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Tom and Jimmy

The two stars show how movie heroism has and hasn't changed

Tom Hanks stars in 'Larry Crowne,' a new film he also co-wrote and directed. Tom Hanks stars in "Larry Crowne," a new film he also co-wrote and directed. (Wong Maye-e/Associated Press)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / June 26, 2011

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The further away the Studio Age gets, the less similarity there is between then and now. Brad Pitt is almost a different species from Clark Gable. That’s one reason his aping Gable’s speech patterns is such a kick in “Inglourious Basterds.’’ Kate Winslet is clearly the superior actress, but HBO’s “Mildred Pierce’’ demonstrated once again that there’s nothing even close to a Joan Crawford equivalent these days. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.

This rule of discontinuous stardom has one major exception. Somewhere between “Philadelphia’’ and “Saving Private Ryan’’ — about 70 minutes into “Apollo 13,’’ let’s say — people started to suggest that Tom Hanks was a new Jimmy Stewart.

Certain of the qualities their personas share are on display in “Larry Crowne,’’ which Hanks directed, co-wrote, and stars in. It opens Friday. True, Stewart never rode a motor scooter onscreen, as Hanks does in the new movie, let alone with Julia Roberts seated behind him. But as a decent, hard-working man confronting economic adversity, Hanks’s character could be Great Recession kin to Stewart’s George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.’’

Onscreen, both men embody the way Americans would like to see them selves: honorable but not self-righteous, friendly yet slightly reserved, intelligent without being intellectual — and all the while capable of behaving heroically when circumstances demand it. They’re the qualities that led Billy Wilder to cast Stewart as Charles Lindbergh, and Ron Howard to cast Hanks as Apollo commander Jim Lovell.

“I suppose people can relate to being me,’’ Stewart once said, “while they dream about being John Wayne.’’ Hanks could say the same thing about himself as regards to Pitt or George Clooney. What Stewart and Hanks inspire is identification rather than aspiration.

It’s amusing to note odd parallels between their careers. Both won an Oscar for movies with the same city in the title: “The Philadelphia Story,’’ “Philadelphia.’’ Both appeared in baseball pictures (“The Stratton Story,’’ “A League of Their Own’’) and played FBI agents (“The FBI Story,’’ “Catch Me If You Can’’). Hanks even played the same role Stewart did. “You’ve Got Mail,’’ with Hanks as romantic male lead, is a remake of “The Shop Around the Corner,’’ with Stewart as same.

They also share something more important: staying power. “In this business,’’ Hanks has said, “careers are based upon longevity.’’ “Splash’’ made Hanks a star in 1984. That puts him slightly ahead of Stewart. We think of Stewart as being such an enduring figure, one of the giants of Hollywood, and he was. Yet in terms of active stardom — being top-billed in a movie and selling tickets — he had a shorter span than Hanks. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’’ made Stewart a star in 1939. The last big picture he had top billing in came 26 years later, “The Flight of the Phoenix.’’ At 27 years and counting, Hanks continues to go strong.

Duration isn’t really a difference between them. Daring is. The iconic Jimmy Stewart is the shining idealist of “Mr. Smith,’’ the aw-shucks sheriff of “Destry Rides Again,’’ the grandfatherly man who brought tears to Johnny Carson’s eyes — Johnny Carson, crying! — by reciting on “The Tonight Show’’ a poem he’d written about his dog. But what ballasted that Jimmy Stewart, what lent the persona such gravity and interest, was a consistent willingness to explore menacing elements within. It’s an exploration that Hanks can’t or won’t undertake.

It took time for the Stewart persona to emerge. In his 10th movie, “Born to Dance,’’ he not only sings but introduces a classic Cole Porter song, “Easy to Love.’’ In his next movie, “After the Thin Man,’’ he plays the murderer. Yes, it’s true: a whodunit in which Jimmy Stewart did it.

Once the persona did emerge, it proved irresistible. Stewart’s performance in “Mr. Smith’’ offers some of the greatest acting in American film — American civics, too. Politically incoherent, the movie flirts with hysteria. What holds it together — and the reason it’s remembered so fondly — is Stewart’s ability to make such otherworldly idealism seem both plausible and natural.

What makes Jefferson Smith so compelling is how his innocence generates frenzy. Stewart lets us see the character’s scariness, which makes him all the more moving. The ultimate threat Smith’s filibuster poses isn’t to his political enemies but to his own well-being. If Claude Rains’s character hadn’t attempted suicide first, would Stewart’s have?

A fictitious hero in “Mr. Smith,’’ Stewart was a real one during World War II. He enlisted as a private in the Army Air Forces in March 1941 and rose to the rank of colonel. He flew some two dozen combat missions over occupied Europe, winning two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Air Medal, and the Croix de Guerre.

Stewart freely admitted that the man who came back from the war had changed. The change is evident in “It’s a Wonderful Life.’’ What makes it a great movie isn’t all the sentiment and warmth. It’s all the darkness, at the center of which stands Stewart. Potterville, not Bedford Falls, is where the movie’s greatness lies. There’s an abiding tension between small-town idyll and suffocating personal confinement. Beneath George Bailey’s decency and dependability emerges a growing sense of despair. The vision he has on Christmas Eve is more culmination than aberration.

Frank Capra, without quite realizing what he’d done, had tapped into this other side of Stewart as Jefferson Smith and George Bailey. A few years later, Anthony Mann knew exactly what he was doing with the driven, hardened men Stewart played in four classic westerns: “Winchester ’73,’’ “Bend of the River,’’ “The Naked Spur’’ (a telling title), and “The Man From Laramie.’’ D.H. Lawrence once described the “essential American soul’’ as “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.’’ In these movies we see Stewart draw perilously close to that description.

The most powerful exploiting of this tension in Stewart came from Alfred Hitchcock. He’d already presented a more provocative side of Stewart in “Rope.’’ Then in “Rear Window’’ and, especially, “Vertigo’’ Hitchcock places Stewart in a moral labyrinth of his characters’ own obsessive behavior. Neither Jeff Jeffries nor Scottie Ferguson is a villain. Each is much closer to being a victim — a victim of his own making. Moral ambiguity is so much richer — and harder to render — than mere good or evil.

Hard as it is to imagine Stewart convincingly portraying a boy in a man’s body, as Hanks does in “Big,’’ it’s even harder to imagine Hanks attempting any of these later roles Stewart played. The year after “Vertigo,’’ Stewart’s defense attorney in “Anatomy of a Murder’’ added another layer of complexity to this ongoing moral journey. Paul Biegler is a good guy, but sly enough to make you wonder if in another case he might twist the rules, just for the hell of it. Actually, he’s a lot like the character Denzel Washington plays in “Philadelphia,’’ a far more challenging role — less crowd-pleasing, too — than the one Hanks has in that movie.

We have a different idea of heroism now from the one Hollywood presented before World War II. That new idea is at least partly rooted in these Stewart performances from the 1950s. Yet Hanks shies away from any more complex version of heroism. Or even villainy — “The Ladykillers’’ is comedy, of course, and “The Road to Perdition’’ is monochromatic. Hanks’s characters aren’t larger than life, yet neither are they ever as dark as life. All actors want to be loved. That’s one reason they become actors. Hanks wants to be patted on the back, too.

Of course, for all we know, Hanks may be willing to attempt a character like Scottie. But the idea of a “Vertigo’’ being made now as a mass-entertainment star vehicle is unthinkable. Hanks has nearly three dozen credits as a television and film producer. Any lasting star has a strong sense of what the public will accept. A producer’s sense has to be that much stronger. Might Hanks’s seeming lack of ambition simply reflect our own?

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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