It took twelve years for a film which addresses the horror story of the AIDS epidemic to get produced. In its day the film was part education, driving home its message with unvarnished emotion, and part entertainment by way of psychological and courtroom drama. To the modern, enlightened viewer, this film is a macabre fictional but oh-so-accurate account of the exquisite physical and mental suffering of an early-AIDS-era victim and the vortex of discrimination and hopelessness he's sucked into. No matter what time period one lives/lived in, the thought of dying a painful, protracted death; broke and isolated (not unlike lepers of yore) is terrifying. Terrifying to a degree that no monster nor villain of a screenwriter's imagination can match.

Director: Jonathan Demme
Executive Producers: Ron Bozman, Gary Goetzman
Screenwriter: Ron Nyswaner
Musical Score: Howard Shore
Cinematographer: Tak Fujimoto

Release Date: December 23, 1993
English; 125 Minutes

Starring:

Tom Hanks as Attorney Andrew Beckett
Denzel Washington as Attorney Joe Miller

Featuring:

Joanne Woodward as Sarah Beckett
Jason Robards as Attorney Charles Wheeler
Antonio Banderas as Miguel Alvarez
Obba Babatunde as Jerome Green
Quentin Crisp as a Guest at Party
Roberta Maxwell as Judge Tate


The Gay Pride movement had begun moving along at a fast pace and acceptance of gays was at an all-time high by the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, all of the progress made since the Stonewall Riots seemed to have been set back by the initial focus on gay men as the propagators of AIDS. The enlightened seemed to have second thoughts. Worse, the "I told you so" mindset of the homophobe was reaffirmed. "Philadelphia" addresses the public's fear of the unknown; of homosexuality; rekindled by a disease spread by the physiology of homosexual sexual practices (and now we know, also spread by numerous means which are not homosexual by nature at all).

The following trial transcript is part of a larger portion taken from the movie by the Law School at the University of Indiana. It demonstrates the core of the plot of the movie:

35) Q. Are you a homosexual?

A. What?

36) Q. Are you a homosexual? Answer the question. Are you a homo? Are you a faggot? You know, a punk, a queen, pillow-biter, fairy, booty-snatcher, rump-roaster? Are you gay?

DEFENSE. Objection! Where did this come from? Suddenly counsel's attacking his own witness? Mr. Collins' sexual orientation has nothing to do with this case!

JUDGE. Please have a seat, Ms. Conine. Would you approach the bench, Mr. Miller? Would you kindly share with me exactly what's going on inside your head? Because at this moment I don't have a clue.

PLAINTIFF. Your Honor, everybody in this courtroom is thinking about sexual orientation, you know, sexual preference, whatever you want to call it. Who does what to whom and how they do it. I mean, they're looking at Andrew Beckett, they're thinking about it. They're looking at Mr. Wheeler, Ms. Conine, even you, your Honor. They're wondering about it. Trust me, I know that they are looking at me and thinking about it. So let's just get it out in the open, let's get it out of the closet. Because this case is not just about AIDS, is it? So let's talk about what this case is really all about, the general public's hatred, our loathing, our fear of homosexuals, and how that climate of hatred and fear translated into the firing of this particular homosexual, my client, Andrew Beckett.

JUDGE. Please have a seat, Mr. Miller. Very good. In this courtroom, Mr. Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation.

PLAINTIFF. With all due respect, your Honor, we don't live in this courtroom, though, do we?

The attorney utilizing this dramatic tactic was, until he met his client, Andrew Beckett, a bona fide homophobe. In fact, despite being black and therefore no doubt having been the subject of racism of some sort or another at some point in his life, attorney Miller (Denzel Washington) was quite narrow-minded about sexual diversity before taking Beckett's case.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) was a promising young lawyer, in fact, a Senior Associate, at a prestigious Philadelphia firm. He'd consistently attracted the attention of the partners in the firm by demonstrating his ability to win difficult cases and produce excellent work product.

Beckett is also gay. He's got a lover with whom he shares a gorgeous apartment, plenty of friends, and is happy with his life. He enjoys opera. Beckett's mother (played brilliantly by Joanne Woodward) is aware of his sexuality and accepting of it. She does her best to hide the devastation she feels  her son's terminal diagnosis. He's failed, however, to have revealed his sexuality nor his health situation to his employers, and with good reason.

Beckett discovers, over time, that there's a culture of discrimination within the firm. This is not unusual in law firms run by a cadre of old-boy network types who're disturbed at anything unusual which disturbs the status quo of their staid, conservative lives. Beckett's horrified to discover he's diagnosed with AIDS, and even more horrified when the ugly lesions resulting from AIDS-related Kaposi's sarcoma appear on his face and body. Little does he know, the very partners in the firm who were once grooming him for a spot as partner are now repulsed, and decide they must rid their pristine world of the pox (literally) that Beckett represents.

An important plot twist occurs when Beckett must produce a very important filing in a high-profile case. He completes his work and goes home. The morning the paperwork is due in court, it's nowhere to be found. This confounds both Beckett and his assistants, who look high and low for it. The papers show up in the nick of time in a very unlikely place.

Shortly after the incident mentioned in the above paragraph, Beckett is fired without fanfare by one of the firm's partners. He's given no severance. He's certain that the disappearance of the papers was an planned act which the firm perpetrated to justify his firing. Although weakened and wasted by his disease, he decides to sue for having been unfairly terminated.

Beckett sets out to find a lawyer who'll take his case. His quest among his former colleagues (as well as fine attorneys whom he'd previously argued against in court) fails, leaving him disillusioned and discouraged. One by one they give weak excuses why they can't take the case. It becomes obvious to the viewer that they're as fearful and confounded by the new, mysterious disease (associated at that time exclusively with male homosexuals) as were his former colleagues. They're also fearful of running afoul of his former employers — some of the most powerful lawyers in the city. For a while, he decides to try the case himself; during one of his research sessions, he meets Joe Miller, a low-level attorney best described as an ambulance chaser.

Miller never thought he'd defend a case like this. However, the plot dictates that Beckett's case be fought so the screenwriter writes a sudden and overwhelming epiphany for actor Washington's character, and the battle royale ensues.
 

A Modern View of "Philadelphia" as a Historical Milestone

This review will not reveal any more of the plot. What is necessary is to revisit the movie with an historical outlook. The New York Times had rather negative things to say about the movie. The reviewer for the Times said that there were unnecessary holes in the plot, that certain characters were not completely fleshed out, and that the courtroom scenes had a "soapbox" feel to them. Well, why the hell not? At the time the movie came out, AIDS was still a disease that was fatal in a relatively short period of time, although some sufferers had survived up to five years after diagnosis. If anything, the movie conservatively described the woeful lot of AIDS sufferers when all that was apparent to the public was the tip of the iceberg. The epidemic, of course, crossed all lines of sexual orientation, race and sex. But hindsight is 20/20. Of course, these days AIDS is being detected early and treated effectively (albeit with extremely expensive drug protocols). Persons who seroconvert and start and maintain a treatment regimen have a reasonable expectation to live indefinitely if they present with no other significant health issues.

But back to the issue of lackluster reviews. If anything, the movie's run-time is a bit on the long side. Much had been cut out for reasons of time; a scene featuring actors Banderas and Hanks in bed was deleted (but is included in the DVD version of the film) perhaps because the focus of the film is AIDS-phobia and not homosexuality. The 1982 film "Making Love" featuring Harry Hamlin and Michael Ontkean already crossed that line.

Mountains of progress have been made with regard to AIDS-related discrimination. However, it doesn't mean that it'll go away completely any time soon. That's why today's youth ought perhaps to see "Philadelphia." Sure, they may find the mores of 1993 antiquated compared to the much more open and accepting climate of today. Additionally, what's really important about the film is that, but for a costume party (which features the late Quentin Crisp, darling of the campy gay set, as one of Beckett's friends), it successfully distances itself from clich├ęd stereotypes of gays and paints a more realistic picture.

One must ready one's self for an experience which will at once anger and sadden. Suffice it to say, despite a token silver lining, the climax and resolution of the movie, combined with the elegant minimalism of Bruce Springsteen's "The Streets of Philadelphia" will leave many viewers weeping openly.

As a work of art, the star-power cast combine with elegant cinematography to create an absorbing, realistic and often dark/bleak mood which at times verges on the surreal without becoming inappropriately so. The sublime musical selections, as well as soundtrack composer Howard Shore's haunting musical cues round out the moving experience.
 

For Survivors of the Early 1980s

This movie also gives an important glimpse of what life was like when AIDS was just emerging as a gay health crisis. Back when friends and co-workers became sick, none of us knew what was happening. All we knew was that to attend a funeral a month was not, for many, an exaggeration, if one's career and/or social life involved interacting with the gay community. Worse, with no awareness of preventative measures, more and more people were becoming infected each day. I recall terrified gay co-workers who, as soon as testing became available, began getting tested nearly every week, damn the expense. They wanted to know if they should continue saving for retirement or spend it on the cruise they always wanted to take.

Why re-visit such a horrible time? Well, perhaps it's good to use it as a benchmark to allow us to a bit of hope by way of the awareness of how far we've come. Those who engaged in risky behaviors and came away without contracting the disease should see the movie (even a second or third time) as a reminder of how, in a way, the hedonism of the 1970s ended. And thank their lucky stars, or God, or whatever.
 

Notes on the Movie Music

This review was triggered by a purchase of a used copy of the soundtrack album, after having lost the first purchase. Artistic star-power was not spared when selecting the music for the film. Seven out of the nine songs were nice when they came out (the Spin Doctors' cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Have You Ever Seen The Rain" is a notable effort). Maria Callas is heard singing a black aria from a relatively obscure opera by Umberto Giordano. The two odes to the City of Brotherly Love are the primary reason I replaced this album in my collection.

Music reviewers rate Neil Young's theme music from this movie as more touching than Bruce Springsteen's Oscar-Winning hit "Streets of Philadelphia." Young's lyrics evoke emotion due to their complexity. Springsteen brilliantly utilizes a minimalist approach with a melody that's funereal but infectious. No guitars, harmonica nor saxophone backup are present. Springsteen utilizes instead a carefully-chosen chord progression performed using a synth sound which evokes a cool-sounding church organ, a vocal chorus which sounds ironically carefree, and a backbeat done on two drums, one of them a snare.

Why one reviewer thought Springsteen wasn't merely addressing the topic of Springsteen's included homelessness, it's hard if one pays attention to the lyrics to see the point. Suffice it to say, Springsteen's sotto voce delivery of the carefully chosen lyrics is haunting and memorable. It's a delight to hear "The Boss" deliver a song which shamelessly displays his soft side.

SOUNDTRACK ALBUM TRACK LISTING:

  1. "Streets of Philadelphia" by Bruce Springsteen (Performed by the Composer)
  2. "Lovetown " Peter Gabriel
  3. "It's in Your Eyes" Pauletta Washington 
  4. "Ibo Lele (Dreams Come True)" RAM 
  5. "Please Send Me Someone to Love" Sade 
  6. "Have You Ever Seen the Rain?" Spin Doctors 
  7. "I Don't Wanna Talk About It" Indigo Girls 
  8. "La Mamma Morta" Maria Callas 
  9. "Philadelphia" by Neil Young (Performed by the Composer) 
  10. "Precedent" by Howard Shore (Soundtrack Orchestra)
     

UPDATE: Comments from readers echo an important impression of the film which the original reviews mentioned. There's a feeling that, although the film was released about five years too late, the producers and director are shouting, "Hooray for me for having the courage to do a controversial project like this!" Research is still pending regarding whether or not members of the cast, crew and production staff were gay and/or were HIV-positive or full-blown AIDS. Stay tuned.

SOURCES:

  • The Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0107818/fullcredits#cast (Accessed 10/11/07)
  • Review/Film: Philadelphia; "Tom Hanks as an AIDS Victim Who Fights the Establishment," by Janet Maslin, The New York Times, December 22, 1993
  • Court Transcripts from the Screenplay: Website of Indiana University Law School: http://www.law.indiana.edu/webinit/tanford/movies/Philadelphia.htm (Accessed 10/11/07)
  • Philadelphia: Music from the Movie Soundtrack (1994) Epic Soundtrax EK-57624
  • Soundtrack Album Additional Information: AllMusic.com: http://wc09.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&token=&sql=10:jjfoxqlgldke (Accessed 10/11/07)