March 2024

Philadelphia (1993)

DIRECTOR: Jonathan Demme


Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, Jason Robards, Joanne Woodward, Mary Steenburgen, Bradley Whitford, Charles Napier, Daniel von Bargen


AIDS (Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome) emerged as a major crisis in the early 80s but was largely ignored into the beginning of the 90s in the United States even though the US had more cases than any other nation. Educational programs were well underway in Europe, but US politicians gave it low priority, and President Ronald Reagan did not mention it in a speech until 1987. By that time there were 51,000 cases in 113 countries. Reagan’s administration resisted congressional efforts and the crusading of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to increase funds for AIDS research and prevention. To many Americans, AIDS was a ‘gay disease’ and was not considered a subject for polite conversation due to its (exaggerated) association with homosexuality. Media treatment focused on the relatively few heterosexuals who had contracted the disease through blood transfusions. This partially changed in 1985, when archetypal Hollywood leading man Rock Hudson announced that he was gay and dying of AIDS. Hudson died in October of that year, leaving $250,000 to an AIDS research foundation, and while the revelation that a popular celebrity was infected prompted more coverage of the shamefully ignored plight of thousands of infected homosexuals, many Americans continued to inaccurately view AIDS as a disease which only pertained to homosexuals, who were largely viewed with indifference or even considered to deserve it. Despite its status as the worst epidemic of modern times, it was the subject of extraordinary ignorance and fear, with infected individuals ostracized and even attacked by others who believed incorrectly that you could contract it through casual contact. The epidemic peaked in 1993, the same year of a second step forward in AIDS awareness, director Jonathan Demme’s (The Silence of the Lambs) flawed but courageous and socially important drama Philadelphia.

The central character of Philadelphia is Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks), a hot-shot young lawyer looked upon by his boss Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) almost as a son. Though we don’t find out immediately—and neither do his colleagues and superiors—Andy is both gay and infected with AIDS. At first he tries to cover the legions appearing on his face with heavy makeup, but as his condition worsens his illness becomes impossible to hide. Eventually he is fired, ostensibly because his quality of work has deteriorated, but Andy suspects—with some justification—that he was terminated out of a combination of homophobia and dread of AIDS. After being turned down by multiple attorneys, he turns to homophobic, conservative acquaintance Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), an ambulance chasing opportunist who despises homosexuals and is terrified of AIDS but decides to take the controversial case for the publicity. Predictably, he gradually comes to view Andy not as a “fag”, or the walking embodiment of a horrendous disease, but as a fellow human being who is worthy of empathy and respect.

Philadelphia is a flawed production which doesn’t quite do its subject justice, but I cannot question that, with its heavy focus on both homosexuality and AIDS, it was a landmark film which in retrospect may have gone about as far as mainstream audiences would have accepted back in 1993. While Andy is the main character, Joe is the representative of everyone in the audience with anti-gay feelings and/or ignorance about AIDS, and hopefully, like him, some of them came to at least spend a few minutes reflecting on their own beliefs.

Alas, Philadelphia starts out strongly and disappointingly dissolves into only a mediocre film with a few striking moments along the way. The opening sequence of events dealing with Andy’s worsening condition and increasingly hopeless attempts to hide it from his bosses are effective and bring home the pain of being an AIDS victim in the ’80s/early ’90s.  For Andy, the pain is two-fold; not only is he dealing with deteriorating health, but also the fear of exposure due to the social stigma. Unfortunately, the filmmakers seem to feel the need to pull back the reins and veer off into a conventional and largely dull courtroom drama to avoid offending the sensitivities of an audience not accustomed to subjects like homosexuality and AIDS being treated so forthrightly. The trial is only sporadically interesting, and there are too many scenes which ring false. Both Denzel Washington and Jason Robards get a homophobic rant early on, both of which ring false and sound obviously scripted, like they’re reciting straight out of some anti-gay pamphlet.  A similar feeling, in the opposite extreme, permeates Andy’s scenes with his family, represented chiefly by his mother (Joanne Woodward), who are unanimously supportive and accepting.  I’m not suggesting such families don’t exist, but their dialogue feels trite and idealized, as scripted as Washington and Robards’ cartoonishly homophobic tirades.  One can also sense the movie getting cold feet about dealing with homosexuality too forthrightly in the way it timidly skirts around Andy’s relationship with his lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas).  They’re apparently long-time partners—Andy contracted AIDS from a fling with another man—but Miguel doesn’t have much screentime and the movie shies away from showing any affection between them or even physical contact (they share one blink-and-you’ll-miss-it chaste peck, filmed from the back of Hanks’ head), with the result that Miguel could almost be Andy’s best friend or caretaker.

The actors do the best they can with their material.  Tom Hanks dropped thirty pounds off an already lanky frame, and the convincing makeup job makes him a painfully believable AIDS sufferer. Considering the largely taboo subjects both homosexuality and AIDS were at the time, it took some guts for Hanks to play both a gay man and an AIDS victim, and that is not diminished by the flaws of the film.  But neither he nor Denzel Washington’s substantial acting abilities can rescue some scenes, like Washington’s obviously scripted homophobic speech, or the overwrought scene in which opera fan Andy feverishly translates a blaring opera.  Their more effective scenes are lower-key ones, like a speech in court where Andy’s passion for the law and initial admiration of Charles leads his ex-boss to feel a twinge of guilt, when Joe realizes—to his horror—that his defense of a gay man has led other people to assume he is gay himself, and in a scene in a library when he sees Andy being discriminated against and guiltily tries to pretend he doesn’t. This is also perhaps Hanks’ most memorable moment, as the librarian asks him if he would be more comfortable in a private room, and Hanks replies, “no, but would it make you more comfortable?”.  This is Philadelphia when it hits the mark, striking a blow for social justice and for treating people—all people—with dignity and respect. If Philadelphia had focused on little moments like this, which have the ring of truth, instead of the generic and sometimes melodramatic courtroom goings-on, it could have been a far stronger film.

No one else gets much to do, or pulls anything noteworthy out of what little they do have.  Jason Robards recites his anti-gay rant like he’s reading it off a cue card.  Joanne Woodward doesn’t have much to do besides generic “supportive mother” material.  Antonio Banderas, who can be a charismatic presence in other films, doesn’t make much of an impression here; I’m not sure whether their thinly-developed relationship is to blame, or lack of chemistry between the actors, but there’s not much sense of connection between the supposed long-term couple of Banderas and Hanks.  As Robards’ lawyer, Mary Steenburgen is a non-entity with even less of a character than Woodward or Banderas.  Small roles include alumni of Demme’s previous feature The Silence of the Lambs, Charles Napier as the judge and Daniel von Bargen as the jury foreman.

While too dragged-out and watered-down, Philadelphia does hit a strong note on occasion. Perhaps the most penetrating moment comes when Andy raises his shirt to reveal lesions covering his chest and stomach (this was not Hanks’ chest, it was the chest of an actual AIDS victim). Approximately fifty AIDS sufferers appeared in small roles throughout the film. By the next year, forty of them were dead. Hanks turned his Oscar acceptance speech into an impassioned call both for gay rights—praising his gay high school drama teacher—and increased AIDS awareness. Philadelphia is an important step in that direction, and homophobia is a social problem that needs to be confronted by films instead of often encouraged by them, but another movie will hopefully come along which will send these messages more effectively. Ultimately, it is overrated and sometimes muddled and tedious, but if it made one more person care about AIDS or question their homophobia, it fulfilled its mission. Philadelphia is not a great movie, but more movies need to display its willingness to express a social conscience, even, and maybe especially, if it is not popular.