Review No. 621

The first movie about homophobia and AIDS, and still one of the most poignant.



Tom Hanks Andrew Beckett
Denzel Washington Joe Miller
Director Jonathan Demme
Producer Jonathan Demme – Edward Saxon
Writer Ron Nyswaner
Distributor TriStar Pictures
Wide Release 12 December 1993 (USA)
Studio(s) Clinica Estetico
Language English
Country USA
Running Time 125 minutes
MPAA Rated PG-13
MPAA Reason some graphic language and thematic material


Any movie set in Pennsylvania is special to me in one way or another.  There aren’t many (not compared to the countless movies that do exist), so I find state pride in movies like Groundhog Day, The Sixth Sense, andlast year’s Silver Linings Playbook.  Either that or I’m just glad to know that the state I live in actually exists, now and then.  Regardless, Philadelphiaautomatically has a piece of my heart, just because its title is accurate.  But it’s also special to me in a way it might be special to anyone outside of PA: the emotional level of this courtroom drama isn’t just set to match the emotional level found on the victim’s side of the crime.

Just the beginning of the movie gives away everything else, or it hints at what’s important.  I’ve come to believe director Jonathan Demme is either fond of or horrified by elevators.  His movie in 1991 (The Silence of the Lambs) was nothing if without that one elevator scene.  No, the elevator scene isn’t as gruesome in 1993’s Philadelphia, but there’s two of them–both at key points during the movie.  The first comes eight minutes through, and before even that, there’s a well-made montage around Philadelphia.  It reeks oh so heavily of feel-good attire, but maybe that’s a good foreshadowing element.  The slight inflexions of “feel good” cheese run throughout this grave drama.  That means a) Tom Hanks shouldn’t have had too much trouble signing on, and b) it’s an easier film to watch, for those who may have lost someone to AIDS or HIV.

The very first scene is a pure gimmick.  Denzel Washington appears for less than a minute, just to assure viewers that he is in the movie: he doesn’t appear again for twentysomething minutes.  But Washington is perfect in his role, but I await the day that I witness otherwise.  He portrays the “counselor” in the courtroom, and he struggles with homophobia.  Which is even more a struggle because he is working on a case for a homosexual who has contracted AIDS, played by Tom Hanks.  I still think he’s overrated, and ridiculously so.  He didn’t deserve his Academy Award.  He’s good, and he never once breaks character, but we believe his haunting point of view because of Tak Fujimoto, Craig McKay, Howard Shore, and Jonathan Demme.  (The cinematographer, editor, musician, and director, respectively.)  There’s no doubt that after this comes into play, it’s difficult not to feel anguish at the sight of him in a courtroom.  At first, we notice him.  “That’s Tom Hanks.”  Eventually, that becomes: “That’s Tom Hanks!?”  He’s dying of AIDS, and his state gets worse and worse with each fleeting second.  Yet all any of his former co-workers can think about is themselves.  They fired him because they’re extremely prejudiced, and Hanks has to look at them and try to prove that.  How they can look at him and still be judgmental, I’ll never understand.  If you do…please explain it to me like I’m a six-year-old.

POSTSCRIPT: It doesn’t make the movie any more authentic, but Jonathan Demme went as far with Philadelphia, as to cast 53 extras who were HIV-positive.  43 of them, tragically, died within a year of the film’s release.  Nothing seems to have been reported since, but in November of 2008, the Philadelphia Inquirer noted that there might be only one of these extras still living: Sue Kehler, who contracted AIDS four years before Philadelphia was released.


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