Philadelphia is a story of anomalies in the “normal” world, of canonical attitudes which overshadow humaneness but most importantly, it is a story of a man who takes on the system to fight for his rights. Jonathan Demme skilfully deals with the issues of AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia. He explores the deep-rooted prejudice that surrounds AIDS which often “exacts a social death which precedes the actual physical one” of the victims. Though made in 1993 and released on 27th December of the same year, the movie finds resonating relevance in the present times. Demme strikes gold again after The silence of the Lambs with a stellar cast including Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, Jason Robards, Joanne Woodward, etc, making Philadelphia one of the most sensitive movies of our times.
Hanks plays the hotshot lawyer Andrew Beckett who works with the best in the business. One sees him assiduously working on cases with his razor-sharp wit and his love for the law, which he feels occasionally, gives you a thrilling chance “to be a part of justice being done.” Everything goes well, including a promotion for Beckett until his employers discover that he has AIDS. From then on everything, Andrew’s ability, his passion for his work, becomes secondary to is AIDS status, elevated by him being a homosexual. They then employ mendacious means to frame him incompetent in order to fire him. “He brought AIDS to our office, to our men’s room”, they say.
So when Andrew decides to sue the law firm, two of his ex-employers think that he is looking for a “quick tasty settlement”. Only that he is looking for justice. He approaches Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) after his case has been rejected by nine lawyers, only to be shut out by Miller again. Miller confesses to his wife that he does not like homosexuals. It is only when Miller sees Andrew being discriminated against in the library, something in him undergoes a change and he takes on his case (Perhaps, Miller identifies with Beckett as another victim of discrimination given the colour of his skin) .
The movie then unfolds a series of astute courtroom scenes with Andrew’s deteriorating health. By the time the trial reaches its conclusion, the predictable outcome serves mostly as counterpoint to the movie’s real ending.
Ron Nyswaner writes an extraordinary screenplay with a quotidian touch without implanting over- dramatic reactions. Even Miller’s character is well crafted with his initial hesitation and later determination, spiced up with his jocular inputs. Perhaps the single disappointment in the movie apart from the difficulty of imagining Antonio Banderas as gay , remains the unconditional support of Andrew’s family which seems a little too good to believe.
The movie comes together as a series of stupendous performances. Joanne Woodward delivers a brief but splendid performance as Andrew’s mother (Sarah Beckett), so does Mary Steenburgen as the prim and sardonic defence attorney. Denzel Washington plays Joe Miller with natural ease with his trademark dialogue being, “explain this to me like I’m a six year old.” It is amazing to Miller rising above his professional rivalries to fight Andrew, epitomising the spirit of brotherhood even at the risk of himself being mistaken as gay. It becomes hard for the people to accept a straight man representing a homosexual. Miller says to a reporter, “As far as I remember our declaration of independence that said all men are equal, it didn’t say all straight men are equal.”
But it is Tom Hanks who takes the cake with his tear- jerking portrayal of a homosexual AIDS patient, a man who loves life, who keeps his indefatigable spirit alive even when death seems inevitable. He holds you captive to both his agony and his appeal. The heartbreaking expression in Hanks’ eyes on being refused by Miller lucidly conveys the battle between his will and his body. The scene where Hanks listens to his favourite opera singer serves as one of the most powerful scenes of the movie beautifully captured by cameraman Tony Jannelli. One cannot help feeling for his character, his pain is almost palpable. Hanks, who lost 26 pounds deservedly, won an Oscar for this role.
Carl Fullerton’s make-up needs a special mention which makes Hanks’ transition from vibrant lawyer to a visibly suffering AIDS patient unforgettable. Bruce Springsteen’s soundtrack “Streets of Philadelphia” is mournfully beautiful and offers a resounding sense of vitality and communal obligation.
Perhaps, the most wonderful aspect of storytelling is that while telling a tale of a few characters you may inspire innumerable lives. The movie thus, leaves a lasting impact and not only arouses compassion for people like Andrew but also celebrates the power of human spirit, its power to fight for justice and its power to grant that justice. Andrew once remarks in the film, “every problem has a solution” While one cannot say that the film provides exact solutions to the problems faced by the AIDS patients and homosexuals but it does give them hope and may be that, is the beginning of a solution.