My Favourite Films #2: Philadelphia

This is one of those movies that even on the fourth or fifth viewing still gets me all teared up.

The film is about a successful lawyer, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a gay man in the early 90s who has contracted AIDS, given the times he endeavours to keep this hidden from his bosses, who are pushing him towards great things. However, when an important document pertaining to a major case goes missing he is fired by his bosses, who state they question his abilities.

Convinced that the firing is the result of his illness being discovered, Beckett seeks representation, which he struggles to find, bringing him to the offices of a personal injury lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who he has previously gone head-to-head with. Miller refuses the job and scared rushes to his doctor, who reassures him that the handshake he shared with Beckett will not have infected him.

Along with his ignorance of the condition, Miller expresses homophobic beliefs, but while at the library he witnesses Beckett, who is now representing himself, being asked to leave for a private room and the reaction of the other library users, as a result of his illness. Disgusted by this, Miller approaches Beckett and sits with him, aiding with him and takes the case.

The rest of the film is the intense courtroom drama as Miller tries to fight Beckett’s case, exposing the prejudices of the board members and also being forced to confront his own. As the case progresses a friendship develops between the two men and Miller is increasingly emotionally involved with the case.

When the film came out in 1993 there was still a great deal of misunderstanding around the disease, and it was one of the great social boogeymen. While still slightly behind the curve, as ’93 was still more advanced than the panic of the late 80s, but Hollywood finally tackled the subject and went all out to do so. Jonathan Demme, riding high from his Oscar winning Silence of the Lambs, took the helm and Hanks and Washington were major stars.

Hanks’ powerful, heartbreaking performance as Beckett won him an Oscar, and with good reason. Hanks plays the role with great skill, showing the charm and forceful personality that made him such a successful lawyer and also, the drive and personal character that allows him to face up to his condition.

Powerful and heartbreaking- Hanks as Beckett

There are moments when he brings an alarming level of fragility to the screen, and having lost weight and with the aid of great make up, does look in extremely poor health at times. But at the heart is a fantastic performance, and Hanks brings to the screen a touching portrayal of a man who maintains his dignity and personality in the face of a painful, horrible disease.

But, as good as Hanks is in this flick I’ve always felt that the praise heaped upon him, while deserved detracts from Denzel Washington’s fantastic work, which, for my money, is a performance of equal merit.

Washington has a fantastic role to sink his teeth into here. Miller is a conflicted individual, a man who must confront his own prejudices and ignorance regarding the case. Its an interesting personal problem for the character, and Washington manages to ensure that the character never loses our sympathy, and his development and growth feels natural and unforced. In fact, Miller begins to use his prejudices and attitudes as a useful tool during the case, allowing him to get the jury on side as well as question the witnesses insightfully.

Phenomenally charismatic- Washington as Miller.

Its a brave decision, in having a hero who’s flaws and prejudices are so clear. And for me Miller is the film’s real hero. Here is a man, who even before his developing friendship with Beckett makes him reassess his attitudes, has a strong sense of right and wrong. He is disgusted by the treatment Beckett receives. He may not be entirely comfortable with Beckett’s homosexuality, but confronted by the firm’s unjust treatment of Beckett he feels compelled to intervene and take a stand, despite his own prejudices he still maintains a respect for the man, and a sense of right and justice which means he can not sit idly by.

He’s a phenomenally charismatic actor and here, he uses this to great effect as Miller commands the courtroom, questioning witnesses and making his arguments with passion, wit and intelligence.

Demme directs the movie with great aplomb, and seems to have a gift for contrasting between massive, powerful moments and quiet, delicate moments of intense poignancy. There’s the grandstanding speeches balanced out with small, personal moments between the characters, and nice touches like the fact that the defence lawyer, played by Mary Steenburgen, is clearly affected by the case and also seems mildly disgusted with some of the arguments she has to make in the courtroom.

The supporting cast are all on fine form, including Antonio Banderas as Hanks’ boyfriend, an understated, naturalistic feeling couple which while very chaste (this was ’93, after all, and even when Brokeback Mountain rolled up over a decade later mainstream audiences would still be uncomfortable with screen depictions of homosexual relationships) are rather sweet and believable. There’s the parade of witnesses’ who all do good work showing the different personal beliefs of their characters in short scenes, and Beckett’s family, especially his mother played by Joanne Woodward, who struggles to maintain a stoical and appearance despite the extreme emotional distress the case and her son’s illness place on her.

The film’s ending is heartbreaking, and I remember watching it as part of my course at university, and one of my classmates was in floods of tears. I must admit that as I rewatched it in order to write this post I got all choked up, despite having seen the film numerous times before. This is down to a fantastic closing scene soundtracked by a fantastically sad song by Neil Young, one of several instances in this film where music is used to good effect, including the film’s theme song, “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen, which is an immensely haunting, melancholic piece.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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