Philadelphia (1993)

Director: Jonathan Demme

Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas

Just as the Black Death had back in the Middle Ages, the AIDS virus sprang up in the 1980’s like some kind of bogeyman. At first, no one knew what it was or how one contracted it. Then, before other methods of transmission presented themselves, it appeared to be something one caught through contact with a homosexual. Some religious groups even went to the extreme of calling it a “cure for homosexuality,” in that the world would be purged of those who prefer same-sex relationships. The truth was that it could hit anyone, and not just through sexual contact. One could also be infected through a blood transfusion, or even from mother to child during the birthing process. However you want to paint the picture, the entire population of the United States as a whole had been brought to its knees in fear. As a result, countless men and women over the years have been unfairly and unjustly treated through no fault of their own. “Philadelphia” is their story.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a Philadelphia lawyer… an “excellent” one, as he will tell you. He is so well-thought of by his higher-ups that he’s on the verge of making partner, and is presented with the most important case his law firm has ever taken. As the deadline is approaching, an important document goes missing, baffling Andrew completely. At the last minute, it is miraculously found filed away in archives, where it should not be. The case goes well for the firm, but Andrew is soon after fired. That might be the end of the story, but there are two things about Andrew that give one cause to doubt the reason for his termination. Firstly, Andrew is a homosexual and, secondly, he is afflicted with the AIDS virus. Yes, Andrew has kept these facts from his superiors, but not without good reason: the abundance of anti-gay, water cooler humor in the office made his decision easy.

Andrew seeks the legal counsel of Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), with whom he had worked on a case once before, but whom has completely forgotten about him. But there is a larger barrier than selective memory at play, because Joe Miller is as bigoted about homosexuality as the men Andrew intends to file suit against. In fact, he is initially so ignorant about the AIDS virus that he is concerned about sitting too close to Andrew. The camera echoes this, serving as Joe’s eyes in a POV shot that shows Joe nervously staring at the lesions on Andrew’s face, and looking at Andrew’s hat as he places it on the desk. The irony of his behavior should not be lost on the audience. Joe is African-American, and as such has doubtless faced similar prejudice at one point or another in his life. He thoughtlessly uses the derogatory term “faggot” to demean homosexuals, signifying that he has not considered or does not care that this word is just as hurtful as the word “nigger” can be when directed towards those of his race/skin color. His excuse is that he was “brought up that way,” which is no excuse at all. Even as his prejudice endures, Joe does finally agree to take Andrew’s case.

At the trial, the defense is led by a rather despicable (or otherwise good at her job) attorney, played by one of my absolute favorite actresses (heavy sarcasm!), Mary Steenburgen. When she showed up in “Back to the Future Part III,” I saw Mary Steenburgen as little more than the Yoko Ono of that trilogy. Here, she was Marcia Cross before the real Marcia Cross came into the spotlight (as a result of the O.J. Simpson trial, two years later). Annoying voice, and not a particularly likeable character, even if the defense attorney is simply “doing her job.” I’m bringing up my overall dislike of Mary Steenburgen because, in a way, I’ve developed my own form of prejudice against her acting career which I haven’t been able to shake for more than two decades.

“Philadelphia” remained one of the few Tom Hanks films which I either had not seen at all or (in this case) had only ever seen bits and pieces of until now. I very much regret that it has taken this long as it’s a very beautiful, very sad, and very important movie. Something odd happened along the way as I watched it. Although I’m in the middle of reviewing selected works in the career of Tom Hanks, and although this movie won him the first of his two Best Actor awards, I discovered to my surprise that this isn’t really Tom Hanks’ film. Yes, he goes through a great physical transformation, which the Academy loves, and plays a gay character whose law suit is the major plotline of the movie, but “Philadelphia” isn’t actually Andrew Beckett’s story. His fate has been pre-determined by the debilitating disease he suffers from. The character growth and personal journey are for Denzel Washington’s Joe Miller.

There were two scenes in “Philadelphia” which stood out to me as being the most beautiful. The first was the opening shots of the streets of Philadelphia (set to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar-winning song, appropriately titled “Streets of Philadelphia”). Here we see people going about their daily lives, children playing, etc. It reveals Philadelphia as a town like any other town in America, which is exactly as it should appear. We should look no different regardless of our daily income, the color of our skin, the religion we follow/don’t follow or the company we keep. Each of us is equally human; some through their hatred and fear just don’t act like it. The second scene was the one in Andrew’s apartment when Joe is trying to walk him through the Q&A’s for his upcoming testimony. This, for me, is the one that won Hanks his Oscar. Although at first Andrew appears to be either distracted or attempting to brush Joe off, what he’s really doing is trying to “explain it to me like I’m a four-year old.” Andrew plays his favorite opera for Joe, translating the lyrics in a very emotional way. You can see that Joe is not only deeply affected, but that he also understands Andrew for the very first time. To use the word “beautiful” is actually understating the power of this scene.

“Philadelphia” is not an AIDS movie, nor is it a “gay” movie. This is a movie about humankind, both the best and the worst of it. There has been positive change in the 20+ years since the movie was first released. While it still exists today, HIV/AIDS is no longer the growing pandemic it once was. The support for the LGBT community is high, and there are some states in the Union which are now freely open to granting same-sex couples the right to wed. However, for all of the advances we have achieved, there is still a terrible amount of bigotry and hatred hiding beneath the cloak of self-righteousness. We only have so much time granted to us in this life. Why spend it fearing what we don’t understand?

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