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Tom Hanks in ‘Elvis’ Shows How Not to Make a Villain

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/YouTube

Point a funhouse mirror at an ordinary, by-the-numbers rock-and-roll biopic, and the distorted reflection will look an awful lot like Elvis. Everything is more exaggerated and grotesque in Baz Luhrmann’s surprise summer hit, now available to stream on HBO Max — including, and perhaps especially, the supporting performance delivered by the movie’s biggest marquee attraction, Tom Hanks. To play Colonel Tom Parker, the infamously exploitative manager of Elvis Presley, Hanks dons mounds of prosthetic enhancements: a fake nose here, baggy glue-on jowls there, padding that lends him roughly the same bulbous shape as Jim Broadbent in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Factor in a labored Dutch accent, and his turn flirts with outright parody of the makeup-abetted celebrity impressions that so often go over big on Oscar night.

Written with a hindsight historical understanding of just how fully the real Parker took advantage of his client, the fictionalized ringleader-parasite version we meet in Elvis comes across as the most flatly detestable character on Hanks’s entire résumé. Which is to say, the actor who played Forrest Gump, Sheriff Woody, and Walt Disney has never gone this unambiguously, irredeemably bad before. Unfortunately, the two-time Oscar winner has also never delivered such a broad, silly performance — a ghoulish Saturday Night Live caricature of showbiz vampirism. How did this bold casting coup go so wrong? How did Elvis botch such a theoretically juicy pairing of movie star and scenery-chewing role?

It’s tempting to call it a case of simple miscasting against type — of Luhrmann taking a big swing and a miss by trying to pass off our most upstanding of movie stars as a notorious bloodsucker. After all, Hanks’s CV reads in general like a “nice” list compiled by Santa Claus (another iconic do-gooder, incidentally, whom Hanks has portrayed). It was probably in the ’90s, after Gump landed him a second Academy Award, that the star’s reputation as a (nay: the) virtuous Everyman began to crystallize. Years later, he has reached the point in his life and body of work where his very presence confers the impression of paternal decency and trustworthiness. Not for nothing is he sometimes referred to as America’s dad.

Of course, not every character in Hanks’s repertoire is an incorruptible Boy Scout. He has played some imperfect souls and morally shady customers: a clueless yuppie, a vengeful hitman, a slick congressman, a slightly sinister tech mogul, a brutish gangster turned best-selling author, and — in his directorial debut — a music manager not so different in his bottom-line calculus from the scheming, real-life gargoyle he plays in Elvis. Even the plastic cowboy Woody, one of the most beloved figures in all of animation,…

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