Philadelphia: The Power of American Justice

Interview with Jonathan Demme

For his first movie after the Oscar-winning, international blockbuster The Silence of the Lambs, director Jonathan Demme chose a daring subject: AIDS. Indeed, the eagerly-awaited Philadelphia is the first major Hollywood studio movie about this lethal disease that has become one of the world's most serious heath problems.

In the new courtroom drama, Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, an ambitious lawyer for a prestigious Philadelphia law firm that is headed by Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards). As the story begins, Andrew seems to be on the fast track to success when Wheeler promotes him to senior partner. All goes well until Andrew, who is inflicted with the AIDS virus, begins to show signs of his illness. When a lesion appears on his forehead, Andrew's homophobic firm fires his, using trumped-up charges of incompetence as a reason. Determined to fight for his rights, Andrew hires Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a less than prestigious black attorney who's basically an “ambulance chaser” to sue the firm.

For Andrew the battle is clear-cut: he's fighting for his professional reputation, for his life–and above all for justice. For Joe, it's also a major struggle, albeit of a different kind: the young lawyer is forced to confront his own fears and prejudices against homosexuals. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner uses Joe's character as a barometer for mainstream American values. At first, Joe is reluctant to represent Andrew, and he's honest enough to admit he doesn't like homosexuals and doesn't approve of their lifestyle. But after an accidental meeting at a public library, where Joe witnesses how unjustly Andrew is treated, he changes his mind.

To their credit, Nyswaner and Demme don't simplify Joe's character or completely humanize him–they don't turn Philadelphia into a male, white-and-black, camaraderie story. Instead, they structure the narrative as a classic courtroom drama, in the vein of A Few Good Men. Like the l992 drama, the star-driven Philadelphia deals with real issues: homophobia, discrimination against homosexuals, and justice–both personal and collective.

In the trial scenes, Philadelphia demonstrates what it means to be a gay lawyer in a straight, conservative firm, where macho lawyers incessantly crack jokes about homosexuals. And the film contains penetrating insights into the suffering people with AIDS must endure as the disease progresses. Andrew's climactic collapse in the courtroom, in front of the jury and his family, is one of the film's emotional peaks. Also impressive is the film's loving portrait of a warm, supportive family that is totally accepting and understanding of Andrew's lifestyle. And it helps that Andrew's mother is played with tremendous grace by Joanne Woodward, an actress known for her support of liberal causes.

Demme and Nyswaner first discussed the story idea for Philadelphia in l989, when they had each learned that someone close to them was suffering from AIDS. “We said,” Nyswaner recalled, “let's have the courage and make an entertaining movie that is sometimes funny about this very scary subject.” But it took years of exchanging information and sending newspaper articles back and forth before a polished screenplay materialized. To work out an authentic, compelling story, the director and writer also traded books and talked to their family members and friends about AIDS.

“Demme brings an incredible need to tell the truth about how human beings think, feel and behave,” says the screenwriter. “His motto is, 'Let's entertain, let's be truthful, and let's be bold.' He's a true humanitarian, so he brings that to every character in the script.” For his part, Demme praises the script as containing “the most awesome array of rich, complicated, likable, maddening, fascinating characters that I've come across in a long time.”

Complexity of character is especially evident in a pivotal scene in which Joe decides to take Andrew's case. Joe's initially refuses to represent Andrew for “personal” reasons. Now, weeks later, he and Andrew are coincidentally doing research in a law library. Andrew is visibly showing the effects of his illness and is trying to fend off an insistent librarian who wants to remove him to a private room where he'll be “more comfortable,” i.e. where he won't be so visible. Though Joe still harbors his own prejudices, he now sees Andrew as a lonely, vulnerable man who is a victim of discrimination, and it fills him with anger and compassion.

For co-producer Edward Saxon, Philadelphia “is a movie much more about social injustice than it is about death and dying. It's also about the struggle of a group of people to achieve the rights that other groups of people already have and take for granted.” Saxon holds that Philadelphia deals with complex moral questions that people have to ask themselves in their daily lives: Do you have a responsibility to tell your employer you're sick Do you have responsibility to tell your friends you're gay If you don't like someone because they're sick or gay, is that your right”

For Oscar-winning director Demme, Philadelphia “doesn't shake a stick at people who are afraid of AIDS. I think it's completely understandable for people to recoil at the idea of AIDS if they haven't known someone, or if they don't have a loved one who is already fighting AIDS.” For him, the message of the film is: “Where ignorance exists, fear exists.” “I was terrified of AIDS and people with AIDS,” he says, “until my friends and loved ones started getting it. Then I had to come to terms with my own fears and fight against my own personal ignorance, created by the lack of information out there.”

Hopefully, the well-intentioned, socially-conscious Philadelphia will perform the same function that the l986 Oscar-winning Platoon did for Vietnam: change public opinion about discrimination against homosexuals and AIDS.