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Monday, July 21, 2014

My 40 Favorite Films of the 90's - 17 - Philadelphia (1993)

Philadelphia (1993; Tristar Pictures)
Director: Jonathan Demme
Writer: Ron Nyswaner
Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards

I sat and thought carefully about how I would approach this film.  If you already know what Philadelphia is about, I’m sure one could understand how difficult this subject is, both on an emotional and (unfortunately) a political level.  That said…  Here we go:

By the late 80’s the AIDS scare was in full effect, with many people unsure how the disease operates, and despite educational material being out there, most people preferred to be afraid of the victim rather than the disease itself.  Much of this fear was founded in bigotry, as AIDS was originally considered an illness that only affected gay men.  Despite this being utterly untrue, the facts did not alter the stigma.  As we began to understand the disease HIV, and its progression into AIDS, things and attitudes began to change, but even by 1993, there was still a great deal of ignorance about the subject.

Philadelphia is the incredibly challenging and heartfelt story of an attorney named Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a gay man who contracts the dreaded virus.  After his termination from his firm, which was claimed to be due to negligence, he concludes it was because of his own bosses’ ignorance and bigotry.  Beckett asks another attorney named Joe Miller to help him with his case, but is turned down as Miller is himself a homophobe.  Feeling alone and fearful, the young Beckett steadfastly begins to file his own case.  With support from his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) and his family, Beckett struggles with his future.  Ultimately, with guilt and empathy, Miller comes around and offers to represent the man.  This leads to a rough trial both in the courtroom and in the life of a horribly afflicted man.

Philadelphia is an emotional and complex exploration of the time and the fear and unfair prejudice surrounding the AIDS epidemic.  The associations of the characters reflect of a variety of feelings about the subject, discrimination and acceptance and the struggle of a man who becomes the center of a charged political melee.  Hanks won his first of two Academy Awards for his performance in this film, as only the third actor to be nominated for playing a gay character in a Hollywood film.  Philadelphia won other awards including a Golden Globe for best drama as well as a list other international statuettes.  

Philadelphia is a rough sit made even more emotional by its characters.  Tom Hanks gives an incredibly moving performance here.  In particular, during his scenes on the stand, which most likely netted him the Oscar win.  The years leading up to Philadelphia were marked with a few hits and a lot of misses for the now-lauded actor, who was mostly known for comedies.  Philadelphia was not Hanks’ first Oscar nomination as he was nominated for the 1988 classic Big, and he received critical acclaim for his performance in the touching drama Sleepless in Seattle.  However, despite his recognition before the release of Philadelphia, the film marked a turning point in Hanks’ career, where he began focusing on more dramatic performances almost exclusively, with a line of Oscar nominated movies after 1993.

Denzel Washington gives an excellent performance as well, strengthening his already established dramatic resume as an outsider’s point of relatability to the subject.  The ideas of others change as he changes from a bigoted man to one who befriends and begins to care about Beckett and his plight.  Washington was perfect for this role.  He has a strong voice, tremendous screen presence and has always been an excellent dramatic performer.  Here, however, I would argue he gives the best performance of his excellent career.  We see a transformation in Joe Miller through him, and throughout the movie, even when the character’s views are detestable, he has a charm that is instantly gripping, and as he warms to Beckett, we feel their bond growing.  The two actors have an admirable chemistry that works and paints a vivid picture of a man whose heart steadily changes over the course of the story.

These performances, along with just about every other aspect of the film, makes Philadelphia a must-watch classic.  It is one of the most celebrated films of the 90’s for good reason, it is a strong, heart-wrenching story told wonderfully through masterful performances.  Jonathan Demme, who won an Academy Award for his Oscar-sweeping 1992 film The Silence of the Lambs, was a perfect choice for this movie.  He uses an interesting device throughout the film showing us a number of scenes with actors appearing to break the fourth wall.  While this begins as a strange little idea that would likely take one out of the movie, instead, here it puts us in the shoes of the characters and as the film goes on, is used to show us the pain and fear of Andrew Beckett as he steadily deteriorates.  There is a love for these characters that we feel through Deme’s direction, which makes the movie that much more powerful.  When screenwriters and directors really care about the characters they are creating on screen, the viewer can certainly tell.  They feel like real people, and in Philadelphia, it is very, very easy to forget, from time to time, that despite the film being loosely based on a true story, is not real itself.  Philadelphia is easily one of the greatest, and most heartbreaking films ever made.

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