Most people who have even been casually watching movies at some point between the mid-80s and today would at least recognize Tom Hanks if they saw him in a movie, whether they know him by name or not. His movies have grossed over $9.9 billion in North America alone, which makes him the fourth-highest grossing actor in history. I’ve looked at several of his movies already, including Saving Private Ryan, all four Toy Story movies, Apollo 13, Saving Mr. Banks, and possibly a few others. Yet that’s barely scratching the surface of his film library or the depth of his talent.
I’ve been interested in doing a feature month on Tom Hanks for a while now, so let’s kick this off with one of the two movies that earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Forrest Gump, released in 1994. I know that’s usually best saved for later in the month, but without spoilers, the movie I’ve got planned for the end of the month ties into Halloween much better than Forrest Gump could ever hope to. It also felt right that the first movie I cover also features Sally Field, who played Aunt May in the Amazing Spider-Man movies; the last two movies I looked at. I like having some sort of connecting theme or cast member whenever I can.
The title character in Forrest Gump, played by Hanks, is a mentally challenged man who does incredible things without realizing how incredible they are, while almost everyone around him struggles with their own lives. It works equally well as a comedy and a drama. Also included are a number of references to actual historic events, famous catch phrases and major brands, with Forrest being involved with the former and an inspiration for the latter two. That’s what makes for much of this movie’s comedy, how Forrest doesn’t even realize his impact on the world.
Some of the other major cast members include Robin Wright as Jenny, Forrest’s only childhood friend and long-time love interest. There’s Gary Sinise as Lieutenant Dan, Forrest’s platoon leader during his time in the Vietnam war, who ends up getting crippled by said war. Sinise and Hanks have worked with each other three times, including Apollo 13 and The Green Mile, which I’m planning on looking at later this month. Mykelti Williamson plays another challenged person, “Bubba”, who fights alongside Forrest in the Vietnam War, who also becomes a friend of Forrest’s. Also noteworthy, Haley Joel Osment makes his film debut in this movie. He would later move on to become a very successful child actor, most known for his performance in The Sixth Sense. In this movie, he plays Forrest’s son.
Beyond that, most of the roles in this movie are best described as cameos. You’ve got Peter Dobson as Elvis Presley, with Kurt Russell performing the voice in an uncredited role. Dick Cavett cameos as himself, de-aged with makeup, being the only historic figure to appear as himself. Most other historic figures are either portrayed by cameos or showed in archive footage. Siobhan Fallon Hogan plays Forrest’s bus driver for school. There are plenty of others, but mentioning them all would take way too long.
The film is based on the 1986 novel of the same name, written by Winston Groom, who passed away at 77 in 2020. The book became a national phenomenon after the movie released. Although the book and movie follow a very similar story, there are major differences between them. Most notably a sadder ending where Forrest doesn’t get to raise his son, showing that Forrest is actually very smart with a handful of things including chess and mathematics, and a bit of a ridiculous moment where Forrest travels into space. Well … Hanks still got to portray an astronaut in Apollo 13, so no loss for him as an actor. The movie also adds the leg braces to help straighten Forrest’s legs so he can learn to walk properly, which didn’t happen in the books. His running back and forth across the country also didn’t happen in the book.
As perfect as Hanks is for the title role, he wasn’t the first choice. John Travolta was the original choice, but passed on the role. He later said that passing on the role was a mistake. Bill Murray, Sean Penn and Chevy Chase were also considered. Hanks revealed in an interview that he signed onto the film an hour and a half after reading the script. He also admitted that it took several days of filming to learn how to properly play the role, and that those first three days of footage were unusable. Groom, the novel writer, was involved with the screenplay adaptation, and said that the film took the “rough” edges off Forrest’s character, which he originally envisioned to be played by John Goodman.
For some of the running scenes, Tom’s younger brother, Jim Hanks, worked as a running double, while Tom’s daughter Elizabeth cameoed as a girl who refused to let Forrest sit beside her on the bus. On that note, while Jim doesn’t have as successful of a career as Tom, he’s still a fairly successful actor, having voiced Woody in a number of video games, and has a number of film and TV appearances.
The title role wasn’t the only role where big actors regretted turning down their roles. Dave Chappelle was offered the role of “Bubba”, but turned it down because he believed the movie would be unsuccessful. Hanks learned of Chappelle’s disappointment in himself for turning down the role and agreed to work with him in the future. They later co-starred as best friends in “You’ve Got Mail.”
The movie makes extensive use of CGI, including inserting Forrest into archival footage, and even shaking John F. Kennedy’s hand. There’s also the napalm scene in Vietnam, where Forrest is carrying his fellow soldiers to safety. His running was filmed separately from the napalm explosions, and they were later digitally combined. They also used CGI to remove Sinise’s legs after his character had them amputated. These scenes also sometimes used a technique using “roto painting” to fill in the background frame by frame.
All of these visual efforts earned the movie an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. Besides that and Hanks’s Best Actor award, Forrest Gump also won Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director (for Robert Zemeckis), and Best Film Editing. Forrest Gump won 6 Oscars out of its 6 nominations, along with a number of other awards and nominations from other institutions.
The film wasn’t completely without controversy. Despite earning $678 million on a $55 million budget, they used Hollywood Accounting to say that the movie failed to make a profit, in order to get out of paying Groom’s profit share. They also didn’t mention him once in any of the Oscar speeches, despite one of the awards being for Best Adapted Screenplay, even though Groom was at least mildly involved in the filmmaking process. They eventually made it up to him by paying a hefty amount for film rights to a sequel, based on the novel’s sequel Gump & Co, which was never filmed. Long story short, they submitted the script on September 10, 2001, and most people know what happened the next day.
Anyway, Forrest Gump is a very good movie. It works as a drama because all of the major characters are likeable. Forrest is so innocent and blind to all the chaos around him, and that’s what makes him so endearing. He truly cares about his friends and family, and doesn’t hold a grudge against anyone … unless they hurt Jenny. Hanks is perfect in the role. His strong Alabama accent works perfectly for the character. He nails the blank expression Forrest often has when he’s got no idea what’s going on, or is just patiently waiting. While I’m sure some of the actors who turned it down would have worked out fine, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Forrest at this point.
Field is great as Forrest’s mother because she strikes a great balance between always being kind and gentle towards her son, and stand-offish whenever someone talks about Forrest’s low intelligence or tries to put him into a special class. Whenever a family member or friend passes away, you feel Forrest’s pain.
Wright does a brilliant job as Jenny, showing a wide range of emotions. As a victim of child sexual abuse, she spends most of her life on a self-destructive path, from heavy drug use during the hippie movement, to sex work, and a long history of abusive boyfriends and bad decisions. She’s convincing with her looks of regret, warm greetings whenever she and Forrest bump into each other (the only truly positive relationship in her life), and her newfound wisdom towards the end of the movie.
Sinise also works very well as Lieutenant Dan. At first he’s a dedicated leader of a platoon, and seems like a perfectly competent leader. After losing his legs, his portrayal of a war vet with severe depression and PTSD feels real. When he regains the will to live, thanks to the successful shrimping business he helps Forrest create, it’s such a moment of relief for both his character and the audience.
That’s another aspect that makes this work so well as a drama. Not only does Forrest have a positive effect on the lives of everyone who gets to know him, but every cast member involved makes both their darkest moments and their recovery convincing. It’s true to life as well. As strange as it might sound, most parents who take care of their mentally challenged kids end up being happier than average. There are plenty of studies and articles talking about this phenomenon that are worth reading in your spare time, and it’s something I’ve personally witnessed.
Forrest Gump works as a comedy just as well as a drama, for similar reasons. Forrest spends the entire movie being completely oblivious to how serious everything around him is. He doesn’t suffer PTSD from the war, despite being in a fight where most of his platoon died, because he didn’t fully understand the chaos. Even when he’s shot, he thinks something “bit me in the buttocks”. He doesn’t understand the politics behind the hippie, anti-war movement of the 60s, the investigation into Watergate, the terrorist nature of the Black Panther movement, or why letting black people into college is so significant. There’s plenty more, but it’s worth saving all of that for their surprises in case you haven’t seen this movie yet.
I also appreciate that by telling this story from the lens of Forrest, this movie remains apolitical. Viewers can still interpret the politics however they like, while acknowledging that for a simple mind, none of this really matters. The people in Forrest’s life matter. There’s a great lesson here. While politics are important, and quite divisive (which is why I don’t like talking about politics on this blog), it’s the people in your life that truly matter. We’re all human beings with our own faults, our own fears, and our own opinions, and it’s very rare for someone to be completely in the wrong with everything. Sometimes it takes stepping back to realize that.
Forrest Gump is an easy recommendation for anyone who hasn’t seen it, and for me personally, it’s a movie that I discovered about 10 years ago. I rewatch it every couple of years. It strikes a great balance between comedy and drama. It also strikes a good balance between seriously exploring the dark side of the 60s and 70s, while also managing to be playful with those years. There has been a bit of a negative critical re-evaluation because some see this movie as too apolitical, but for me personally, that’s a major selling point. Especially considering how lately, politics are being shoved into movies and shows so much that it’s getting in the way of the storytelling.
I still haven’t decided which Tom Hanks movies I’ll be looking at next. For his early career hit, I’m split between Splash and Big – Splash because it’s his true breakout role, while Big is generally better known. As much as I’m planning on looking at The Green Mile, A League of Their Own is also being considered. The thing is, I could also save The Green Mile for a Stephen King month. I have decided on the movie I’m looking at just before Halloween though. I won’t spoil that ahead of time, but I will say it predates Splash.
This is one movie that I’ve seen multiple times growing up but hope to rewatch it soon just to refresh my memory! It’s hard not to talk about Forrest Gump without someone knowing who it is. What a classic.
I first saw it about 10 years ago, but remember my dad telling me about some of its memorable moments well before my first viewing.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Pingback: Tom Hanks month 3 – The Green Mile | healed1337
Pingback: Back to the Future Part II | healed1337