Philadelphia (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Some will argue that a film, being essentially a means of entertainment, can do little to change a national consciousness. Others, citing the power of the medium, will claim that motion pictures possess this rare and extraordinary ability. These two opposing viewpoints are about to be put to the test with a pair of films that, while different in so many ways, have a number of fundamental similarities. The first is Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. The second is Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. For viewers of the latter movie, the question is not whether they sympathize with Tom Hanks' AIDS-afflicted, gay character, but whether that sympathy opens up a different perspective on the victims of the disease in the real world.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a hotshot law graduate from Penn, has a promising career ahead of him when he discovers that he has AIDS. Choosing not to tell his mentor at the firm, Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards), of either his disease or his sexual orientation, Andrew moves forward with his caseload as a senior associate, intending to fulfill his duties for as long as his handicap permits. But the partners learn of his affliction, and while their dismissal is couched in terms of incompetence, Andrew knows that his AIDS and homosexuality are the root cause. He takes his case to a number of lawyers, including ambulance-chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), none of whom is willing to represent him -- until Miller has a change of heart, recognizing a hint of familiar discrimination in the way Andrew is being treated.

Tom Hanks gives what has rightly been called "the performance of his career", lending humanity and vibrancy to the victim, and portraying him in a manner that eschews maudlin, obvious tactics to garner the audience's sympathy. We feel for Andrew Beckett because he seems to be a genuine human being, not because the script and production have twisted circumstances to manipulate our emotions.

With all of the plaudits garnered by Hanks, the work of Denzel Washington, while less obvious, is as impressive. Washington plays the "everyman", the on-screen representation of those in the audience who harbor homophobic tendencies. He, like many viewers, is forced to examine his bigotry and reassess his feelings about the gay community as he comes to know them as people rather than symbols and caricatures.

Curiously, Jason Robards has both one of the worst-acted and one of the best-acted scenes in the film. Near the beginning, after being served a summons demanding his appearance in court, his character rants that Beckett is the criminal, having "brought AIDS into our offices." The entire speech rings false, like something out of an anti-homosexual pamphlet. On the other hand, Robards redeems himself later in the film when Beckett takes the witness stand -- he speaks no words, but his expression is descriptive enough. Suddenly, winning or losing doesn't seem as important.

As far as the other supporting performers are concerned, Mary Steenburgen is a relative non-entity as the prosecuting attorney, Joanne Woodward is adequate as Beckett's supportive mother (it's nice to finally see a family that stands behind someone with AIDS, as opposed to the usual histrionics), and Antonio Banderas is marginal as Miguel, Beckett's companion (there's never any chemistry between the two supposed lovers).

If there's a scene that will earn Tom Hanks the Academy Award, it's where his character gives an impassioned translation of the aria "La Momma Morta" while his lawyer looks on in stunned silence. Here Andrew expresses his acceptance of death even as he acknowledges his continuing passion for life, and Miller feels fear as he recognizes that his client no longer disgusts him. This scene is Philadelphia's watershed.

The sequences that work best are usually those that happen away from the court: Miller meeting a gay Penn student in a grocery store, Miller at a bar watching himself on TV, Beckett refusing an AZT treatment, and the aforementioned Maria Callas aria. Philadelphia doesn't work well as a courtroom drama -- some of the scenes are necessary to underline certain points, but they go on too long. More character development, especially involving the complex relationship between Beckett and Miller, would have elevated the picture's power.

Symbolism is crucial to the story; the most obvious example is the role of physical space between Beckett and Miller. Before the AIDS revelation, they are shoulder-to-shoulder, two lawyers on opposite sides. Then Beckett drops his bombshell, and Miller moves to the other side of the room. As the film progresses, they grow gradually closer, sitting across a table at a library, then side-by-side in court. Finally, past the moment of Miller's crisis of conscience, he drops all barriers by lifting an oxygen mask to Andrew's face, momentarily touching flesh to flesh.

Even as it stands, with its faults, Philadelphia is still a remarkable expression of honesty and openness. Miller's court statements about this country's fear of homosexuals are frank and to-the-point, and there are other observations with equal merit. The story is timely and powerful, and the performances of Hanks and Washington assure that the characters will not immediately vanish into obscurity. And as long as people remember, there's a chance they can change.

Philadelphia (United States, 1993)

Director: Jonathan Demme
Cast: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Lisa Summerour, Joanne Woodward
Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1993-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes, Profanity, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1