Tom Hanks isn’t an unsung hero: At 63, he’s been a beloved, well-paid movie star since the ’80s, and has received five Oscar nominations and two wins. That said, he hasn’t been nominated in nearly two decades; although he’s been lauded for awards-worthy performances in “Captain Phillips” and “Sully,” the last nomination was for “Cast Away” in 2001.
This awards season, he is nabbing raves for his portrayal of the iconic children’s TV host Fred Rogers in Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” And, Hanks could get left out in the cold again.
What gives? Somewhere along the way, after serving as the charming and funny leading man in such classics as “Big,” “Splash!,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “A League of Their Own,” and “You’ve Got Mail,” the movie star turned into an identifiably affable figure known as Tom Hanks. It’s not unlike what happened to Cary Grant, who stayed at the top of studio wish lists for decades but was nominated for just two Academy Awards. Grant, like Edward G. Robinson, Donald Sutherland, Lauren Bacall and countless others, had to settle for an Honorary Oscar.
Situations like these forged the Governors Awards. Actors often get nominated repeatedly and never win, or have an acclaimed body of work that somehow eludes Academy recognition. One year they build momentum, another they don’t. And a wave of goodwill pushes one talent across the finish line when multiple nominees have given equally wonderful performances.
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Hanks taking on Fred Rogers plays into the perception that he is an uncommonly likeable, decent guy–if not the most creative or daring. Playing Walt Disney in “Saving Mr. Banks” falls into a similar vein. He’s campaigning for Supporting Actor for Mr. Rogers. But will he be overlooked again?
I asked a number of Oscar voters, campaigners, and other observers why it’s been 18 years since Hanks received recognition from the Academy Actors branch. Some of their email responses are edited for clarity.
1. He’s already won two Oscars, for “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump.”
After you’ve won two Oscars, the bar is higher: You have to really shake things up to be nominated again. That may explain why there are so few actors with three or more wins.
As an AIDS patient fighting for his rights, and a mentally challenged man with a big heart making his mark on decades of American history, Hanks scored the remarkable feat of winning “back to back Oscars,” pointed out Roger Durling, director of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. “Maybe people feel he’s being sufficiently celebrated.”
It’s also quite possible that in some of the years when Hanks missed a deserving nomination (“Captain Phillips,” “Sully,” “Bridge of Spies”) or a win (“Saving Private Ryan”), the numbers were quite close.
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2. He respects the honor, but maybe not the campaigning.
For someone with two Oscars, winning another one requires campaigning, and multiple respondents questioned Hanks’ willingness to sell himself to Oscar voters.
“He is a guy who has to campaign harder than he does,” wrote one veteran marketing executive. “He is considered a commercially successful actor — not someone who has driven their career by exclusively art choices the way Christian Bale, Leo DiCaprio, or Daniel Day-Lewis have. It is assumed that they choose a movie and a filmmaker for artistic credibility, where Hanks has that Spielberg thing: He is more broad. He will do things that are more widely entertaining. He’s like Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, or Denzel Washington, who have to signal when it’s very special.”
An Oscar strategist wrote, “Hanks doesn’t pursue awards. He’s won a lot of them. He’s also very involved with the Academy personally [until recently, he served on the Board of Governors] and I believe he took that role seriously. The decision to campaign rests with him, not his team or studio. He’ll promote his movies, less himself. He’s a rare bird.”
3. Oscar voters favor younger and more diverse breakouts.
There’s always been a taste for discoveries in the Actors branch, from nominating Edward Norton in his first major role in “Primal Fear,” Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny,” and Lupita Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave” to Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out.”
“Voters love nominating people who are newbies, grateful for the opportunity,” wrote one former studio marketing chief, “as well as those who serve the art factory by delivering predictably reliably excellent performances that rarely miss.”
“Breaking talent is the order of the day,” wrote film and media strategic consultant Noah Cowan. “Who is hot matters more in streaming culture than the more controlled studio regimen. There is also a justified desire to recognize more non-white men and women, and Hanks is kind of the Ur-white man. Mr. Rogers is the right kind of performance for him, but it plays too suspiciously Red State-friendly, old-fashioned ‘nice guy,’ and bland. That doesn’t fly in the Trump-era political dynamic for the New York and LA Academy.”
4. He’s taken for granted.
Tom Hanks is an Everyman, like Jeff Bridges. “That may be both the reason he gets little Academy recognition and also why he’s had such a long and successful career,” wrote screenwriter and former WGA officer Mike Mahern. “The most comparable male star is probably Jimmy Stewart, whose career peak covered the 1940s and ’50s before sincerity was replaced by edginess as an Academy qualifier.”
Both Hollywood charmers Stewart and Henry Fonda took darker turns as mature actors after World War II, signing up to play complicated, sometimes tortured characters in westerns such as Anthony Mann’s “Winchester ’73” (Stewart’s agent Lew Wasserman scored him points instead of cash) and Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” respectively, and thrillers like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and “The Wrong Man.” This isn’t something Hanks seems capable of doing — or maybe, he just doesn’t want to.
“Jimmy became a millionaire, and his career was revitalized by Anthony Mann: ‘The Naked Spur,’ ‘The Man From Laramie,’ ‘Bend of the River’ and so on,” wrote director Allan Arkush. “Time for Tom to play tough.”
Hanks himself isn’t comfortable playing villains, he recently admitted to The New York Times: “I recognized in myself a long time ago that I don’t instill fear in anybody,” he said. “Now, that’s different than being nice, you know? I think I have a cache of mystery. But it’s not one of malevolence.”
5. He’s a movie star who stays inside his comfort zone.
Hanks tends not to stray outside his range, often playing heroic Americans. When he has ventured outside of it, things have not always gone well. See his rare role as a villain in the Coen brothers’ “The Ladykillers” and his crazy antics in “Cloud Atlas.”
“People really liked him in those early Meg Ryan rom-coms,” wrote one producer. “But, it’s like time passed him by. And he fell out of fashion. He also went through a period where he played characters who were so ‘noble’ that it became cloying. He can be irresistible in comedy. He should play more flawed characters who behave in entertainingly extreme ways.”
“Hanks has become something of an old shoe for Oscar voters,” wrote one Academy voter. “He’d have to break out of his comfort zone in a major way to get Oscar traction again. The actors branch especially likes to reward those who take big chances or who are incredibly versatile. As good as Hanks is, you cannot say he’s got a wide range. He’s like Michael Douglas: terrific in both comedy and drama, but he’s always Michael Douglas.”
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6. He’s not showy.
Like Cary Grant and the similar Hugh Grant, Hanks makes what he does look too easy. “He is just so reliable and always good that it takes something huge to make him stand out,” wrote one screenwriter. “‘Captain Phillips’ should have done it.”
“Hanks rarely eats the scenery,” wrote ex-New York Times Hollywood correspondent Aljean Harmetz. “To younger people, he seems an old fogey and his way of acting is not strong enough for their taste. Apparently, today you cannot disappear into a character and be considered seriously for an award.”
According to one Oscar publicist, “subtle acting does not impress the actors branch; thus, the nominations of actors who play against type, wear extravagant makeup, or overemote. Not to say that some of those performances aren’t good, but other equally good performances are overlooked.”
“Noisy actors like Meryl Streep and Daniel Day-Lewis and their ilk win Oscars,” added IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann. “Hanks is not a noisy actor. He’s nuanced, has finesse, is taken for granted. The old canard of ‘playing himself’ is never true. It actually takes an actor who sustains a long career because he keeps being interesting, as opposed to those who do accents, have makeup, and make themselves the center of attention.”
“It amuses and sometimes puzzles me,” wrote film historian Leonard Maltin, “that the actors’ branch of the Academy are such suckers for showy performances, but it’s been true for decades. Al Pacino won for my least favorite of his performances, in ‘Scent of a Woman,’ just to name one.”
Hanks isn’t alone in the undervalued Oscar club. He’s ahead of a bunch of multiple nominees who have never won at all, among them Amy Adams, Edward Norton, Michelle Williams, Ed Harris, Annette Bening, Glenn Close and Joaquin Phoenix — who, with Joker, finally has a shot at collecting a gold statue. The rest are waiting for the right role at the right time, the one everyone has to see, that is undeniable, that marks some kind of career topper.
If not this year, Hanks’ time will come again.