Tom Hanks most certainly deserved the first of his two Oscars for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett, one of the first protagonists to be an AIDS victim on screen in Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film, “Philadelphia.” Its a good film but not a great film.
I recall seeing “Philadelphia” when it was originally released. Seeing it today, my opinion hasn’t changed. I don’t believe the film takes enough risks and the script from Ron Nyswaner is too cookie cutter and simple. Beckett hires Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him when he proceeds to sue the law firm who wrongfully fired him for having AIDS, and most likely being gay as well. The argument hinges on proving that having AIDS is a handicap that never interfered with Andrew’s work performance. Andrew is clearly made out to be the firm’s best of the young attorneys when he’s assigned their biggest client. Nine days later he’s sabotaged, and soon after he’s fired for an attitude problem and carelessness. Eventually, Andrew and Joe assemble, despite Joe’s prejudices against homosexuals.
The trial, Andrew’s struggle of living with AIDS, and Joe’s own inner debate with associating and defending a homosexual, AIDS victim are the three main storylines.
The first storyline is the best. Demme does a masterful job of showing the evolution of the disease. Andrew could be looking at papers on a desk and when he turns his head, a lesion appears on his neck. Makeup artists Carl Fullerton and Alan D’Angerio deservedly were Oscar nominated as Hanks’ appearance seems to change from one scene to another and another. He’s thinner in one moment with very fine ash gray hair. In another scene, he’s got a full head of hair with an energetic way about him. I cried for Andrew’s deterioration. Hanks and Demme carry that aspect very, very well. The actor does great work of changing his voice when he’s fighting a cold with a terrible cough or evoking massive weakness. As the film progresses and Andrew gets sicker, he’s incredibly pale with a droopy eye. The makeup artists tell the story with Hanks’ performance and Demme’s direction.
The 2nd and 3rd storylines don’t offer much of a challenge. The law firm primarily represented by head partner Jason Robards is too easily “evil.” There’s no subtlety here. Robards gets right in the face of the film – “Andrew brought AIDS into our office.” A better script would wait for the bad guys’ momentous third act Freudian Slip. This case was unchallenging really. It was too easy to win. Especially true considering this great and powerful law firm hires Mary Steenburgen as defense counsel. Steenburgen plays her part very mousy and unaggressive though. This case is too lopsided and uneven and I just couldn’t get past that.
Joe’s own reservations are too apparent as well. He’s meant to represent those that simply never understood the mentality of gay love, nor the scientific evidence of the AIDS virus. He rushes to his doctor following an initial meeting with Andrew. Demme does an extreme close up of this doctor to teach the audience the basics of AIDS. This guy is right in your face with his dialogue. I didn’t care for moments like this. Too patronizing.
A side story attempts to show the intimate relationship of Andrew with his boyfriend Miguel (Antonio Banderas). I still feel the same about this part. The script holds back. Hanks and Banderas give each other “bro hugs” and kisses are done on the bottom cheek. Back in’93, filmmakers were not prepared to go all the way with depicting the true nature of homosexuality. I found it insulting. You finally want to make a film that shows AIDS and homosexuals at the forefront but you stop short at the finish line.
Ironically, Joe has a repetitive line “Explain this to me like I’m a 4 year old…” Demme adopts that method throughout the film with major “in your face” close ups to glaringly make the beliefs of what any character values or has to say as obvious as possible. I felt as an audience member that Demme didn’t have to take it this far. I get it. You don’t have to be THAT FORTHRIGHT.
Washington is a great actor as always. He’s likable even if he’s tripped by the fault of misunderstanding. His “TV GUY” ambulance chasing lawyer is comic relief at times within a film of very heavy subject matter.
Demme’s filmmaking does make some wise choices despite some of my issues. The opening credits offers a lot of footage of the city with people carrying on their daily lives while waving to the camera, selling fish at the market, street dancing, etc, all accompanied by Bruce Springsteen’s sweet, yet haunting theme “Streets Of Philadelphia.” I like this opening as it shows what we see on the surface of the people we live with does not necessarily reveal the struggle any one of us might be enduring. This is a moment where the script is not so easy to grasp. There’s a challenge to accepting Demme’s footage blended with Springsteen’s overture.
Jonathan Demme is a good director, who is sadly no longer with us. I appreciate “Philadelphia” for showing the illness but not much else. It’s a film that should be seen. I’d argue most would embrace more of the movie than I did. I just felt the envelope could have been, actually should’ve been, pushed further. It was too careful with its subject matter.
A great observation though was recognizing the many faces that appear in the film from Demme’s other film, “The Silence Of The Lambs.” As well as naming Joe’s baby daughter “Clarice.” I also recognized an identical tracking shot that Demme offers. When Joe goes to visit Andrew in the hospital, it is a shot for shot remake of the tracking movement when Clarice goes to visit Jack Crawford in his office, at the beginning of “Lambs.” This might not be original but I had fun recognizing it nonetheless.