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Hanks Does the Right 'Thing'

It is probably a first, and more than likely a last as well: Tom Hanks and the old-time actor to whom he is often compared, James Stewart, have movies in release at the same time. Ironically, when Alfred Hitchcock directed "Vertigo" in the late '50s, Hollywood's content restrictions were such that he couldn't include nudity and foul language, both of which he did use in later movies when restrictions were eased. Hanks (who not only stars in "That Thing You Do!" but wrote and directed it) was free to go the raunchy route - but didn't.

"Thing" is set in the mid-'60s and revolves around four teenage boys who compose a Beach Boys-style rock song, enter a talent contest at a local college, and win. A small-town promoter encourages them to cut a record; a local disc jockey puts it on the radio; other stations pick it up - and eventually it becomes a smash national hit. In the process, the youngsters become teen idols, only to see fame and fortune almost devour them. And yet, in the end, they are not defeated. The joyride has simply ended; it is time to return to the real world.

It is the perfect setting for a movie laden with sex, drugs, obscenities: raunch. And yet, every time the opportunity presents itself, Hanks pulls away. No sex, no drugs, one obscenity (that I heard) for the PG rating: wholesome.

So why did Hanks do this? Maybe commercial considerations had something to do with it. Remember "The Doors," Oliver Stone's 1991 tribute to Jim Morrison and glorification of the counterculture of the late '60s? It wallowed in sex and drugs and bombed at the box office. The same happened with "Backbeat," the 1994 story of the pre-fame Beatles.

But maybe it's just Hanks himself. He has starred in two of the most popular motion pictures of the '90s, "Forrest Gump" and "Apollo 13," and though each contained a smidgen of sexually suggestive material, by modern standards they were remarkably clean. In "Gump," the hedonism of the late '60s is rejected in favor of the innocence projected by the title character; in "Apollo 13" it is the blend of courage, patriotism, and boldness that has the audience cheering at the end.

But the cheerfulness of "That Thing You Do!" also seems to come from Hanks' heart. Asked in a Chicago Sun-Times interview why he added to the already large number of movies about rock performers, he replied that his would be different from the others, where musicians "always die in airplane crashes, [or] they can't handle fame or [they] do too many drugs."

In other words, Hanks is no Oliver Stone, who in movie after movie strives to convert the audience to his bitter, paranoid worldview. Promoting "The Doors," Stone opined, "This film is about excess...in Jim Morrison's case, how you can make excess work for you." Hanks deliberately sets his movie before the advent of the drug culture and thus can ignore the squalor altogether.

Victor Kempner served as production designer for both "Thing" and Stone's "JFK." Kempner recently told Entertainment Weekly that "Tom is the antithesis of Oliver in his outlook." For that alone, Hanks deserves an honorary Oscar.

There's yet another irony in all this. Hanks champions traditional values in his movies, yet in his own politics he's a Democrat who used an Oscar acceptance speech to endorse gay rights. And on some matters, he's flat-out factually wrong. In 1993, he told the New York Times, "I don't feel that anybody is influenced in any way by the fact that a public figure on the show-business level embraces any sort of political cause." Making an incorrect statement even worse, he added, "The images just balance out after a while. For every Warren Beatty, there's a Charlton Heston."

That Hanks is liberal in one area of his life and essentially conservative in another is not as uncommon as you may believe. Ted Turner, who has promoted abortion, trashed Christianity, served as a toady for more than one Communist dictator, and hugged more tress than John Denver, is a political leftist. Yet he shows basically the same devotion to wholesome programming on his entertainment networks as does Pat Robertson on the Family Channel. With his vast MGM library Turner could easily have launched Turner T&A, a network devoted to sleazy programming, and made a financial killing. He didn't, and that speaks volumes.

There's also the reverse. Rupert Murdoch has donated heavily to the Republican Party, owns conservative publications such as the New York Post and the Weekly Standard, and has now launched Fox News, hyping it as the antithesis of the liberal television news media. But his Fox television network is a conduit for smut.

Many ironies, many contradictions. Interesting times.