EDITOR'S CHOICE (MOVIES)
A personal pantheon: No actor I've ever met has ever approached the personal charm of Ton Hanks. The only other celebrity in the mega-star business that matched -- indeed exceeded -- him was Paul McCartney in the '80s.
In neither case could it possibly be a surprise. Their stratospheric charms are often manifest on television and elsewhere. The charm of theirs that underlays all others is that they know who they are, whatever else they may be in their private lives.
You have to understand how people like Hanks traditionally met the members of the print press on press junkets where movie studios and TV networks routinely invite everyone from tough and/or scholarly critics to fame-dazzled junket parasites to soak up some aura and sell new cinematic or TV products. Under such circumstances, no one in current movies is as engaging as Hanks playing Meet The Press.
And now, with the publication of "Uncommon Type: Some Stories" (Knopf, 403 pages, $26.95), we know he had something else to offer to the world: a book. A credible one too, of short stories to be specific, as if he were J.D. Salinger or John Cheever or Alice Munro before the Swedish academics got around to Nobel-ing her.
The over-the-top blurb attached to the dustflap is from Ann Patchett, who is obviously not used to her gig being adapted so skillfully by an actor. "Reading Tom Hanks' 'Uncommon Type' " she says "is like finding out that Alice Munro is also the greatest actress of our time."
All due respect to Patchett but no, it's not. It is , yet another confirmation that nothing on this earth is capable of diluting Hanks' charisma and personality once the switch has been flicked -- no matter where he applies it.
We know that Hanks, the actor, is mere weeks away from confronting us with even more Oscar-bait, in this case Steven Spielberg's "The Post" about the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. Hanks follows Jason Robards in playing Ben Bradlee in a tale of journalistic derring do, in this case with Meryl Streep, no less, playing Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.
What is so deliciously appealing about His "Hello!" to the world as a writer of short stories are two stories that are clear and present products of that spectacularly bizarre collision across chasms of class, power and renown, the film junket.
"A Junket in the City of Light" is about a grade-B actor named Rory Thorpe who, just hours ago, he says, was "the guy in a huge movie everyone was taking about. In the capitals of Europe --and America--I was hustled around like a politician, into cars and into ballrooms filled with camera-totin', question- hollerin' reporters. I waved to seas of people, many of whom waved back even though no one knew who I am, even though I am, in fact, no one."
Hanks isn't the first Hollywoodian to try to get the gloriously absurd incongruities of a movie or TV press junket into a work of satiric art. Joe Roth gave it a shot in a movie called "America's Sweethhearts" that starred Julia Roberts, Billy Crystal and John Cusack. It kept getting waylaid into a dreary romantic comedy, as if everyone were suddenly afflicted with spasms of terror at that most traditional of all media horrors "inside baseball."
Hanks has a fine time playing around with it all.
Nor is that all. All through the book, he postulates a small-town newspaper columnist named Hank Fiset whose "Our Town Today" has what we in this business call this lede graf: "So many rumors at da Paper! (cq). The Bull elephant in the room says the Tri-Cities Daily News Herald is giving up the economic ghost of a printed version of our Great Triple-Metropolitan newspaper. If/when such a business move is made, the only way you'll be reading my column and everything else you now hold in your hands is on one of your digital devices -- your phone, maybe, or a light that needs recharging every night."
Hanks' fictional newspaper column makes three more appearances before the book is over. His final animadversion is yet another tribute to the now obsolete typewriter, a personal enthusiasm of Hanks, superstar and collector who has shelves and rooms of such machines even though their majestic percussion music vanished from newsrooms decades ago. How grand it is to know that a man of such untrammeled charm in the 21st century and such public brilliance spent all those decades of film junkets paying attention to those on the other side of those pads and tape recorders.
Hanks is by no means the only actor in the last 40 years to ask America to buy his book. Jason Segel was just on Stephen Colbert selling a Y-A book of sci-fi. Other movie and TV stars fond of committing literature between covers have been Ethan Hawke, Gene Hackman, William Shatner, James Franco, Jesse Eisenberg, Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Martin and, yes, Pamela Anderson, Sylvester Stallone, John Travolta, Chuck Norris and Macaulay Culkin.
Let's just say that Hanks may be the only one in America's "star-making machinery" to pay all that attention to the plebians at junkets across the table. Hanks is no major American writer. What he is though, no matter what he ever does, is a man of vast resources and charisma.
Far more traditional -- and superb -- books about past giants of American film acting, are two that are, in their way, almost as surprising: Nancy Schoenberger's "Wayne and Ford: The Freindship and the Forging of an American Hero" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 240 pages, $27.95) and Scott Eyman's dual biography "Hank and Jim: The Fifty Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart" (Simon and Schuster, 367 pages, $29.) One by one:
John Wayne and John Ford: In the cliched and predictable gender politics of 2017, little could be more unusual than a brilliant female film scholar from the College of William and Mary writing such a readable study of the long film collaboration that, perhaps more than any other, defined archetypal American maleness in our country's films. But Schoenberger is having no truck with the easy understandings that allow TCM, for instance, to maneuver with such speed and grace and verve through half-century careers. She loves Westerns and Ford and Wayne. And for company among female writers, she finds Joan Didion, Molly Haskell and Maureen Dowd. Haskell, predictably, "got it." Wayne, she said, "doesn't immediately see" a woman in his movies "in terms of sexual possibilities," doesn't put her "into a romantic mold to satisfy male fantasy." He was usually paired with "mature women, not starlets -- Maureen O'Hara, Patricia Neal, Colleen Dewhurst, Katharine Hepburn. He doesn't need sweet young things to bolster his ego." Haskell writes "Wayne has had the most startlingly rich and sensual relationships with mature women." Wayne is masculine but not macho which she aptly defines as "sexual arrogance" and is so opposite the "functional masculinity that Wayne represents" and that is "disappearing." This is film revisionism done right.
Hank (Henry Fonda) and Jim (James Stewart): Henry Fonda and James Stewart met as young actors in New York. Both fell under the spell of actress Margaret Sullavan (cq)("Fonda loved her, married her, then lost her. Stewart pined for her.") Their brilliantly contrapuntal personalities, as Eyman limns them, define both. Their friendship ends, at the beginning of the book on Fonda's death bed, as Fonda, half-deaf, and Stewart, almost fully there, yell memories at each other in Fonda's hospital room, despite their mutual auditory decrepitude. Scott Eyman is one of the greatest of current Hollywood biographers, with books about Wayne, Cecil B. DeMille, and Louis B. Mayer, among others, to prove it. I don't know if I trust the critical judgement of one who, as Eyman does, dismisses Hitchcock's "Vertigo" in the back end of a list of '50s Hitchcock but I don't think you can fault his biographical candor in, for example, this harrowing tale of Henry Fonda's emotional frigidity or, as Eyman puts it, his "inability to cope with someone else's need."
Appearing with Fonda in a small part in "A Big Hand For the Little Lady" was Mae Clark, the target of Jimmy Cagney's angry half-grapefruit in "The Public Enemy".
Clarke was now "eking out a living in small parts." She pled her "case" to Fonda. "Mr. Fonda, my name is Mae Clarke and I've been in the business a long time. I hesitate to say this because it sounds so funny. I just couldn't let the opportunity go. I so admire your taste in what you do. I wonder if I could interest you in remembering me for some of the things you will be doing that I could be even a little part of? When I say a little part, I mean a little effective part, but I'm not holding out for any money at all."
As Eyman points out, the world is full of graceful ways to handle such pathos. Fonda, though "got up and walked away without saying a word."
Eyman is as good, these days, at what he does as anyone.
Jeff Simon is the Arts and Books Editor of the Buffalo News.