June 6, 2011

Queer Review: Philadelphia (1993)

Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Ron Nyswaner
Cast: Tom Hanks, Antonio Banderas, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards

Philadelphia was director Jonathan Demme's penance after he was criticized for the homophobic overtones in his Oscar winning Silence of the Lambs. A story of the AIDS crisis, Philadelphia at least managed to convey the anxieties and fears that came with HIV epidemic, while containing a strong message against homophobia. The only movie that I know that did this better, was the HBO miniseries Angels in America.

When Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) was discovered to have AIDS, he was shortly thereafter fired by his homophobic law firm, even though he had just been promoted to a senior partner. Unfortunately, after being turned down by every other lawyer he had approached, Beckett's only recourse was to hire homophobic attorney Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) in order to file a wrongful termination lawsuit.

The Queering
While Philadelphia is ostensibly about a gay man with HIV/AIDS, the most interesting thematic element is the way homophobia is contrasted with racism. This is underscored, not only by having Beckett being defended by a black lawyer, but during a key scene where Becket is asked repeatedly by a librarian if he would prefer a private study room. During this scene, I could not help but think about that dark part of history when Jimmy Crow dictated that blacks could only swim in public pools on the day before those pools were to be cleaned.

The biggest problem with Philadelphia is the pacing. The opening act is effective in setting up the scenario, but the middle section gets bogged down with too many courtroom scenes, which causes proceedings to drag a bit. That is not to say that there are not many more effective elements, but if the film had trimmed 15-20 minutes, then it would have made for a much better movie experience.

The greatest pleasure comes from watching Denzel Washington's homophobic lawyer gradually turn into someone capable of empathizing with gay people. Tom Hanks is good, as is Antonio Banderas as Beckett's lover, but Washington is the one who has the greatest challenge.

Another thing I appreciated, was how there were no big melodramatic scenes, instead events and themes are developed and explored gradually throughout the movie. Too often courtroom dramas and movies focused on characters dying of terminal illnesses resort to cheap theatrics and over the top melodrama to make their points. Thankfully, Philadelphia avoids all that nonsense and is all the better for it.

Strongly recommended for anyone who can enjoy a solid, well made drama.

The Rating


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