Film Friday: Jonathan Demme's 'Philadelphia' with Tom Hanks & Denzel Washington

By Daniel S Levine,

By 1993, the world didn't need Hollywood to make a movie about AIDS to make it a reality in the U.S. and around the world. The disease became an epidemic by the end of the 1980s and celebrities like Rock Hudson and Freddie Mercury had already died because of it. However, that year, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner and director Jonathan Demme made it a reality for Hollywood with Philadelphia. The film not only gave the studios the “OK” to talk about it in major productions, but also announced another reality – Tom Hanks can act.

As the first mainstream film to cover AIDS, Philadelphia is structured like a modern day Frank Capra picture, complete with the vilest of villains, an idealistic young hero, his reluctant supporter and his own family to support him. Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a rising young attorney in the largest firm in Philadelphia. Andrew never advertises that he is homosexual, but one of the partners notices a lesion on his forehead just at the moment he secures a big promotion. They then fire him, suddenly calling him incompetent and blame him for screwing up a case.

Andrew decides to file a wrongful termination lawsuit, but can't find any attorney to represent him. Eventually, he finds ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who is homophobic and doesn't want to get anywhere near the case. However, after some soul-searching and talking it over with his wife – and seeing Andrew insulted at the library – he decides to take the system head on.

There are a number of surprising factors throughout Philadelphia that keep it from feeling like a cliched, made-for-TV movie. First off, there's the talent behind the camera. We have Demme, hot off his Oscar sweeping horror masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs, at the helm. His in-your-face style of directing, bringing the characters' emotions to the forefront, perfectly captures the two great performances in this film.

Had Demme not been the director here, Hanks might not have been pushed far enough to give this heartbreaking performance. Demme's visual style also keeps the film interesting. For example, the scene that easily won Hanks the Oscar – in which he describes the beauty of opera to Washington – is really a marvel of directing. Demme also brought Lambs cinematography Tak Fujimoto on board to bring Philadelphia to life on the screen.

Hanks' Oscar might also draw your attention away from what Washington is doing. Washington's Joe Miller is really the only character that has to go through any drastic changes, going from a man who can't stand the sight of Andrew to a friend by his side at the time of his death. Considering Washington had already given his breakthrough Glory performance, his acting probably doesn't come as a surprise. But without it – especially in the final courtroom scenes – the film would be missing its key third wheel.

If there's any flaw in Philadelphia, it's that Nyswaner's script is far too black and white. There's no good in Jason Robard's Charles Wheeler, just as there's no evil in Andrew Beckett. Yes, Beckett does have some flaws that Wheeler's defense attorney (played by the always good Mary Steenbergen) point out, but it's nothing that's going to sway the audience. We know who we're going to root for from the moment the film begins and, in that sense, the Capra connection is pretty clear. This is a Capra picture with modern issues. Joe and Andrew are going to take on homophobia, just like Mr. Smith took on Washington.

It's also hard to think of how Philadelphia would have been without the contrasting “Philadelphia” songs by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. Springsteen sings over the main credits, while Young serenades us through the finale. While Young helps us make the emotional connection with Andrew and his family, Springsteen puts the audience right in the moment. The Philadelphia of Philadelphia is not a pretty world, but the credits help us understand one of Nyswaner and Demme's theses – that this could happen anywhere in the world.

On Home Video: Sadly, for some inexplicable reason, Sony didn't have the faith in Philadelphia to release it on Blu-ray themselves. While you can get the DVD cheaply anywhere, you'll have to shell out some extra bucks to get the Blu-ray from Twilight Time. It does look gorgeous, but still, this is a movie that should be available to more people on Blu-ray. The fact that it's not proves that the hi-def format is already being seen as something for a niche crowd by the studios.

Some might fault Philadelphia for being manipulative and Oscar bait. Well, obviously. If Nayswaner didn't want to make a point, he never would have written it and if Demme didn't want to bring the subject of AIDS to a wider audience, then he wouldn't have filmed the script. Philadelphia is an “issues” picture that would have made Capra and Stanley Kramer proud. And we have the wonderful performances from Washington and Hanks to thank for it staying so fresh two decades later.

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image courtesy of ACE/INFphoto.com



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