A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Trailer

The two major differences between Tom Hanks and Daniel Day-Lewis are their approaches to craft and how they answer questions on press tours. Everything else is window dressing.

Both are fierce, profoundly gifted actors. Both are deep wells of creativity. Yet even though each actor is equally at home in torturous dramas and whimsical romps, we never think of them in the same breath. Hanks is your next door neighbor; Day-Lewis is the eccentric guy who lives in the haunted house up the hill.

One is a capital-S Serious Actor, and the other lip syncs in Carly Rae Jepsen’s video. Now, I’m not saying Hanks could play Lincoln (or that Day-Lewis could handle Carly). I’m saying that Hanks’ well-rounded mainstream accessibility and well-honed persona as America’s Grandpa obscures his own capital-S status as one of the best actors of a generation.

His Early Roles: Splash and Bachelor Party

It wasn’t always like this for Thomas Jeffrey Hanks. Like most popular actors who shot to stardom in the 1980s and 1990s, Hanks had his first on-screen shot in a low budget horror film. He jogged into theaters in He Knows You’re Alone doing a proto-Randy Meeks riff on how people like paying to be scared.

Even in a short amount of screen time, you can tell there’s something powerfully affable about him.

But his true launch was in Splash and Bachelor Party, playing two versions of the same fun-loving guy falling in love. One with a mermaid.

Just snarky enough. Not so wild that’s he’s off-putting. He even manages to quip lovably at a friend’s failed suicide attempt in Bachelor Party — a movie where a cyclone of orgiastic hotel trashing swirls around him as the faithful husband-to-be center.

In Splash, he’s sarcastic to the point of melancholy. He’s a man who doesn’t even understand how happy he is with Daryl Hannah. Somehow, Hanks can pull off heavy cynicism with a charming flick of a grin. That skill has always been there. We’ve gotten to see it refine with age.

The Persona: Disarming Goofball

Even in the era of raucous sex comedies, Hanks managed to squeak by with his hands clean. A 2016 Esquire piece remarked on Hanks’ asexual nature as America’s dad, saying “Just like with your own dad, you can know he has (had) sex without every having to think about what that specifically entails.” True.

Yet it’s striking how much that applies to his earliest roles, too. The sexy stuff seems to have happened around him. Hanks was never a heartthrob. In fact, there’s always been a bit of adolescence in his comedic appearances. Not a Belushian immaturity and nihilism, but a childlike goofiness that made him perfect for Big, where he enthusiastically tells Elizabeth Perkins’ character that he wants to be on top, but means of the bunk bed. Prime cuddle buddy material.

His Latest Role: Mister Rogers

And all that niceness has led to this. After trekking through a wilderness of slightly weird box office flops (like Joe vs The Volcano), Hanks evolved in all directions in the 1990s. Within a few years, he emerged as an Oscar-caliber performer in Philadelphia, ascended to the coveted spot as your mother’s favorite romantic comedy lead, and solidified his status as America’s Dad in Apollo 13.

Even when he’s playing an incorrigible, amoral bastard, Hanks still exudes an element of asexuality that almost must be on purpose. The height of this came in Charlie Wilson’s War, when Hanks’s Wilson sits nude in a hot tub with three naked women doing cocaine, and he desperately wants the news with Dan Rather turned up so he can watch. Once again, sex is going on around him.

Playing it squeaky clean by proxy, the nicest actor in America is now portraying the nicest man in America. Unlike Wilson, where Hanks miscast himself, there is no better fit regardless of how little he looks like Mister Rogers. Hanks has metaphorically been wearing that red sweater for years.

The Persona: America’s Grandpa/Hidden Genius

Okay, so there’s a third difference between Hanks and Day-Lewis, but it’s still not about talent. It’s also not a matter of masculinity. Both Day-Lewis and Hanks exude it in both their strength and vulnerability.

It’s a matter of danger. There’s nothing edgy or dangerous about Hanks, which leaves an actor like Day-Lewis with an extra dimension to play around with. Even though Hanks has gotten weird (see: Tom Tykwer) and broken bad (see: Road to Perdition) in his career, there’s no villain hidden in that teddy bear.

But his persona as a softy makes us forget the power of his capability. That underneath the smile and red sweater is a fierce, sorrowful performer. His meme-worthy mascot status is fun, but it often feels like a way of diminishing his talent. He isn’t just a nice guy. He’s a peerless actor of intense depth and humanity.

And a bit of a goofball.

Like learning your sweet grandpa also killed a hundred people during The War, Hanks has earned his layers, his awards, and more than one persona.

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