- - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Astronauts. War heroes. Men possessed of exceptional dignity and kindness. An overgrown all-American boy. Even a steadfast all-American toy. These are the kinds of signature roles that created Tom Hanks‘ beloved Everyman persona and propelled him to the top of Hollywood’s A-list in the 1990s. Is it any surprise then that Mr. Hanks was named in an Ispos poll as America’s second-most trusted celebrity in 2011?

What might come as a surprise to many is that Mr. Hanks has been more politically engaged than the majority of A-list stars, contributing significantly to liberal causes both monetarily and artistically.

The A-list roster is, of course, rife with outspoken stars. George Clooney, Matt Damon and Sean Penn are as likely to pontificate about pet causes and politics during interviews as they are to promote their latest films. But unlike Mr. Clooney, who readily puts himself on the line by appearing in political films, Mr. Hanks has tended, until fairly recently, to abstain from both conspicuous public advocacy and roles in polarizing message movies.

And the strategy worked for him. Whereas some celebrities have become punch lines or lightning rods for criticism, Mr. Hanks‘ stealth activism long preserved largely intact and untarnished his comforting screen image and unifying public persona.

In the past few years, however, Mr. Hanks has grown incrementally more overt and outspoken about politics, and criticism from the right has mounted commensurately.

In 2009, Mr. Hanks labeled as “un-American” supporters of California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. He later apologized.

The next year, while promoting the World War II mini-series “The Pacific,” which he produced, Mr. Hanks called that theater a “war of racism and terror,” before comparing it with contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The remarks seemed especially surprising coming from the star of a beloved tribute to American military grit and compassion in World War II (“Saving Private Ryan”), the same actor who worked to raise money for a memorial honoring those who served in the conflict.

Most recently, Mr. Hanks drew heavy flak as a producer of “Game Change,” the adaptation of the McCain/Palin campaign section of the nonfiction book of the same title. Mrs. Palin (portrayed by Julianne Moore) is depicted in the HBO film as a buffoonish, borderline psychotic imbecile. The caricature proved to be catnip for liberal reviewers, who relished the trashing of one of conservatism’s most divisive icons, while provoking an angry backlash from Mrs. Palin’s supporters.

Mrs. Palin herself gave the film a thumbs down Tuesday as guest host on NBC’s “Today” show, dismissing it as a “false narrative” not worth watching.

When “Game Change” was put into production, it was assumed by many that Mrs. Palin would be running for president, and had she done so and secured the nomination, the film would have have functioned conveniently as an anti-Palin advertisement mere months before the general election.

Not that Mr. Hanks has shied away from more direct political donations to President Obama. He recently narrated “The Road We’ve Traveled,” a 17-minute ad for the Obama re-election campaign, thus keeping to the road he’s been traveling since 2008, when he contributed $28,500 to the Obama Victory Fund.

John Nolte, editor in chief of the conservative culture website Big Hollywood, thinks the tone of Mr. Hanks‘ recent political activism has harmed his reputation. “He made good flicks, carried himself with dignity, and has every right to advocate for his side. But over the past few years, he’s crossed the line,” Mr. Nolte said, referring to Mr. Hanks‘ remarks on the wars and involvement in “Game Change.” Big Hollywood has recently published a spate of articles critical of Mr. Hanks‘ political activities and a viral video showing him at a school fundraiser interacting with a guest in blackface.

Others see Mr. Hanks‘ activism in a different light. Robin Bronk, CEO of the Creative Coalition, a group that encourages and aids celebrities in political advocacy, argues that celebrities such as Mr. Hanks are fulfilling a civic duty by becoming active for causes they believe in. “I think he’s a great actor who works on great projects, who seems to be very thoughtful in everything he does, and that seems to make a good advocate,” Ms. Bronk said.

Despite tepid box-office grosses for last year’s “Larry Crowne” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” Mr. Hanks‘ bankability is still considerable.

“I don’t think people see him as a particular ideologue,” said Keith Simanton, manging editor of the Internet Movie Database. “If he’s in ‘Toy Story 3,’ his leanings won’t affect people one way or the other,” he said, referring to Mr. Hanks‘ most profitable franchise.

Mr. Nolte, for one, suspects Mr. Hanks‘ image and marketability are beginning to lose some of their previous luster. “Look at his box office. Look at how audiences didn’t even give ‘Larry Crowne’ a chance,” Mr. Nolte said. “This is what can happen when you insult and offend over half the customers. The nice guy image is long gone.”

The potential commercial risks he’s running only elevate the actor’s stature in the eyes of Ms. Bronk. “You have to admire these celebrities who are willing to take a bullet for a cause,” Ms. Bronk said. “And are willing to put their career in some question with some people for a cause.”

Mr. Simanton thinks that in the end, Mr. Hanks‘ primary concern should just be the quality and marketability of his films. “I can think of some instances where people might wrinkle their nose at someone’s activism,” Mr. Simanton said. “But does it prevent them from going to their next film? It can. It depends on how much of an ideologue you are.”

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