'If we do not move forward,' the two-time Oscar winner said, 'what is to be said of us?'
For its ninth annual film benefit (presented by CHANEL), New York City’s Museum of Modern Art hit the jackpot with this year’s honoree, Tom Hanks. Past recipients of the cultural institutions lavish tribute have included Cate Blanchett and Alfonso Cuarón — but exactly one week after the gnarliest presidential election in modern history, it was Hanks’ light, funny, powerful voice that projected a sense of calm and reason into the packed crowd, which included Steven Spielberg, Rupert Murdoch, Stephen Colbert, Emma Watson, and Steve Martin.
Hanks’ overall composure, authority, and general belovedness is part of what caused Michael Moore to recently suggest the two-time Oscar winner as a candidate for president. Moore also proposed Oprah Winfrey, who appeared via a taped video message during the Hanks tribute, compelling one audience member to shout, “Run for president!”
Hanks addressed Moore — and a whole lot more — during his stirring, humorous 10-minute speech. Apart from a portion in the beginning of the remarks, where he referred to a piece of paper to thank the museum’s staff and the event’s co-chairs, Hanks spoke without notes or teleprompter.
And though he never mentioned the name of the President-Elect, his speech gained power with its message about the power of art to help us understand each other and ourselves, finally cresting in the eleventh paragraph with his characteristic optimism: “We are going to be all right,” followed by a quotation from the United States Constitution, courtesy of Schoolhouse Rock.
Here is the full, unedited transcript of Hanks’ speech:
[The Museum of Modern Art] is an extraordinary and world-renowned place — and to have so much as free admission to MoMA is an extraordinary, wonderful thing for myself and all the Hanks family. Because Rita [Wilson] and I now both have cards, which allow us and five other attendees inside. You guys are gonna lose a fortune on this! We’re going to be standing out front, just picking strangers off of Fifth Avenue. “One, two, three, four, you’re all gonna see MoMA for nothin’ today.” So nice going!
I can’t wax philosophically enough about what film means to myself and to any person who ponders the human condition. We are one week into a different era for the world and for our nation. We can always turn to films, from no matter what era they were made in, to reflect who we are and what we believe and the things we hold dear and important to us.
Sometimes it can be silly and fantastical movies. The Wizard of Oz is just as reflective of who we are as when it came out in 1939, as is Gone With the Wind or Goodbye Mr. Chips. As are films throughout the ages, in the 1950s and the 1960s, those great years when John Wayne was exhibiting his True Grit at the same time that Peter Fonda was driving across America in Easy Rider.
That’s who all of us are. Movies capture everything about us, in one way or another. The rise of artists like Melvin Van Peebles and Sidney Poitier goes on and on. We can sample what makes us a nation and what makes us a people by paying a few dollars to go into a movie theater or by paying a few dollars to go into a place like MoMA. We can turn on our televisions right now and see extraordinary films that somehow, whether or not they were made in the last year or in the 1930s, reflect accurately who we are. We see ourselves up on the screen.
Sometimes we’re Barbara Stanwyck in an old Preston Sturges film. Other times we’re Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America. Look, I’m glad, at last, that a few scenes from Bachelor Party have finally gotten their due here at MoMA. Because there’s stuff, even in that goofy film, that somehow captures who we were when we made it back in 1983 or 1982.
They’re not all hits, believe me. I’m stunned and delighted that The Ladykillers is here at the Museum of Natural History. Oh, I’m so sorry, I meant MoMA — I’ll get the initials right. I heard a collective “Huh?” when that title was mentioned. I don’t take it personally, but I just want to say: I had an interesting thing happen once. I was in Paris doing press for a film and a French journalist said, “Mr. Hanks, you’ve made so many films playing the nice guy. Why do you not ever, say, make a film for the Coen Brothers?”
So I said, “I made a film for the Coen Brothers. It was a remake of Alec Guinness’ The Ladykillers. I made a film with the Coen Brothers. They came to me. The Coen Brothers themselves asked me to be in their film. It was my opportunity to be that artist that I always wanted to be and you always wanted me to be. I made a film with the Coen Brothers. And then from then on I’ve always felt like hot s— because I made a film with the Coen Brothers.”
And this journalist said, “Yes, but a good Coen Brothers film.” If Joel and Ethan are here, I apologize, but that is verbatim the conversation I had with a French journalist.
To talk about art, which films are, is hard when your job is to go out and make them and promote them and to take the high road and say, “Oh, I’m at artist, I’m a craftsman.” But we are. People who make movies are craftsmen. There’s no way to fake it. There’s no way to bluff your way through a moment that is going to live forever. You have to be in the moment. When I’m asked, “Mr. Hanks, how do you create these moments in your films,” I say, “You go there.” That’s all you can do. There are no shortcuts. Dear God, I wish there was, but there’s not. You just have to make it so.
I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do this as long as I have. I’m glad that we’ve all been able to experience some degree of bitter compromise that can somehow be examined when we go to work. That fantastic, glorious effort that goes into capturing moments in time that are real and accurate and make audience members think, “That’s like me! I wonder what I would do in the those same circumstances?” As a little kid in the movie theater and as a 60-year-old man now, when I sit down in front of the screen and see it happening before me, I always ponder that question: “What would I do if I was in the circumstances of that man, that woman, that child, that android?”
We are going to be all right. America has been in worse places than we are at right now. In my own lifetime, our streets were in chaos, our generations were fighting each other tooth and nail. Every dinner table ended up being as close to a fistfight as human families are allow. We have been in a place where we have looked at our leaders and wondered, “What the hell are they are thinking of?” We’ve had moments with the administrations and politicians and senators and governors in which we have asked ourselves, “Are they lying to us or do they really believe in this?”
That’s all right. We have this magnificent thing that is in place. It’s a magnificent document and it starts off with these phrases that, if you’re smart enough, you’ve memorized in school or just read enough to that you could put it by heart, or you watched those things on ABC where they taught you a little song in order to sing.
And the song goes, “We the people in order to form a more perfect union established to ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare,” and it goes on and on. That document is going to protect us over and over again whether or not our neighbors preserve, protect, and defend it themselves.
We are going to be all right because we constantly get to tell the world who we. We constantly get to define ourselves as Americans. We do have the greatest country in the world. We move at a slow pace. We have the greatest country in the world because we are always moving towards a more perfect union. That journey never ceases, it never stops.
Sometimes, to quote a Bruce Springsteen song, it’s “one step forward, two steps back,” but we still aggregately move forward. We, who are a week into wondering what the hell just happened, will continue to move forward. We have to choose to do so, but we will move forward because if we do not move forward, what is to be said of us?
I’m lucky enough to have in my possession a piece of modern art. It is a classic and near-priceless object that I didn’t even know I had until I visited MoMA, back in the days when I had to pay to come here. I was up on one of the upper floors with the kids and we looking at all the objects of modern art and there it was, behind glass, guarded by security. We were not allowed to touch it. We could only look at it. But I looked down at a table and I saw something that I already possessed, something that cost me all of $45 in an internet web search. And there this same thing was, not mine but one exactly like it, perhaps just a few serial numbers away.
An Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. I’ve got like five of them. That makes me a bajillionaire.
And what a lesson that is. Everything from these flickering images of film that have been made over time and the paintings and sculptures that are made with the same sort of intent by an artist who can’t fake it. And even the geniuses at the Olivetti typewriter company, the beautiful designers who looked at the form and the function and said, “This is not just a tool. We will turn it into a thing of beauty.” Isn’t that what artists do? We take this concept of uniform and function and turn it into something that is — to us and to the multitudes — a thing of beauty.
Not to be completely, overtly over it, but coming back to the same thing that I would like to strangle Michael Moore about, for offering my name in order to be something other than a CPA, which I’m not qualified to be either. We will take everything that has been handed to us as Americans. And we will turn our nation and we will turn the future and we will turn all the work that we have before us into some brand of a thing of beauty.