Has Tom Hanks Begun The Supporting Actor Phase Of His Career?

It’s a fascinating stage in a movie star’s career, and one we don’t get to see very often: when one of the biggest names in Hollywood, a face used for decades to sell all sorts of big-budget releases, becomes — for a string of roles, at least— a professional supporting actor. Prior to his downfall this year, Kevin Spacey made a relatively successful transition from prominent lead in films like American Beauty and The Shipping News to a Mentor role in recent stuff like Baby Driver and Rebel in the Rye. But Spacey was always, at heart, a supporting actor, evidenced by the popularity of his performances in Se7en and The Usual Suspects.

Tom Hanks, who — to my great interest — has received second billing on 3 of his latest films, is the definition of the modern leading man, practically playing the Human Embodiment of the American Spirit in films like Saving Private Ryan, Toy Story and even the god-awful Larry Crowne. A decade ago, Hanks + literary property = an almost $800m gross for The Da Vinci Code, a film with nary a superhero nor a Star War in sight. That’s phenomenal. Tom Hanks was the shit. And he still is, but in gentler, less profitable ways. Some of his recent star vehicles have done fairly well — Clint Eastwood’s appalling pilot drama Sully — and some have barely registered: the Saudi-backed oddity A Hologram For the King.

But Hanks is Hanks and people pay attention when he’s involved. So how has he become a second fiddle player? The trend began in 2013 when he showed up as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, a biopic of Mary Poppins creator P.L. Travers, played by Emma Thompson in the film. Half of Banks is flashbacks to Travers’s childhood in Australia, and — of the 1960s stuff — Hanks is only on screen for 20 minutes or so. So second billing he got; the film’s esteemed “and” credit reserved for Colin Farrell of all people.

But this year things got more serious: Hanks had an antagonist role in The Circle, effectively a feature length Black Mirror episode about corporate surveillance — a pretty terrible film — and featured below Emma Watson (coming off Beauty and the Beast’s massive opening) on the poster. His role in the film was tremendously unmemorable. But, in fairness so was everything else about The Circle, which bombed in spite of Watson and went direct to Netflix internationally.

So now we come to The Post, the new Spielberg Pentagon Papers drama in which Hanks plays Ben Bradlee opposite Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham. This is a fascinating example of a star vehicle, the sort of movie that in the previous century would have been sold on two massive male stars: Redford and Newman, DeNiro and Pacino, Stewart and Grant. But, marvellously, we’ve reached a stage when an actress gets to be the biggest part of one of these packages. Meryl is the Queen of modern Hollywood, with more Oscars than she needs, and she is — by most accounts — in a stronger place career-wise than Hanks, having won an Oscar 5 years ago and appearing in two guaranteed blockbusters later this year (both musical sequels — Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again and Mary Poppins Returns). This is not a Tracey/Hepburn duo, this is two unparalleled dramatic heavyweights with a big movie built around them. And Tom Hanks is only 40–50% of that. But, let’s be honest, the man could get top billing on every movie if he really wanted it (esp. when his co-star is Emma Watson or her ilk), so I suppose he’s just getting humble with age and doesn’t want his name emblazoned everywhere.

Perhaps I spoke too soon.