Retrospective Film Review: Philadelphia

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(Philadelphia, Jonathan Demme, USA, 1993, 125 mins)


Philadelphia is the first Hollywood film to acknowledge the danger and consequences of AIDS, but also the ignorance that many people become susceptible to because they don’t understand this pandemic.  Tom Hanks won the Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and a Silver Bear for Best Actor, and lost weight for the role of Andrew Beckett in the film, conveying a realistic portrayal of those with AIDS.

Rock Hudson, a beloved and accomplished romantic actor of the 50’s and 60’s was one of the first Hollywood actors to die of AIDS, and his diagnosis occurred at the same time as the revelation of AIDS itself. Hudson closeted his sexuality, and it is debatable how this could have affected his roles in his melodramas, particularly the way he acted towards women. Hiding sexuality is a big theme in Philadelphia, and the narrative itself does a very good job of that.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a young attorney in a law firm; his sexuality is never apparent, Demme avoids shots of a sexual nature with Beckett’s boyfriend Miguel (Antonio Banderas), but this can also be due to constrained content regulations of the time. Beckett receives a promotion, but is soon fired due to the loss of some important paperwork, which is not the real excuse, and the audience presume as well as Beckett that he was fired because of his AIDS. The audience are never informed that Beckett has AIDS, we only become aware over time and his physical appearance. Lesions appear on Beckett’s face – the make-up is beyond stunning, and this is the beginning test of the audience’s loyalty to Hanks’ character. Beckett seeks a lawyer to help him in suing the company, however none comply, and he is rejected by Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a homophobe who reacts by backing away from Beckett.

The responses by Washington’s character when he discovers Beckett’s condition angered me personally; he brushes off his suit jacket and consults a doctor about catching it through skin-to-skin contact. Beckett’s boss Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) covers up his dismissal of Beckett as “incompetence”, however in another scene says to fellow employers that Beckett “brought AIDS into our office”. The audience are encouraged to explore the various viewpoints of all the characters in the film, and Beckett’s mother (Joanne Woodward) significantly stood out as a supportive parent of her dying son, which was just heart-warming.

The distance between Beckett and Miller is a factor that emphasises Miller’s development of character; as Miller’s homophobia subsides and he offers to help Beckett we see the two men sitting opposite each other, and eventually side by side in the court room, until the very emotional ending scene as Miller puts Beckett’s oxygen mask on for him. Some audiences may feel the same as Miller, and for some the relationship being portrayed can be uncomfortable, but the camera technique used to make the character talk directly to the audience may make those who are prejudice reassess their attitudes, particularly in a contemporary culture. The script by Ron Nyswaner can be complicated, as it jumps ahead months and then weeks with flashbacks integrated, and at some points the audience might feel they have lost track of how badly Beckett’s condition has decreased.

The court case is extraordinary as two passionate lawyers fight their cases, Miller on Beckett’s side and Belinda Conine (Mary Steenburgen) supporting the law firm. Conine intrudes into Beckett’s privacy, asking uncomfortable questions the audience would not expect and not caring for the reaction the court receive, making the court scenes strained, until Beckett’s condition tragically causes him fall to the floor. Miller’s speech in court on homosexuals, loathing and fear is a triumphant one and he really connects with audience in his determination to fight Beckett’s case until the end, even without his presence.

The opera scene starring Maria Callas’ “La Momma Morta” is a powerful and distressing depiction of the acceptance of death and enjoyment of living in the moment. The scene captures Beckett moving around the room bathed in a red light, explaining the song to an opera-hating Miller, who undergoes his last conversion not only in his opinion of homosexuality, but a conversion of heart overall. The scene is so intense it is arguable that it could be an overkill to the film, but the soundtrack provides an emotional elevation for the audience until the very end, with Neil Young’s beautiful piece “Philadelphia”, in which the lyrics are “Philadelphia, city of brotherly love”, which brought me to tears. The ending is touching, as Beckett’s loved ones say they will “see him tomorrow” and we watch Miller place the oxygen mask on a very vulnerable Beckett. The lack of funeral is a dissimilar way to end the film, but instead it is replaced by a range of home footage material of Beckett as a young boy. On reflection, this illustrates that Andrew Beckett is just another human being, and Philadelphia has successfully addressed one of the most important concerns of our time, Hanks giving a convincing and gifted performance before Forrest Gump (1994), Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Green Mile (1999).

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