What do you think of when you hear “Tom Hanks”? The American everyman or the Antichrist’s emissary? Affable pal or appalling performer? Ready for coronation or ripe for condemnation? To coincide with Hanks’s latest film premiering this month, Midwest Film Journal staff writer Sam Watermeier and contributor Dave Gutierrez will offer conflicting viewpoints on the iconic (or is it irritating?) actor every week. On Tuesdays, Dave will say Hanks for Nothing, Tom! On Wednesdays, Sam will say Hanks for Everything, Tom! At month’s end, they’ll face each other in what we’re calling the Gump-Off. To paraphrase Forrest: This series is like a box of chocolates. Some of them are dosed with poison.
Even fellow critic Dave Gutierrez, who disagrees with me slightly about Tom Hanks movies, can’t deny the charm of Big. I’ve loved this film since I was a wee lad. It was one of the 10 or so movies I turned to again and again throughout my childhood, especially on sick days. At once familiar and magical, it washed over me like a warm blanket and then pulled the rug out from under me by demystifying adulthood. To this day, the film comforts me with its depiction of adults as scared kids in grown-up garb.
For those who don’t know, Big tells the tale of 13-year-old Josh Baskin (David Moscow), a New Jersey kid eager to grow up. While he’s trying to impress an older girl at a carnival, he’s deemed too short for one of the rides. He sulks over to a fortune teller machine called Zoltar Speaks and makes a wish to be big. After a stormy night’s sleep, he wakes up as a 30-year-old man (Tom Hanks).
Of course, his mom (Mercedes Ruehl) flips out when she sees what she believes to be a strange adult in her house. So, with the help of his best friend, Billy (Jared Rushton), Josh hunkers down in a dingy New York hotel. He miraculously goes on to find great success at a big-time toy company and even falls in love with a co-worker named Susan (Elizabeth Perkins).
Big was my introduction to Hanks. Unlike Dave, I found myself enamored with his effervescence. His performance in this film is hilarious, heartfelt and so achingly human. It earned him his first and much-deserved Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Credit for this performance also belongs to director Penny Marshall, who lured Hanks to the project after piquing Robert De Niro’s interest in it.
As much as I love De Niro, I can’t imagine him passing as a manchild. His features are too sharp, his presence too formidable. Hanks has a boyish charm, a sense of childlike wonder. Marshall tapped into that quality and grounded the film in a warmly familiar reality, which made it a massive hit and earned her the distinction of being the first female director with a film to gross more than $100 million at the box office.
Like most childhood favorites, Big boasts several moments that are now seared into my brain. These scenes also highlight the magic Hanks brings to his role. Please take note, Dave.
FIRST NIGHT AWAY FROM HOME
This scene is a master class in acting and filmmaking. Shot in one long take, it focuses on Josh as he tries to make himself at home in a seedy hotel. Hanks makes Josh’s anxiety our own as he fidgets with bedsheets while gunshots ring through the streets and a fellow guest argues with someone over the phone just outside his room. You can see 13-year-old Josh shine through Hanks as he breaks down out of fear. He collapses onto the bed, holding pillows over his head and quietly calling out for his mom.
Hanks’ poignant performance in this scene alone sets the film apart from similar body-swapping comedies of the time, including two from the same year Big was released — 18 Again! and Vice Versa. Marshall reportedly worried that Big would get lost within this subgenre, but it transcends it with raw, devastating scenes like this one.
I’ve related to this scene a few times in my life — on my first night in a dorm, my first day at a new job. These milestones made me feel like Josh — a scared kid trying to keep a poker face while imitating an adult. Hanks captures that feeling perfectly here.
HEART AND SOUL
An iconic act of pure movie magic, this scene showcases Hanks’ commitment to his craft as well as his talent as a physical performer. Marshall filmed the scene with long takes and wide shots, which meant that Hanks and Robert Loggia had to hit the keys for real. In fact, when they showed up on set to find trained dancers ready to double them in closeups of their feet, the actors told them to take a hike.
Although he said this musical performance was “like jumping rope for three-and-a-half hours,” Hanks makes it look like effortless fun. It’s the first time his character stops fumbling and appears to be in his element. And it’s the moment Hanks’ star was born.
“What was captured on the screen was a sincere happiness,” said Peter Harris, then CEO of FAO Schwartz, the toy store featured in the film. Attendance at the store skyrocketed the summer after Big was released, and the piano went on the become an instantly recognizable attraction. But without Hanks’ unforgettable performance, it’s just an object. He brings it to life in a moment that suggests adulting is like playing an instrument; it takes practice, but it can be fun.
“I DON’T GET IT”
In a scene that’s both tense and funny, Josh cuts down a corporate bigwig (a superbly smug John Heard) with a simple statement: “I don’t get it. What’s fun about playing with a building?” He derails the entire presentation, offering vastly superior alternatives to the Transformer-esque figure under discussion and exuding a childlike exuberance that rubs off on everyone around him. In turn, Hanks wins the audience over as well.
Here, Hanks emerges as the perfect foil for Heard’s character. The innocence with which Hanks radiates exposes Heard’s toxic masculinity. And he makes Heard’s character ultimately seem like the petulant child in the scenario.
“I’M A CHILD”
This scene hits particularly hard now, as we find ourselves in a society spinning toward collapse. When Josh says he misses his family and wants to go home, that could resonate with anyone quarantined from their loved ones. Although he’s speaking to the reality that he’s a child trapped in a man’s body, his words strike a chord in the hearts of people regressing to feeling like scared kids during these troubling times.
Hanks’ voice reaches a pre-pubescent pitch as he pleads with Susan to believe him. He captures the desperation of a child who doesn’t have the vocabulary to express his vulnerability. A lesser actor would make Josh seem like a genuine adult during this confessional moment. But Hanks never lets you forget that he’s a frightened kid.
WALKING DOWN MEMORY LANE
If you don’t get a lump in your throat during this sequence, you may find a lump of coal in your stocking during the holidays. As grown-up Josh walks around his neighborhood, Hanks beautifully conveys his homesickness and longing to return to childhood. Here, his performance aches with melancholy nostalgia. He makes Josh’s yearning our own.
I’m looking at a toy replica of the Zoltar machine as we speak, wishing I were a kid again. When I watched this movie as a little boy, it validated my simultaneous anxiety and excitement surrounding adulthood. When I watch it now, it makes me realize that I’m not alone in feeling like a fraudulent adult, especially when Perkins’ character says, “You think there isn’t a frightened kid inside of me, too?”
More often than not, Hanks stars in films and plays characters aimed to comfort us. Whether he’s stranded in another body, out in space or on a desert island, he never hides his vulnerability. He shows that it’s OK to be scared and cry for help. It’s OK to want your mom or your best friend when you’re alone in the dark.
Hanks evokes that loneliness and longing in the scene above. But he also makes this sequence a warm walk down memory lane, which is what Big feels like every time I revisit it.