Tom Hanks has expertly re-invented himself over the years, moving from rom-com star (Big) to war hero (Saving Private Ryan) to character actor (Elvis), and as a writer-director with That Thing You Do! and Larry Crowne. His newest chapter: novelist.
He’s pretty damn good at this, too. In fact, his first novel, The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece, is helpful to anyone trying to understand that species of humanity known as “the star.” Or to master “Star-Speak,” their arcane lexicon.
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At one point in Hanks’ novel, which hits shelves May 9, a director describes his star as “the latest hunk of forbidden fruit who, with patience, can be flattered, cajoled, babysat and made ‘camera ready’ for his leading role.” He adds: “I’m not saying you have to respect the man but you do have to respect the process.”
Hanks himself is a thoughtful, well-read man, not a predictable “hunk.” His novel details the patching together of a superhero epic that originated as a humble comic book.
A major director named Bill Johnson, predictably eccentric, decides that its narrative is perfect grist for a mega-hit, to be titled Knightshade: The Lathe of Firefall.
Hanks’ novel wanders from time to time, becoming steeped in the details of dealmaking and production. On one level it reads like a semi-facetious how-to guide to filmmaking, and a de-coding of the quirks of its principal players.
In Hanks’ introduction, one star is asked whether he candidly hates any of his past pictures, to which he responds, “Movies are too hard to make to warrant hatred.”
We first meet Wren Lane, the beautiful star of Knightshade, as she reads for a Bette Davis-like part, giving her best effort to sell “horse shit lines in a bullshit scene.” She wins the role and finally achieves stardom playing “Sergeant Harder” in an action picture the industry labels “Sergeant Hard-On.”
Wren covets her well-enforced privacy, even flying her own private plane from gig to gig. She’s also rigid in demanding script and co-star approvals.
Her co-star on Knightshade is a spacey young actor named O.K. Bailey who has celebrated his new hit movie by firing his agent. “He has middle-child issues,” warns the director, “and won’t even work with the prop guys in his flame-thrower scenes because “he can’t lose the fake smile on his face.”
The young star talks admiringly about his body of work — two movies. “They are both ground-breakers,” he confides.
Though Wren Lane has cast approval, Bailey infuriates her with his glib comments. “We will come off as Superhero Romeo and Juliets,” he assures her, to which she snaps: “Nonsense. We are not young lovers, we want to destroy each other.”
Hanks is a low-decibel writer, especially in dealing with his cast and long-suffering crew, who are viewed as stolid soldiers determined to cope with egocentric actors and random contingencies.
At one point Johnson, the director, impulsively comments that “our talent may be in need of puppy training” causing Wren, his star, to snap. “Talent – is that what you call us? Actors are like livestock?” A production assistant advises her, “This is how they talk in the inner sanctum.”
Hanks, our guide through all this, has weathered an imposing range of inner sanctums. He also has endured some epic quarrels: Steven Spielberg didn’t want him to shoot any rounds in Private Ryan and Robert Zemeckis wanted him to be meeker in combat in Forrest Gump. Hanks wanted the humanity of his characters, without losing the action.
Hanks also co-wrote and co-produced (with Gary Goetzman) a range of superb documentaries for HBO such as Band of Brothers and The Sixties. Meticulously gracious in his personal style, he can also display a star’s instinct for narcissistic self-protection. When I once wrote a column describing his agent-switching and impatience with his career path, he impatiently scolded: “You fail to understand the process of the craft.” It was my first exposure to Star Speak — before, that is, reading his novel.
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