I have spent days, possibly years, of my life watching Tom Cruise movies. I know him better than I know members of my own family. Yesterday was Tom Hanks Day and as I became reacquainted with the man’s work, a nagging thought kept entering my mind. What if this was Tom Cruise?
Where does that leave the other Tom? Not out in the cold but just… on another path. Consider this: in the 80s, both actors were known for their boyish charm and charisma. Hanks embodied a more wholesome, boy-next-door vibe while Cruise channeled a roguish, devil-may-care attitude, but they were drawn to similar projects. If Hanks makes Risky Business and Cruise makes Bachelor Party, how does it affect the rest of their careers?
In 1988, Hanks easily replaces Cruise in Rain Man. It’s a cakewalk for him to play the annoyed, put-upon younger brother of a man with a developmental disability and he still secures his first Academy Award nomination. Tom Cruise stars in Big, his first serious role. He certainly has the ability to be earnest and vulernable. Ultimately, I think he surprises us and triumphs here as well.
Fast forward to 1992. It’s “There’s no crying in baseball!” versus “I want the truth!” There are no losers here. Both men are great yellers. Cruise’s Jimmy Dugan is slightly more attractive and Hanks’ Lt. Daniel Kaffee is slightly more bumbling but both films are well received and acclaimed. Moving on!
In the mid-to-late 90s, Tom Hanks wins an Academy Award for shouting “Show me the money!” Tom Cruise gets a Best Actor nom for playing Jim Lovell (no shouting but he does put some extra mustard on “Houston, we have a problem”) and loses to Nicholas Cage. Cruise shines in Saving Private Ryan and Hanks disappears in Magnolia. Both are considered career best performances. Cruise goes on to charm audiences opposite Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail and Hanks makes Vanilla Sky with frequent collaborator Cameron Crowe.
Next up, Cruise launches an action franchise as the symbologist Robert Langdon and Hanks stars in yet another Spielberg movie, War of the Worlds. Hanks carries himself well as the deadbeat dad trying to save his kids while Cruise gets to do some serious stunt work as he solves ancient puzzles in Europe. In 2007, Hanks finally stars opposite Meryl Streep in Lions for Lambs playing a shady senator (I can’t remember anything about this movie but it feels right for him) and Cruise plays a congressman in Charlie Wilson’s War.
In 2013, Captain Phillips comes out, yet another Tom Cruise action vehicle. The next year we see Edge of Tomorrow, starring Hanks as a military suit with no combat experience who gets thrust into a ruthless battle against an mysterious, alien enemy. Tom Hanks gets his crack at a riddle-solving treasure hunter in 2017’s The Mummy (in this timeline it will be appreciated for its genius) and Cruise switches back to serious mode with The Circle and The Post.
I think the biggest lost to society will be the Mission: Impossible franchise. I think Hanks makes the first one but without Cruise’s drive for stunts, there isn’t much need to continue. However, Cruise turns a lot of would be dry dramas into fast-paced thrill rides. In Cast Away, he gets off the island almost immediately and then seeks revenge on the men who put him there. Imagine Road to Perdition, imagine Bridge of Spies, but with, you know, action. Also imagine Tom Hanks singing “Pour Some Sugar on Me” in Rock of Ages and you too will be wondering about the roads not taken.