It’s difficult now to even imagine a time, a little more than a decade ago, when Philadelphia was a daring, breakthrough film. In structure and style, this movie is a wholly conventional courtroom drama. In 1993, its frank treatment of homosexuality and AIDS was culturally groundbreaking. That’s probably the true genius stroke of this film, taking an edgy, uncomfortable subject and couching it in a familiar setting.
I have to confess that I didn’t see Philadelphia until this year, largely because at the time the movie was released, my oldest brother had less than a year to live and the subject struck a little too close to home for me. Finally seeing it, a decade removed from the real life events, I could appreciate the movie for what it was without dwelling on the subject matter.
The story of Philadelphia is deceptively simple. Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) was a hotshot lawyer at a prestigious firm, on the fast track to partnership. Then he’s fired. The firm says it was because he bungled a major account. He’s certain it was because they found out he was a gay man with AIDS. He decides to sue, but the only lawyer who he can find to take his case is Joe Miller, a bottom-rung ambulance chaser (Denzel Washington) whose opinion of gay people is about as low as other people’s opinions of bottom-rung ambulance chasers.
The film moves back and forth in time, showing both the progress of the court case and flashbacks of Beckett’s life before he was fired. The law firm was an old-school boys club where the lawyers swapped fag jokes in the steam room at the gym. If there is any weakness to the film, it is that perhaps the attitudes of the law firm’s senior partner (Jason Robards) seemed a little too old school, more in step with 1983 than 1993. Then again, by 1993 I had lived a year with a brother who had AIDS and been mostly exposed to people who attitudes were possibly a little more enlightened on the subject than the general population. So what do I know?
It’s probably no surprise that I have nothing but high praise for Hanks’ performance. He didn’t get that Oscar for perfect penmanship or growing prize begonias. This was the film that cemented his transition from “the guy from Bosom Buddies and Splash” to major league actor. Denzel Washington’s role is less showy by a long shot but equally solid. It’s almost scary how long this guy’s been this good at his craft.
The issues of homosexuality and AIDS have moved quite far from the time this movie was made. In 1993, there was no Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (although I can’t say that was necessarily a bad thing) and if Andrew Beckett’s story had been set just a few years later, the ending of the movie might have seen the character still alive. But even with the shift in cultural attitudes since the time of this movie, it still stands as a powerful story, well told.