Dear Ma Kalaadevi Anand,
There was a soft but distinct collective intake of breath in the audience when Tom Hanks first appeared onscreen in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I could almost sense everyone leaning slightly forward, peering closely at his face, comparing him to the man who occupies a hallowed place in so many of their memories.
I can’t count myself among them, as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood didn’t air where I grew up. I didn’t know who Fred Rogers was until my teens, and even then, it was mostly in the context of pop culture references and parody. I wasn’t sure how interesting I’d find a film about a guy who is spoken of like a saint; What would be the beef in this story when no living soul has anything less than glowing to say about him? But then, I also wasn’t sure I wanted to see a theatre full of childhood memories ‘ruined’ by some kind of takedown of such a beloved figure.
Luckily, the film isn’t really about deconstructing Fred Rogers, and no attempt is made to explore any possible darker side to the man, which isn’t necessary to engage the audience anyway. And, thanks in part to the talents of you and your department, Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers was very well received.
I figured A Beautiful Day… would be a safe, syrupy tale of one journalist’s friendship with Fred Rogers, and for the most part it is; sweet, pleasant, and slightly dull. But it would be unfair to say the film is completely without an edge. No one should expect to see Mister Rogers lose his cool, or drop his warm, cardigan-ed Pennsylvanian Dalai Lama façade for even a minute, but there are a few instances where Hanks does a good job of hinting at moments that may have tried even his inexhaustible patience.
When discussing his sons during an interview, he says, lovingly, of his younger son, something to the effect of, “There were times when he tested me.” I enjoyed that. There was a hint of something in his tone that made me imagine Fred Rogers trying to deal with his asshole teenager with typical calm and warmth but with his inner voice saying, “Well my goodness, I’d like to stomp on your neck right now.” It is impossible to imagine Fred Rogers doing regular guy things like losing his temper with his kids, farting and blaming the dog, or squeezing a pair of boobs (listen, the film avoids ruining everyone’s childhoods, but I made no such promise). Hanks leaves that aura undisturbed, while still hinting at a certain level of internal struggle, which is echoed by other characters like his wife, Joanne, who helps Vogel understand that while Fred’s Mister Nice Guy persona takes constant work, it isn’t an act.
It feels inevitable that Hanks will be on the receiving end of a whole whack of awards season love for his performance. It will be hailed as a “tour de force”, a “revelation”, etc. Here’s the thing – it isn’t all that tour-de-forcey or brilliant, as far as these things go. Not to bash Tom Hanks, but an actor known for his sincerity and warmth portraying a man known for his sincerity and warmth isn’t really a stretch. I have a feeling that when people marvel at his ‘transformation’ it won’t be his performance they’re talking about so much as his physical appearance.
This is where your make-up and prosthetics come in. The uncomfortable truth is it really just takes a fake nose or a set of false teeth to make most of us gasp and bestow golden statuettes upon a performance that is, at best, solid enough. I love Tom Hanks, but in this instance, I think your team’s artistry deserves significant credit for the superlatives flying in his direction. Because no matter how heartwarming the story, nor how good performance, it really all comes down to those opening minutes when Hanks enters Mister Rogers’ living room and starts singing that tinkly earworm of a theme song. At that moment, everyone is just searching for an accurate, faithful imitation – which, thanks to you, is “pretty spot-on” according to my companion, himself once a regular visitor to the Neighborhood.