pursues an institutional remedy for an institutional wrong. Allegorically speaking, Beckett is a bit like his namesake, Thomas Becket: a bishop (which is to say interpreter of church law) who ran afoul of his powerful patron, King Henry II of England, and was murdered for his resistance. The assassination here is metaphorical; the canonization is artistic. But both men died true believers in their respective systems.

Next: Forrest Gump as team player

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

Thursday, April 7, 2011


A long and winding road to making it Big
The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

Tom Hanks was not born in a log cabin, but his beginnings were modest enough. He was born on July 9, 1956 in Concord California. His father, Amos, worked as a chef; his mother, Janet was a housewife who bore three other children (Tom was the third of the four). Two important facts of life destabilized his family life. The first was the itinerancy inherent in his father’s job, which led to frequent moves around California and in Reno, Nevada. The other was a string of blended family arrangements that began when his parents divorced when Hanks was five years old. Three of the children, including Tom, went on to live with their father; custody of his youngest brother went to his mother. Amos Hanks would go on to marry two more times, first to a Mormon and then to a Chinese woman, both with children from prior marriages and different cultural traditions than Tom (who had been born, an initially raised, as a Catholic). With some variations in tone over the years, the basic tenor of childhood recollections is melancholy. "There's no denying I had an unhappy childhood," he said in 2010. His father was frequently absent and remote, though the two were relatively close by the time of Amos’s death in 1992. He remains in touch with his primary siblings, though he said in 1984 that he would not remember his stepsiblings from his wife’s second marriage if he encountered them in person, and did not respond to subsequent overtures from that stepmother. Hanks remains in touch with his biological mother, who he typically saw on holidays while growing up, but scars clearly linger. "I am not as close to my mom as other kids are, but that doesn't stop the fact that I love her," he has said. "I say to my mom, 'I love you, but I don't know you because I didn't live with you'.’"[1]
Hanks attended high school in northern California, where he kept a relatively low profile. An evangelical Christian group was an important basis of his social life (“it beat smoking pot,” he explained, with a wry tone that would become a staple of his interview mode).[2] He also started acting in school productions. Hanks’s relationship with his acting teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, caused an unintentional stir in 1994 when he inadvertently outed him as a homosexual by way of thanking him in his Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia (1993). The incident later became the basis for the 1997 Kevin Kline movie In and Out.[3]

Upon his graduation in 1974, Hanks deepened his study of theater by enrolling in Chabot College, a large community college in the Bay area. He later transferred to Sacramento State, where he earned a scholarship, intending to become a stage carpenter. But his immersion in all aspects of theatrical production led to a focus on acting. It was at Sacramento State that Hanks met his first wife Susan Dillingham (stage name Samantha Lewes), who he would marry in 1980. He was also noticed by the artistic director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, who invited him to work as a summer intern. Hanks and Lewes eventually moved (six months shy of graduation) to Cleveland, where he landed a series of leading – and paying – roles. It wasn’t much, but enough to qualify him for unemployment benefits, a crucial resource for aspiring actors.[1]
With Lewes – and infant son, future actor Colin – in tow, Hanks headed to New York in 1978, where the couple hoped to make their breakthrough. Lewes did not; Hanks struggled long enough to win a small role in the third-rate slasher film, He Knows You’re Alone (1980), which was shot on Staten Island. His acting, for which he was paid $800, consists of a seven-minute sequence in which he escorts to young women to a carnival and lectures them about the dangers of the human mind.[2]
A few months before the release of He Knows You’re Alone, amid an increasingly desperate economic situation, marital tension, and a brief flirtation with drugs, Hanks was invited to Los Angeles, a city for which he professed “an in-bred hatred,” to audition for a new ABC sitcom, Bosom Buddies.[3] The show, in which he would be paired with Peter Scolari, was essentially a two-season running gag about a pair of men who cross-dress in order to live in a cheap New York resident hotel (they also pass themselves off as the two brothers of these women). Bosom Buddies was a moderate success after it went on the air in late 1980s, but ran out of ratings steam and was cancelled after two seasons, or 39 episodes, in 1982.
It’s worth pausing here to note that Bosom Buddies provides empirical confirmation of Hanks’s appealing comic gifts, skills that were often noted among his youthful contemporaries but which were vividly in evidence in his early television career. Though he lacked the chiseled good looks of Eastwood, Day-Lewis, or Washington – all of whom also got their start in (dramatic) television – Hanks’s manic, yet subtly controlled personality dominates any scene in which he appears. A great example of this is a 1981 episode starring his future wife, Rita Wilson, who was cast as a romantic partner for Scolari. Hanks’s mugging amid their cooing is vastly amusing, redolent of Carroll O’Connor’s mastery of facial expressions in All in the Family (1970-77). It’s not surprising that his talents attracted the attention of other television producers, leading to a leading (and atypically dramatic) role in the forgettable 1982 CBS production Mazes and Monsters.[4] Hanks would also go on to host Saturday Night Live on a number of occasions, his very frequency the subject of a comic sketch with serial hosts Steve Martin, Paul Simon and Elliot Gould.
The most important piece of such freelancing, however, was a 1982 performance on the longtime running hit series Happy Days. In that episode Hanks plays a martial arts expert with a longtime grudge against the legendary character Fonzie (Henry Winkler), and challenges him to a fight. It’s a brilliant sequence, animated by some terrific writing – there’s a wonderful meta-commentary on Westerns running through it – and fine ensemble acting in which Hanks more than holds his own with the veteran Winkler. The episode attracted the attention of Ron Howard, whose lifetime of acting on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days had just culminated in his directorial debut, Night Shift (1984). A shrewd judge of talent, he cast Hanks in the lead for his next film Splash (1984)
Splash was a movie that marked breakthroughs for multiple careers, among them Daryl Hannah and John Candy; for Howard it marked the burgeoning of a film empire. But its substantial box office success was grounded in low-budget charm. (Indeed, the movie was in turnaround until Mermaid, a competing project with a similar premise, was scotched.)  Hanks plays Allen Bauer, who with his brother Freddie (Candy) runs a produce business in lower Manhattan. As a child we see in an opening prologue, Bauer creates an alarming incident when he jumps off a vacation vessel near Cape Cod in pursuit of a mermaid, which of course no one believes. As an adult, Bauer is a likeable fellow, but one with a persistent vein of melancholy who cannot sustain a romantic commitment. Into his life returns the mermaid, who comes to New York and acquires a temporary set of legs. Bauer dubs her “Madison” during a midtown jaunt, and the two begin – or, perhaps more accurately, resume – their romance. The gill/limb issue is complicated further by a nosy scientist played by Candy’s longtime crony Eugene Levy. But this is a comedy that ends with Bauer casting his fate into the sea.
Splash was a pivotal experience for Hanks. The movie was released at the dawn of the home video era, and its rental prowess built substantially the initial box office success. Hanks also became an informal student of Howard, himself a longtime student of the moviemaking process.[5] Though it would be a decade before the two would team up again for Apollo 13, they would repeatedly collaborate in the years that followed in a variety of permutations. Hanks would also act again with Candy in Volunteers (1985) before Candy’s untimely death from a heart attack in 1994.
Splash generated a lot of momentum for Hanks, but he was unable to build on it. Over the next four years he released a string of movies – Bachelor Party (1984); The Man with One Red Shoe (1985); Volunteers (1985); The Money Pit (1986); Nothing in Common (1986); Every Time We Say Goodbye (1986) and Dragnet (1987) that suggested stasis at best. Only The Money Pit was truly terrible, which is somewhat ironic given its origins in Steven Spielberg’s production company and high-profile pre-release buzz.[6] (The film was an updated version of the comparably lame Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House [1948], starring Cary Grant, an actor with whom Hanks is sometimes compared.) These movies varied widely in tone and content; Bachelor Party was a hit, but one whose lowbrow raunchiness held long-term risk for an ambitious actor. Nothing in Common was a prestige project for Hanks in that he was cast adult son of Jackie Gleason and Eva Marie Saint, but it was flatly written and flunked at the box office. So was Every Time We Say Goodbye, an Israeli romantic drama set during World War II in which Hanks plays an American volunteer in the British air force. One Red Shoe was an abortive spy caper that turned on mistaken identity. Dragnet was part of a mania for movie resurrections of TV series that began in the eighties, in which Hanks was teamed up with SNL veteran Dan Aykroyd in a role he liked because he didn’t have a love interest.[7] Taken as a set, these projects constitute the agenda of an ambitious but unlucky actor eager to take what came his way in the unrealized hope lightning would strike twice. By the end of the decade, Hanks was essentially an established B-actor.
Then came Big. This 1988 high-concept film in which a child is granted his wish to inhabit an adult’s body was developed with a strong Hollywood pedigree that included Anne Spielberg, brother of Steven, as co-writer. Robert De Niro, Harrison Ford and Warren Beatty were all in serious discussions for the lead, but declined (De Niro and Beatty over compensation, Ford over disagreements over who would direct the movie, prospects which included Steven Spielberg, who also declined). There was also concern at the time because there were a spate of other child-as-adult movies in that came out the same year, including 18 Again! and Vice-Versa, both of which stiffed. The project was eventually given to Penny Marshall, brother of Garry Marshall, creator of Happy Days and a veteran director whose credits include Nothing in Common. Hanks himself took some persuading, but eventually signed on to appear in what became his first blockbuster movie.[8]
And Big really is a Tom Hanks movie. One can see why a Beatty, De Niro, or Ford would have been interested in playing thirteen year-old Josh Baskin; the role brought with it technical challenges that would appeal to serious actors. Yet, talented as they are, in retrospect it would be hard to imagine them playing the part with the stunningly graceful unselfconsciousness Hanks achieves. By design, Big is a simple story: suburban New Jersey boy gets what he wishes for; becomes an executive for a Manhattan toy company; gets enmeshed in corporate politics and an love triangle; finds his way back to childhood again. The performance is all in the nuances of facial expression and bodily movement, in a simplicity that is both inherent and achieved.  It earned Hanks his first Oscar nomination.
The movie also gave him a new opportunity to take his work to a higher level. Actually, even before Big Hanks took the part of a stand-up comedian in Punchline, which was released shortly after Big in 1988 and thus widely viewed as a follow-up. The movie paired him with Sally Field, a bigger name at the time, who played a suburban housewife with similar ambitions. Punchline was generally viewed a critical and commercial disappointment, but it portraying an edgy, competitive person who never becomes completely unlikeable, it ranks among Hanks’s best work.
Punchline may have been an artistically ambitious undertaking, but it was nevertheless part of another string of less-than-stellar movies – one that included The ’burbs (1989) Turner & Hooch (1989), and Joe Versus the Volcano (1990) – that once again threatened Hanks’s standing. Once again, each had a certain rationale and/or appeal. The ’burbs was a potentially interesting fusion of sci-fi/horror and comedy that didn’t cohere the way a few of director Joe Dante’s other projects, like Gremlins (1984) did. Turner & Hooch, which paired Hanks with a slobbering pooch who witnesses a murder, was a cheapo, but commercially effective, comedy that the Disney Touchstone subsidiary churned out like clockwork in the eighties and nineties. Joe Versus the Volcano was an offbeat fable written and directed by playwright John Patrick Shanley. A commercial flop, it nevertheless fascinated a few reviewers who marveled over its visual style, notably Roger Ebert, who called it “wondrous,”[9] and it continues to have a cult following. The movie is significant in that it represented the first of three romantic pairings with Meg Ryan, which included the far more successful Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail! (2001). But at the time, it was widely considered one more notch in a mediocre string.
Hanks’s next movie was thoroughly understandable, but a thorough fiasco: he took the lead role in the Bonfire of the Vanities, the 1990 movie directed by Brian DePalma and based on the 1987 novel by Tom Wolfe about a Wall Street trader who becomes embroiled in a racial firestorm after a hit-and-run accident in the Bronx. The rise and fall of this once-hot Hollywood property has been brilliantly documented by journalist Julie Salomon, who did the research on it in real time and subsequently published The Devil’s Candy, one of the best books ever made about the movie business.[10] The conventional wisdom is that this legendary flop was hobbled by a number of problems, among them a storyline that couldn’t effectively encapsulate Wolfe’s novel, a saccharine sermon in its conclusion (after late rewrites and ethnic shuffling within a script that preview audiences considered racist), and, above all, poor casting choices, among them Melanie Griffith as a southern belle and Bruce Willis as an alcoholic journalist who is simply impossible to take seriously. Many reviewers also believed Hanks was miscast as the blue-blooded Sherman McCoy. But he had already done a good, albeit comic, turn as a boozy 1960s Yale graduate who escapes angry bookies by joining the Peace Corps in Volunteers, and nothing in his Bonfire performance rings particularly false. Had the movie been a success, it might well have entered his personal pantheon. He managed to walk away largely unscathed – indeed, he’s one of the few major players who emerges from Salomon’s book with his dignity intact – but also tried to take stock. Part of this involved getting a new agent, Ron Meyer of Creative Artists Agency, one of the most powerful in the industry. Meyer advised Hanks to take a role he had rejected multiple times already: a small part as an alcoholic manager of a 1940s women’s baseball team.[11] Hanks took that advice, and began making history.

Next: Hanks becomes a team player

[1] Information on Hanks came from a variety of sources, most usefully distilled in Pfeffer and Lewis, xiv-xv.
[2] Pfeffer and Lewis, 5; Gardner 75.
[3] Gardner, 71, 76-77.
[4] For more on Mazes and Monsters, see Pfeffer and Lewis’s chapter on it in The Films of Tom Hanks, 9-13.
[5] For more on these points, see Pfeffer and Lewis’s chapter on Splash in The Films of Tom Hanks, especially 20, 22.
[6] Pfeffer and Lewis, 49.
[7] Pfeffer and Lewis, 73.
[8] Pfeffer and Lewis, 81-82.
[9] See his review at
[10] Julie Salomon, The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1991). The book was republished in 2002 with a new subtitle: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco.
[11]Gardner, 149.

[1] “Tom Hanks: My Mum Dumped Me,” Women’s Day (Australia), June 21, 2010 (accessed via Gale’s “Popular Magazines” database, March 22, 2011);  Gardner, 27. Gardner did a fair amount of original reporting on Hanks’s extended family for his biography.
[2] Lee Pfeffer and Michael Lewis, The Films of Tom Hanks (New York: Citadel, 1996), xii.
[3] Gardner gives what is probably the most detailed account of this incident in The Tom Hanks Enigma, 159-166.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Heirs of Nancy Hanks

Tom Hanks, Relative Lincolnian

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

There are lots of ways to talk about Abraham Lincoln, and historians are always finding new ones. The early 21st century witnessed book-length efforts to portray him as a gay man, clinically depressed, and a proto-Darwinian in his thinking (Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on February 12, 1809, spawning bicentennial commentary).[1] But here’s a simple way of thinking about Lincoln that I’d like to deploy in the pages that follow: quintessential institutionalist. No man had more confidence in the power of formally constituted organizations as a means to make life better.
The most obvious, but by no means only, manifestation of this institutionalism was his confidence in the positive power of the federal government. Lincoln devotees of the liberal stripe are fond of quoting his famous maxim that “the legitimate object of government is do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.” One can argue about what really constitutes legitimate, and press hard on need. Lincoln himself went on to note in this fragment, unpublished in his lifetime, that “the best framed and best administered governments are necessarily expensive; while by errors in frame and administration most of them are more onerous than they need to be, and some of them are very oppressive.” But he was able to offer some core examples that remain as cogent as ever: “making and maintaining roads, bridges and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; and disposing of deceased men’s property.”[2] If these are not legitimate needs, then nothing is.
Quoting such a passage is a great lever for turning Lincoln into Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and ever since poet Carl Sandburg’s multivolume biography of the 1920s and 30s, many have done so.[3] But Lincoln can be stretched in plenty of other directions, too. For example, he was a fervent apostle of industrial capitalism, who, as a wealthy lawyer, frequently represented large corporations with a clear conscience. He was an Illinois man, a devoted Republican Party man, and a man whose same faith in government to provide for “the helpless young and afflicted” also led him to command the largest military the world had ever seen, which he used to prosecute a war of unprecedented scale and destructiveness.
Interestingly, about the only institutions Lincoln seemed to lack real zeal for were religious ones. While many historians have noted a deep spiritual vein in his thinking, and believe it increased in intensity over the course of his life, Lincoln was an indifferent churchgoer at best.[4] Born a Baptist, he rented a pew at a Presbyterian Church, largely at his wife’s insistence. But Lincoln took rumors of his infidelity during his first Congressional campaign seriously enough to publish a rebuttal that he himself could not support a candidate who he knew to be “an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”[5] (How’s that for a non-denial denial?) True to his word, Lincoln frequently invoked traditional Christian language for the rest of his life while actively sidestepping doctrinal issues or professing denominational loyalty. He wasn’t opposed to organized religion. He just wasn’t as enthusiastic about it as he was most other institutions in American life.
Perhaps this makes Lincoln sound like a pretty conventional, even bland, guy. But it’s worth pointing out that there were plenty of people of his time—and ever since—with decidedly different values. Lincoln came of age in a decidedly Jacksonian political culture in which government was widely seen, in Illinois and much of the rest of the country, as a problem, not a solution. Corporations were tools of oppression.  Political parties were (newly) acceptable, but the dominant party was that of latter-day Jeffersonians, the Democratic Party, and Lincoln was a Whig, only reluctantly becoming a Republican long after it was clear to many of his peers that the Whigs were no longer a viable political organization. Lincoln’s youth also corresponded with a major theological upheaval known as “The Second Great Awakening,” in which emerging evangelical churches and doctrines pushed aside established ones and edged their way into social and even political debates. Insofar as Lincoln’s religious thought reflected any religious orthodoxy, it was the Calvinism of his New England branch in his ancestry.[6] So it’s safe to say he that in the major public issues of his time, he was always a bit out of the mainstream.
And yet he managed to win just about every popularity contest he ever entered. That included four terms in the state legislature, a term U.S. House of Representatives, and election to the captaincy in the state militia during his military service, an honor he described as “a success which gave me more pleasure than any I have had since.”[7] The one major election he lost, his U.S. Senate race with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858, proved closer than any informed observer could have safely predicted at the outset. The point bears emphasizing: Lincoln was not simply respected and admired: he was deeply liked by a great many who knew him personally and a great many who did not. The stories attesting to this are legion, as are the jokes, many grounded in self-effacing humor, which have been attributed to him. (“I suppose God loves ugly people,” he reputedly said. “That’s why he makes so many of them.”)
Of course, many people hated Lincoln, too, one enough to kill him. Lincoln took significantly less than half of the popular vote in the divisive presidential election of 1860. Even now, when he comes as close as being beloved by all of the people all of the time, he can still provoke bitter polemics over his racism or his big-government policies.[8] But no one has embodied the pursuit of individual happiness through the common good more vividly than Lincoln, so much so that he is perhaps the inevitable standard of measurement for anyone remotely like him.
Like his distant relative, Tom Hanks. That’s Hanks as in Nancy Hanks, the maiden name of Lincoln’s mother. She was one of eight Nancy Hankses born during the 1780s; Lincoln himself, who believed he inherited his ambition, alertness and powers of analysis from his mother, believed she was illegitimate (he understood her to be the child of Lucy Hanks and “a well-bred Virginia farmer or planter”). A distant cousin of Lincoln, the main trunk of the Tom Hanks’s family tree emerges with his great-grandfather, Daniel Boone Hanks, who left his native Kentucky (where Nancy Hanks married Thomas Lincoln, and where Abraham Lincoln was born) and migrated to California in 1873.[9]
Hanks has made allusions to his famous ancestor. As generations of children know, he is the voice of Woody the cowboy in the Toy Story saga. In Toy Story II (1999), Woody meets his love interest in the Jessie the Cowgirl (voice of Joan Cusack) who exclaims “Sweet Mother of Abraham Lincoln!” upon meeting him.  In a 1990 episode of Saturday Night Live, Hanks, who’s hosting, pretends to limp onstage with a bad knee, recounting his recent triumphs when suddenly confronted by the Great Emancipator—which does not appear to be a good sign:

Abraham Lincoln (offstage): They can't hear you, Tom.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self (looking around ):  What? What? Who said that? [runs into the hall and finds Abraham Lincoln ] Mr. President, it's you ! Tell me… what's happening? Why can't I make them understand?

Abraham Lincoln: Because they exist on a different plane from us, Tom.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self: You mean … all that pain ... what happened backstage … that I bumped my knee? I'm… dead?

Abraham Lincoln: No, Tom. You're an incredible pussy.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self: I'm frightened, Mr. President ... I don't like this place. I want to go back!

Abraham Lincoln: Then you must cling to life, Tom. You must want to live.

Tom Hanks' Inner Self: Oh, but I do! I do, Mr. President. I want to live![10]

He spins back to life, ready to resume hosting the show.

As such silly jokes suggest, would be foolish to make too much of this connection. Or the two mens’ affinity for Shakespeare. Or difficult childhoods in blended families that led both to leave them decisively behind. Or even their submerged religiosity and tendency to go along with their wives’ traditions. Nevertheless, there is a clear and useful affinity to be noted between Hanks and Lincoln: they both symbolized, for millions of Americans of their time, the viability and decency of national institutions when they were being called into active question. Neither man is typically described in these terms. But to a great extent, their institutionalism lies at the core of their appeal.
As with Lincoln, one can begin to appreciate what makes Hanks both popular and distinctive by comparing him with his peers. Clint Eastwood’s entire career has been premised on skepticism toward big institutions, whether they’re movie studios or governments. (Yes, he has enjoyed stable good relations with Warner Brothers, but that’s because he maintains his autonomy with his own production company. And when he ran for office, it was for a single term as mayor.) From Dirty Harry to Gran Torino, his characters are constantly fighting authority figures even as they’re chasing down bad guys. Denzel Washington’s vision of history is conceived in terms of families, literal and figurative. In his vision of republican fatherhood, good parents and mentors make dutiful public servants. Washington has more confidence in government than Eastwood does, but his locus, literally and figuratively, is closer to home. Daniel Day-Lewis plays rugged individualists, even more than Eastwood, who typically tries to fashion alternative families among casts of misfits. But Day-Lewis characters can’t be contained, and attempts at solidarity—personal, political, or both—almost always fail.
Hanks is different. Fathers, children and lovers have always figured in his work, particularly his early work, but they’ve never really been central and are as likely to be a hindrance as a help. Families are often part of the story. But teams, broadly construed, are close to his heart, particularly after he began to develop to the Hollywood leverage to make this clear. No less than Day-Lewis or Eastwood, Hanks has an ego, and his characters typically occupy some kind of leadership position. But they operate within a system of some sort, and are committed not only to working within it, but making it better. There’s an emphatic spirit of republicanism at large in Hanks’s America: his characters represent, serve, and act on that basis.
It’s a powerful vision, and it’s made him a powerful man. By the early 21st century, Hanks was the single most successful actor in U.S. history, with box office grosses that will have crossed $4 billion by the time you read these words.[11] A surprising number of lines from his movies—“There’s no crying in baseball!”; “Houston, we have a problem,”; “Life is like a box of chocolates”; “Stupid is as stupid does”—became pop culture slogans. He has also become an entertainment impresario with his own production company (Playtone, named after a fictional record label he created for the 1996 film That Thing You Do!), and an active producer whose programming ranged across movies, television and the Internet, where he developed a pioneering online video series, Electric City. He repeatedly worked with the premier Hollywood mogul of our time, his friend Steven Spielberg, and did so as an equal. Hanks makes mocking references to his “crack team of show-business experts,” but the irony of the phrase can’t quite hide the reality of his circumstances.[12]
Amid his wide-ranging interests, history is central. Hanks was the executive producer (along with Spielberg, with whom he collaborated in the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan) of the 2001 World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, and a producer of its successor, The Pacific (2010). His lifelong interest in the space program—and appearance in the 1995 film Apollo 13—led to the 1998 cable series From the Earth to the Moon, which he helped write, produce, direct, and made cameo appearances as an actor. As of this writing, he is developing yet another series on the Kennedy assassination. These are among the reasons the esteemed journalist and historian Douglas Brinkley wrote a 2010 essay on Hanks as historian[13]—a subject that merits book-length treatment. Here, though, our focus will be on Hanks the actor, where his vision first crystallized. It’s a vision that’s surprisingly clear—and just plain surprising in having materialized at all.
Next: From modest beginnings to modest stardom

[1]C.A.Tripp, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (New York: The Free Press, 2005); Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005); Adam Gopnik, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life; James Lander, Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions about Race, Science and Religion (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010).
[2]Abraham Lincoln, “Fragments on Government,” in Lincoln: Speeches, Letters, Miscellaneous Writings, ed. By Don Feherenbacher (New York: Library of America, 1989), 301-302.
[3] Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, 2 vols. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1926) and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, 4 vols (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1939). For an analysis of Sandburg’s Lincoln biography as a document of New Deal liberalism, see Jim Cullen, The Civil War in Popular Culture: A Reusable Past (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 29-64.
[4] Writers who have paid sustained attention to Lincoln’s religiosity include Garry Wills, William Miller, and Richard Carwardine. For a good brief description of his nominal Presbyterianism, see Ronald C. White, Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 128-ff.
[5]Abraham Lincoln, “Handbill Replying to Charges of Infidelity,” in Speeches and Writings, 140.
[6] Lincoln’s strain of Calvinism is discussed in the above-mentioned sources. For a brief distillation, see Jim Cullen, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 97-202.
[7]Lincoln quoted in David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 44.
[8] See, for example Lerone Bennett, Jr., Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 2000); Thomas DiLorenzo, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (New York: Forum, 2002).
[9]Donald, 19-20; David Gardner, The Tom Hanks Enigma: The Biography of the World’s Most Intriguing Movie Star (London: Blake, 2007), 4-7.
[11] See the respected website Box Office Mojo for the latest statistics: (accessed March 22, 2011). Gardner cites Hanks as the leading box office star of all time (xiii). Hanks has also been a longtime fixture of the Harris Poll cited in previous chapters, ranking #1 in 2002, 2004, and 2005. See (accessed February 5, 2011)
[12] Kurt Anderson, “The Tom Hanks Phenomenon: How Did He Pull It Off?” The New Yorker, December 17, 1998. Accessed via (accessed March 24, 2011)
[13] Douglas Brinkley, “How Tom Hanks Became America’s Historian in Chief,” Time, March 6, 2010. Accessed via Gale’s “Popular Magazines” databases (March 22, 2011).