Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt The Next Tom Hanks?
Quick, name the top movie star of 2012. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not Brad Pitt, George Clooney or Ryan Gosling. In fact, none of them have appeared in a Hollywood movie in nearly a calendar year. So let’s try it again, and this time with hints. The man of the hour is someone who's been creeping through the woodwork in smaller supporting roles over the last few years. Still nothing? Here it is: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. And if I had to make a bet, I’d say he’s here to stay.
In the last four months alone, he featured in the final saga of arguably the greatest grossing comic book franchise of all time (The Dark Knight Rises), starred in a stone-cold science fiction blockbuster that has knocked the critics’ socks off (Looper), and will soon appear in one of the most anticipated biographical films in recent memory (Steven Spielberg's Lincoln). By the time Oscar season rolls around, Gordon-Levitt could find himself in two Best Picture nominees (TDKR, Lincoln), three blockbusters (the latter two, plus Looper, which is pushing $130 million in box office grosses), and could possibly even gain a Best Actor nod for his dead-on Bruce Willis impression in Looper.
My question is not regarding the origins of his rise, although how he got to where he is is an interesting tale for another time — but rather, where he will go from here? A former child star (Angels in the Outfield), television star (3rd Rock from the Sun) and teenage comedy star (10 Things I Hate About You), JGL is officially on the verge of movie super-stardom, and his career path, bouncing around in comedies and smaller fare straight to a string of hits one after the other, models that of one of the most iconic movie stars of all time. (No guessing this time.)
In 1992, Tom Hanks was a big hit, but not a sure thing. He had a Best Actor nomination for his work in Big and was already a well-known name in Hollywood, having starred in Splash, The Money Pit and Turner & Hooch. But he'd also had a slew of lukewarm pictures and genuine bombs (Joe Versus the Volcano and The Bonfire of the Vanities, to name a couple). But in 1992, Hanks turned things around for good. He nabbed a supporting role in A League of Their Own, and followed it with ten years of nothing but hits: Sleepless in Seattle, Philadelphia, Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Toy Story, That Thing You Do!, Saving Private Ryan, You’ve Got Mail, Toy Story 2, The Green Mile, Cast Away. All of these movies grossed at least $200 million at the box office, aside form That Thing You Do!, a passion project for Hanks in which he also wrote and directed, though it too was received well by critics and audiences. In that span, Hanks nabbed four Best Actor nominations (winning two), appeared in four Best Picture nominees (one win for Forrest Gump) and worked with such talented directors as Jonathan Demme, Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard and Spielberg. Hanks wasn’t just acting well, he was acting well in outstanding movies surrounded by talented people (Gary Sinise, Ed Harris and Michael Clarke Duncan all earned Best Supporting Actor nominations working with Hanks). Hanks went from being on the scene to the very top of the scene, picture by picture, nomination by nomination.
It is quite possible that 2012 (or in retrospect, 2010 beginning with Inception) could be to Joseph Gordon-Levitt what 1992 was to Hanks. And really, JGL shares more young Hanksian qualities than perhaps any other actor out there: he’s likeable, boyish, talented, the ideal everyman. But something about Gordon-Levitt’s 2012 marks an even more distinct and valuable quality about him. Audiences don't just like him the way they do Hanks, they accept him in almost any role. It's hard to picture Hanks playing a true, cold-blooded villain (he was a murderer in Road to Perdition, but ultimately a loving father). But after Looper, JGL could pass in his own right. In three years, he's gone from a lovestruck nice-guy in (500) Days of Summer to a comic book hero and a science fiction action lead, without barely any audience resistance.
For this reason, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career arc seems to be on a Hanks-ian upswing, but he may end up becoming something entirely different or, dare we say, more than Hanks. Whatever the case, I think we’d be foolish not to be watching very closely at the moment. This could very well be the beginning of something historic.
Watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt's The New York Times screen test (2007):
Plus, check out a preview of JGL's latest film Looper, and an interview with the actor and Lincoln director Spielberg, below: