Philadelphia (1993)

Jonathan Demme directs Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and Jason Robards in this courtroom drama where a homophobe lawyer represents a gay lawyer dying of AIDS when he is unfairly dismissed from a prestigious firm.

I remember when I first learned about the existence of Philadelphia. I was riding home on the E3 bus, reading the free cinema magazine, Flicks, you could pick up in the foyer. I’d probably just been to see The Fugitive or The Specialist. I would have been pretty excited about the new movie from the director of The Silence Of The Lambs. Tom Hanks was a must-see movie star for me (that’s never changed). 13 year-old Bobby Carroll remembers it was going to be a courtroom drama, that Philadelphia the city had something amazing sounding called Cheese Steak sandwiches that were famous… and I cannot remember any mention in the promo piece that the plot centred on a gay character or would be about the AIDS crisis. Because I doubt 13 year-old, straight schoolboy me would have gotten excited about those themes.

Philadelphia is a well made, well intentioned film. I’d say Bruce Springsteen’s excellent theme song has probably outlived any controversy or praise the movie generated back in ‘93. I swing back and forth on how much I like it, how highly I rate it. The flaws are as apparent now as they were then.

Does the gay community see themselves represented in Hanks’ idealised portrayal? Should Hanks’ character, Andy, come from such a position of wealth, privilege and unstinting familial adoration? Would the movie work for straight audiences if he didn’t? Like Sidney Poitier’s black characters in the Sixties, why does this homosexual have to be so perfect, so above reproach for the injustice to take root? Why is his pairing with Antonio Banderas so chaste? What is with the miserable, interminable opera monologue? And why is the character written as so passive once Denzel takes on his case? The closing montage of childhood home movies is a sluice of mawk too far.

Yet we do get a witty, gripping, unpredictable courtroom drama. Denzel gifts us with one his finest performance. The everyman homophobe who slowly shifts his thinking and feelings over the arc of an entire movie. Not enough people acknowledge that Philadelphia is actually as much the story of our growing acceptance and reconfiguration of “the other” in our lives. Demme and Washington pull no punches – the lawyer cleaning his hand after touching a sufferer, his enthusiastic use of hateful language in the privacy of his home, the violent reaction to being hit on by another man. And because we’ve only ever seen Washington as the embodiment of good and righteousness outside of Spike Lee movies… something clicks, something clicked. He’s usually battling this type of ingrained, insidious hatred. Washington really puts in the more sophisticated, challenging acting shift throughout the story. As equally as I love Hanks, that Oscar should be Denzel’s.

Philadelphia might not have been the movie gay audiences needed from Hollywood back then but it kinda is the movie straight people did. It challenges our behaviours and thinking and fears in a big glossy package. Showed us a different way to address a group that had been demonised in the mainstream media and press for the last decade (if not longer). And the ultimate message holds true. People will grow out of their prejudices if they actually interact with the humans they ignorantly fear, outwardly mistrust and unjustly hate. I optimistically believe that, this movie does to. Demme also deserves praise for expertly ramping up the paranoia in certain key moments – a lesion is zoomed in on and then the camera lingers, the alienation of Andy in the surprise boardroom firing, the body horror of the corpulent, corporate men’s locker room. Not a perfect film – a neutered, dated product of its time – yet worth seeking out, re-evaluating and squeezing the good out from.


Perfect Double Bill: Longtime Companion (1990)

I write regular features about live comedy for British Comedy Guide here


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