(Check out the list so far)
The Movie: Philadelphia (1993)
One Sentence Plot Summary: At a time when people did not understand AIDS and carried even more homophobia, Jonathan Demme crafted a relatable movie with two of the best modern actors and a Hall of Fame musician.
Why It’s on the List: There won’t be a problematic section because I can address it all hear. The fact it took Hollywood a decade to make even the tamest movie decrying anti-aid hysteria and homophobia reflects poorly on this institution and is more proof of why liberal Hollywood is quite conservative most of the time. Then there’s the fact that in 2020, having two straight men in Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas play gay men would just not as acceptable. This is still an issue dealt with in LGBTQ films and television shows. I also can’t pretend that hearing Denzel Washington use epithets and speak so openly about not liking gays wasn’t incredibly jarring. This is the protagonist of the film!
Taking all that into consideration, this is an incredible piece of filmmaking by an underrated Jonathan Demme. From the opening montage taking us through Philadelphia as Bruce Springsteen’s haunting song guides us to the home videos of Andrew Beckett that end Philadelphia, this is a tremendously well acted and well shot piece of filmmaking. Demme’s use of close-ups were something to behold in Silence of the Lambs, but here he uses them to show the emotions across emotions face. Tom Hanks got all of the acting credit as he won the first of two consecutive Academy Awards for playing Andrew Beckett. He lost weight and did the kind of showy things that wins people Oscars. Although the movie is centered around his case, I have never really thought of him as the main protagonist.
Denzel Washington is probably even more of a flawed protagonist in 2020 and with hindsight than he would have been considered in 1993. He says some awful things. His behavior in the drug store when he is approached by a gay man is abhorrent. That doesn’t take away from the fact that he is the one carrying large portions of this movie. This is an actor’s dream, playing a lawyer who gets to make lots of speeches and grow into someone who becomes more accepting of people with AIDS and those who are gay.
At the end of the day, this is a 101 level movie. If saw this for the first time in 2020 and not in the late 90s as a teenager who had almost no exposure to either AIDS or gay people, my feelings would be really different. The fact this didn’t end up as a cartoon is thanks to Demme and a fantastic supporting cast. In another actor’s hand, Jason Robards as Charles Wheeler could have degenerated into self-parody. There are legitimate criticisms of this film, but sometimes I think these kinds of films can move the needle forward in ways we can’t predict.
MVP: Jonathan Demme is probably a director we don’t give enough credit. After directing Silence of the Lambs and this, he sort of fell into a journeymen’s career, which is interesting to me because these films feel very specific. His camera and having actors stare directly into the camera are not things we see from every director. Watching Barry Jenkins’s recent work has reminded me what Demme tended to do in a lot of his films.
Best Performance: I know Tom Hanks won the Oscar, but Denzel Washington is magnetic playing Joe Miller. He went from playing Malcolm X to this and won Oscars for neither. It’s almost criminal he’s won his two Oscars for playing an exaggerated evil cop and a slave turned soldier. Props to Mary Steenbergen for her line about hating the case while representing the law firm against Andrew Beckett.
Best Quote: “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: forget everything you’ve seen on television and in the movies. There’s not going to be any last minute surprise witnesses, nobody’s going to break down on the stand with a tearful confession, you’re going to be presented with simple facts. Andrew Beckett was fired and you’ll two explanations on why he was fired, ours and theirs it’s up to you to sit through layer upon layer of truth until you determine for yourself which version sounds the most true. There’s certain points I must prove to you: point number one: Andrew Beckett was… is a brilliant lawyer, a great lawyer, point number two: my client afflicted with a disabling disease made the understandable, the personal, and the legal choice to keep the fact of his illness to himself point number three: his employers discovered his illness and ladies and gentlemen the illness I’m referring to is AIDS point number four: they panicked and in their panic they did what most would do which is just get “it” and everybody who has “it” as far as away as possible, the behavior of my client’s employers seem reasonable to you, it does to me, after all AIDS is a deadly incurable disease but no matter how you come to judge Charles Wheeler and his partners in ethical and moral and inhuman terms, the fact of the matter is when they fired Andrew Beckett because he has AIDS they broke the law.” -Joe Miller
Is there a sequel? No.