Philadelphia: Demme’s AIDS Movie Starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington

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.

In the lead role, Tom Hanks gives a genuinely touching performance. The noted actor, up until now primarily known for his excellent comedies (Big, Sleepless in Seattle) has some riveting dramatic moments in Philadelphia, highlighted by his address to the jury, in which he explains what motivated him to become a lawyer. “What I love the most about the law,” he says, “is that every now and again–not that often, but occasionally–you get to be part of justice being done. It really is quite a thrill when that happens.” Hanks also excels in the film’s most powerful scene, when late one night, he tries to explain to his lawyer what opera–a Maria Callas’ aria–means to him.

Oscar-winner Denzel Washington, who played the title role in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, shines in Philadelphia in a complex part of a prejudiced man who undergoes dramatic changes in his value system as a direct result of encountering a man with AIDS. Initially separated from his client by a vast social and political disparity, Washington constructs a full-bodied portrait of a rigid man who’s willing to open his eyes to new experiences and new realities.

Tom Hanks sees the story as “one of a man who has been done wrong and wants justice…not reputation, but justice.” The actor feels that “there’s no person who can’t relate to a guy who was robbed and now wants to get back what was taken from him.” He explains: “Andrew discovers that he’s a victim not of AIDS, but of the intolerance that goes along with it.”

Denzel Washington stresses that “when Joe first meets Andrew, he says, ‘Hey, I’m not going to deal with that problem,’ but however one is discriminated against, it’s wrong, and that’s something that Joe comes around to understanding.” “What brings us together is our love for the law,” Washington elaborates, “These are two very good lawyers, and once I start getting into the case with him, I can’t turn back.” Indeed, producer Saxon emphasizes the “Odd Couple” aspect of the picture: “Two very different characters who have the law in common, but otherwise they couldn’t be more dissimilar.”

Hanks and Washington were both anxious to work with director Demme. Says Hanks: “I have been knocked out by Jonathan’s ability to make a movie since Stop Making Sense, Demme’s highly acclaimed documentary about the Talking Heads. I also relished working with Denzel, sparring with him; he’s a very witty guy.” Hanks has been cast with many women, Sally Field in Punchline and Meg Ryan in this year’s smash hit Sleepless in Seattle, but, as he says, “rarely do I get to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe like this with an actor.”

Washington also holds high regard for Hanks. “I already knew what a great actor Tom was, but mostly in comedic terms, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. Now I’m even more impressed with what a good dramatic actor he is. I saw his dedication–how focused and disciplined he was.”

Spanish movie star, Antonio Banderas, who plays Hanks’ lover in the film, sees Philadelphia as an explicitly message movie: “If in 15 years in the future we see that we did nothing to fight AIDS and the discrimination leveled against those suffering from the disease-I mean no movies, paintings, plays–then we will not be able to say that we are artists.”