Original US release date: December 24, 1993
Production budget: $26,000,000
Worldwide gross: $206,678,440
Released at the end of 1993 (just in time for awards season), Philadelphia was director Jonathan Demme’s theatrical follow-up to his acclaimed – and now classic – Best Picture winner The Silence of the Lambs. To this day, this film remains the only one in which legendary leading actors Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington co-star, that alone making it something of a must-see. But this elegantly-constructed courtroom drama offers more than that single curiosity. Functioning as a conversation starter regarding tolerance and basic human decency, Philadelphia was far ahead of its time and is possibly even more relevant now than it was upon its release.
Tom Hanks plays Andrew Beckett, an attorney at a high-profile corporate law firm who loses his job after an apparent display of incompetence. His claim, however, is that the incident in question was staged and he was in actuality fired because his homophobic employers discovered that he has AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). Beckett hires low-rent injury lawyer Joe Miller (Washington) to sue his former employers for wrongful termination. Miller, himself, is a homophobe but talks himself into the potentially big-money case, in spite of his own personal hang-ups.
Hanks’s role as Beckett landed him his first of two back-to-back Academy Awards for Lead Actor (at the 1994 Academy Awards. The following year, he took home the same award for his role in Forrest Gump.) and it was very much earned. Not only does Hanks deliver a performance the likes of which we simply take for granted from him, these days (he makes it look so easy that even his contemporaries now underrate his abilities. At the very least, he should have scored nominations for Captain Phillips and Sully.), but he went to great lengths to look the part. Hanks lost an extreme amount of weight in order to appear sickly and emaciated for the role (a feat he would repeat to an even greater extreme approximately seven years later for Cast Away), going above and beyond what most would be willing or able to do. His dedication to and passion for his craft is evident in every role he assumes, and this one is at the pinnacle of his performances.
In late-1993, Denzel Washington was riding the momentum of his highly-publicized and -regarded titular role of Malcolm X, which earned him an Academy Award nomination earlier that same year. He does a great job communicating the internal conflict that rages within Miller and the complexity of the character that results from it. We see Miller give money to charity and politely hold doors for strangers, just as we witness him fly off the handle simply because a man assumes he’s homosexual (due to his choice to represent Beckett) and come on to him in a grocery store. Miller would prefer to be considered a jerk than to be mistaken as gay. The attempted reconciliation of his personal beliefs with his desire for professional success (on multiple levels) provides the arc for Miller. Demme and Washington collaborate to handle it with a subtle, satisfying realism.
The threat of the AIDS virus was much more of a hot-button topic in the early-to-mid-nineties than it is, today, with all of the medical advances that have fortunately been discovered to assist those who have contracted it. But the homophobia addressed in the film is as present now as it ever has been, and seems to constantly be popping up as the subject of news stories on televisions, websites, and Facebook feeds everywhere. The film poignantly makes the case for equality and an intelligent person would have trouble seeing it any other way. But, while I know that, statistically speaking, films such as Philadelphia must reach some people and cause them to rethink their outlook, here we sit, just over 23 years after the release of this film, and the treatment of people who are just trying to live their lives while harming no one seems worse than ever. Many are even attempting to mandate their own religious beliefs in order to force homosexuals to conform to the aggressors’ narrow-minded worldview. It’s easy to become frustrated by the lack of forward-thinking progress, but films like this (and their filmmakers) will continue to provide an alternative perspective in the hopes that it makes a difference. Philadelphia was a pioneer in this particular fight and should deign to be remembered.
If I have a criticism, it’s that the musical cues and some of Demme’s framing attempts to artificially heighten the dramatic impact during the first act of the movie. Once the narrative really picks up steam, this practice subsides and eventually vanishes, entirely. But the early scenes would have been effective on their own merits without Demme and composer Howard Shore beating the audience over the head with the drama.
Despite that one misstep, Philadelphia is an important and noteworthy film that’s worth a look both for its filmmaking components and its sociological implications. The novelty of seeing Hanks and Washington share the screen only adds to the appeal and the message behind the narrative – that human is human – is timeless and is well-represented by Demme, Hanks, Washington, and the rest (which includes a charmingly smarmy Mary Steenburgen). It’s a must-see film for any self-professed film-lover and a worthy inclusion in the filmography of a pair of iconic actors.
Follow us on Facebook!