Judge Maurice Cobbs thought about making a joke about "The City of Brotherly Love" but decided that it would be in bad taste.
No one would take on his case…until one man was willing to take on the system.
Once, while browsing the magazine racks at one of a popular chain of bookstores, I came across a big, glossy, double-sided photo book. On one side, there was a picture of Julia Roberts: "The Greatest Actress in America!"—at least, according to the cover copy. On the other side was a picture of Tom Hanks, who was bestowed with the honorific "The Greatest Actor in the World!"
And, you know, he really isn't. Not by a long shot. Somewhere in the top half, maybe.
He's really sort of bland…always has been, since he abandoned movies like Splash and Big to be a Serious Actor. Fortunately, that blandness works to tremendous advantage in Philadelphia, the first mainstream Hollywood movie to address the AIDS epidemic; winner of two Oscars, two golden Globes, and an MTV movie Award; and one of the "favorite comedies" of Rev. Fred Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas.
Facts of the Case
When up-and-coming hotshot lawyer Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan), a closeted homosexual, is suddenly fired from his job with the prestigious firm of Wyant Wheeler, Heleman, Tetlow & Brown, he suspects that their spurious charges of professional incompetence are actually a cover for discrimination. Dying of AIDS, and rejected by a series of lawyers, Beckett finally manages to secure representation from homophobic ambulance-chasing lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington, Man on Fire), who must contend with his own prejudices and fears about the deadly disease as he navigates the controversial case.
Although Philadelphia is often hailed as a groundbreaking film about AIDS, the truth is that it's really not about AIDS and it's not really that groundbreaking. Where the movie To Kill A Mockingbird uses racial discrimination as a vehicle to explore larger issues of humanity, this film uses the AIDS epidemic in the same way. The idea at the core of both these films is the idea of human beings connecting despite their differences, fears, and prejudices. To be sure, Philadelphia does touch on AIDS and discrimination, but those issues and the effects they have are never explored very deeply. No, the strength of Philadelphia lies not in social commentary, but in character-driven drama.
One of the greatest things about this movie is the blandness of Tom Hanks's Andrew Beckett. Although he is gay, you would never know it to look at him. He isn't prone to any stereotypically gay behavior: He doesn't talk with a lisp. He doesn't have a limp wrist. He's not fabulous or outrageous. This averageness emphasizes the injustice that Beckett endures, allowing the viewer to project himself into Beckett's place. He is, quite simply, a man—what's more, he's a man everyone would like to be. He's on the fast track to success. He works hard and is well liked by his coworkers. He has a loving, closely knit family. He's the very picture of success in America—smart, handsome, well dressed, with a good job and a nice apartment. The fact that he is also gay is almost an afterthought. I don't really think that Hanks is a particularly great actor—the less said about the aria scene, the better—but he gives Andrew Beckett an easy sort of everyman charm that he seems to have been trying to recapture (not always successfully) in every role since.
His performance as a man dying of AIDS is good, as far as it goes—it
just doesn't go that far. The change is stark, and somewhat effective, but not
entirely convincing; rather than a man dying specifically of AIDS, he seems to
be actually suffering from that most dreaded of killer maladies: the
Movie-of-the-Week Disease. Likewise, his performance as a gay man is refreshing
because of its lack of
The real performance here is that of Denzel Washington, and the real acting kudos must go to him. It is a great irony that the blankness of Tom Hanks's performance in this movie has so overshadowed Washington's masterful performance as Joe Miller. Even as violently offended as Joe is by Beckett's sexuality, he eventually decides to aid him in his quest for justice. Ultimately, Joe Miller represents both the worst and the best of America. On the one hand, he has lived his life in close-minded condemnation of people he knows nothing about, comfortable in his ignorance and content with his bigotry. On the other hand, he is a man of character and principle, who cannot stand by idly as another American is denied his rights—even an American who lives a lifestyle he cannot understand and doesn't approve of. "These people [gays] make me sick," he tells a colleague in a bar. "But a law's been broken here. You do remember the law, don't you?"
Joe underscores his beliefs in his opening statements to the jury: "The behavior of Andrew Beckett's employers may seem reasonable to you," he says. "It does to me. After all, AIDS is a deadly, incurable disease. But however you come to judge the behavior of Charles Wheeler and his partners in moral, ethical, and human terms, when they fired Andrew Beckett because he had AIDS, they broke the law." At the core of Joe's world view is the idea that the law must rule supreme, that the law transcends popular opinion, commonly accepted ideas of normalcy, and even his own personal feelings. That does not mean, however, that he is suddenly enlightened. He never fully overcomes his feelings about homosexuals, and the thought of being identified as one repulses him, as we see when he is, shall we say, less than gracious in declining a pickup from a young male law student. Is it any wonder that when the normally publicity-hungry Joe leaves the courthouse in Andrew's company, he does so in a hat, trench coat, and dark glasses? But by the end of the movie, Joe is at least comfortable with Andrew, who has by that time ceased to be a dirty queer, ceased to be a diseased freak, ceased to be anything, in Joe's mind, other than a fellow American. See what happens when you get to know someone? You wind up being friends with all sorts of people.
If you ask me, the Oscar for Best Actor went to the wrong actor.
Supporting cast members, with little in the way of screen time, deliver great performances. Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro) is quite good as Hanks's longtime partner, who must now deal with the impending death of the man he loves. Joanne Woodward shines as Beckett's mother, and indeed, all the family members were well cast. Plus, it's always a kick to see Demme regulars like Tracey Walter and Charles Napier.
Philadelphia is such a good film that I wish it were an excellent one; however, the movie breaks down at the place it should have been at its strongest: the courtroom. "Forget everything you've seen on television and in the movies," Miller instructs the jury. If only Jonathan Demme had been so advised! I've seen more compelling courtroom drama on Perry Mason; here, the courtroom action is stale and predictable. Charles Wheeler, played by Jason Robards (Something Wicked This Way Comes), though a powerful presence throughout the rest of the movie, is reduced to little more than a cardboard villain while on the stand, a performance at stark odds with the establishment of the character as "a razor-sharp litigator." It seems like a scene meant to do nothing more than remind us of who we're supposed to be hissing, as if to say, "He's already old, rich, bigoted, and white—let's have him quote the Bible, too!" The rest of the partners in Wyant Wheeler aren't even given that much consideration—they are cigar-puffing stock stereotypes of the Oppressive White Rich Guy (except for Ron Vawter, who is the stock stereotype of the Oppressive White Rich Guy with a Conscience).
Not even the spectators in the courtroom seem very excited as they applaud the verdict. They saw it coming a mile away, too.
The DVD release looks and sound wonderful, and special features are plentiful. The enthusiastic and engaging commentary with Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and the in-depth documentary "People Like Us: The Making of Philadelphia" are definite high points. The music video for Bruce Springsteen's Oscar-winning song "The Streets of Philadelphia" is a nice touch, and the obligatory filmographies, deleted scenes, and trailer gallery are also included, along with expanded footage of the protests and interviews that happen on the courthouse steps. The ridiculously brief theatrical featurette, however, adds nothing of substance and could just as well have been left out.
Far more moving than the film itself is the included Juan Botas and Lucas Platt feature-length documentary, One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave. AIDS victim Juan Botas, at Demme's prompting, purchased a video camera and began recording his experiences and those of other AIDS patients at the "Dolly Madison" room of a Greenwich Village clinic. It's as hard to watch in some places as it is darkly funny in others. These personalities are as distinct as Hanks's Beckett is anonymous; the film is a powerful and fascinating look at people who cope with disease and discrimination, with the shadow of death looming over them.
My favorite special feature turned out to be the last, the complete version of the Macready & Shilts TV spot that we see in the film. Denzel Washington is in fine form here, mimicking (and subtly lampooning) the slick "fast-money" lawyer commercials that you so often see on TV. Washington's deadpan personal injury sales pitch is a welcome bit of comic relief to offset the weighty content on the rest of the disc.
We know for a fact that Jonathan Demme is capable of better than this—his previous film, The Silence of the Lambs, shows this to be true. Philadelphia is really little more than a movie of the week wrapped up in Meaningful Film trappings, like a little boy who's dressing up in daddy's grown-up shoes and hat. As such, it isn't quite the "emotional powerhouse" that the back of the packaging claims it to be—especially when contrasted with really emotional material like One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave. The film might have been more powerful if it more fully examined the suffering of AIDS victims, both in the physical and the social sense, and it might have been more gripping if the courtroom scenes had had more impact. And yet, for all that, it is still a very good movie, largely because of the dynamic Denzel Washington and the wonderful supporting cast, and because Demme never lets the movie become too preachy or self-righteous, opting instead to let the human drama make the movie's points.
One more thing: Is it just me, or is there a very sly joke in releasing an 11th-anniversary edition of a movie called Philadelphia? Very cute, guys. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. Either way, it's pretty neat.
Not guilty. Hmmmm…maybe I'd better consult with my lawyers—the firm of Dewey, Cheatum & Howe.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Jonathan Demme and Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner
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