Philadelphia (1993): Demme Directs First Hollywood Film about AIDS, Starring Tom Hanks (in First Oscar Role) and Denzel Washington

Philadelphia is touted as Hollywood’s first major movie about AIDS, an alarming fact, indicative of the cowardice of the film industry in tackling this painful problem for over a decade. If Tri-Star made the movie ten years ago, we wouldn’t have been so critical. But to produce such a safe, mainstream film in l993 doesn’t take much risk or courage.

Philadelphia is the kind of film made for middle America, i.e., people who don’t know much about AIDS and have not known anyone who is inflicted with the lethal disease. Everything about Jonathan Demme’s picture, his first picture after winning the 1991 Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, is politically correct, from the characters’ ethnic identity to its neat resolution.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, a white, ambitious lawyer for a big firm, headed by Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards). Andrew seems to be on the right track, for as the story begins he’s promoted to a senior partner. All goes well, until Andrew is inflicted with the lethal virus and a lesion shows on his forehead. The firm uses a minor case of alleged incompetence to fire Andrew. Determined to fight for justice, he hires Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a black attorney, known as the “TV lawyer” because of his advertising.

Though not much is made of his African-American origins, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner uses Joe’s character as a barometer for mainstream 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 Andrew is mistreated (the librarian suggests that he may be “more comfortable” in another section), he changes his mind.

Please read our review of the French film BPM about Act-Up in Paris of the 1990s.

BPM (120 Beats Per Ninute)–Chronicle of Paris ACT UP (LGBTQ, Gay)

Nyswaner and Demme humanize Joe’s character by making him more compassionate toward the deadly disease, but they don’t turn Philadelphia into a male, white-and-black, camaraderie story, a la The Saint from Port Washington. Instead, they structure the narrative as a classic courtroom drama, not unlike last years’ broad but effective, A Few Good Men.

However, unlike A Few Good Men, which served as an excuse for its stars to trout their skills, Philadelphia deals with real issues: homophobia, discrimination against homosexuals (and people with AIDS), and justice–both personal and collective. But the drama is written in such way so that each scene mounts an issue, or a dilemma, and then resolves it.

The movie’s careful casting should please every Affirmative Action office in the country. Andrew is white, his lover (Antonio Banderas) is Hispanic, and his lawyer is black. The chief litigator for the defense is a woman (Mary Steenburgen, cast against type), and a crucial witness is also a woman, an AIDS victim inflicted during a blood transfusion. The villains, Jason Robards and his greedy Waspish lawyers, are also safe targets by today’s standards. Moreover, Andrew’s family is all sympathy and understanding, from his mother (played with tremendous grace by liberal actress Joanne Woodward) to his siblings and their respective families.

But do we get one scene about Andrew’s domestic life with his lover The film refers to him as Andrew’s life-partner. Do we understand why this relationship has lasted for so long Do we get a feeling of how Andrew’s family has become so accepting and understanding of his “deviant” lifestyle Do we comprehend what it means to be a gay lawyer in a straight, conservative firm, whose macho layers incessantly crack jokes about homosexuals The answer to all of these questions is No.

Philadelphia contains two excessively manipulative scenes that cheapen its overall respectable tone. The first involves the visible suffering and collapse of Andrew in the court, in front of the jury and his family. And the film’s coda is too sentimental–the story ends with the showing of a home video of Andrew as a cute and healthy boy.

A brilliant comedian, Tom Hanks gives a solid, occasionally touching, performance. Hanks has some good moments, as when he explains to the jury what motivated him to become a lawyer. Says Hanks: “What I love the most about the law 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.”

One of the better-written speeches in a movie that is full of such sermons, the writing here nonetheless exemplifies the neatly worked out and unambiguous quality of the entire screenplay–and the film itself.

Hanks is not particularly good in his most emotional scene, when late one night, after a gay party, he tries to explain to his lawyer what opera–a Maria Callas’ aria–means to him. It’s not entirely Hanks’ fault since the scene is poorly staged. Demme shoves the camera too close to the actor’s face and then breaks the monologue’s unity by back-and-forth cutting from Andrew to his lawyer.

Denzel Washington shines in the film, perhaps because his part is more complex, playing a prejudiced man who undergoes dramatic change in his value system as a result of encountering a person with AIDS. Initially separated by a sea of social and political chasm, Washington constructs a full-bodied portrait of a rigid man who’s willing to open his eyes to new experiences and new realities.

Wearing its heart on its sleeves, the well-intentioned Philadelphia may perform the same function that the 1986 Oscar-winning Platoon did for Vietnam: change public opinion about AIDS. I have no problems with the film’s ideology; I just wish it went deeper in exploring homophobia and discrimination.