PHILADELPHIA - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1993

Director: Jonathan Demme

Production: TriStar Pictures; colour, 35mm; sound; running time: 120 minutes. Filmed in Philadelphia, 1993.

Producer: Edward Saxon, Jonathan Demme; screenplay: Ron Nyswaner; photography: Tak Fujimoto; editor: Craig McKay; assistant director: Ron Bozman, Drew Ann Rosenberg; production design: Kristi Zea; art director: Tim Galvin; music: Howard Shore; sound editor: Ron Bochar; sound recording: Chris Newman, Steve Scanlon.

Cast: Tom Hanks ( Andrew Beckett ); Denzel Washington ( Joe Miller ); Jason Robards ( Charles Wheeler ); Mary Steenburgen ( Belinda Conine ); Antonio Banderas ( Miguel Alvarez ); Ron Vawter ( Bob Seidman ); Robert Ridgley ( Walter Kenton ); Charles Napier ( Judge Garnett ); Lisa Summerour ( Lisa Miller ); Joanne Woodward ( Sarah Backett ); Roberta Maxwell ( Judge Tate ); Roger Corman ( Mr. Laird ).

Awards: Oscar for Best Actor (Hanks), 1993.



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* * *

Knowing old heads around Hollywood shook with dismay when Jonathan Demme revealed his plan to follow up the surprisingly successful The Silence of the Lambs with another of the risky ventures he was noted for, a major production featuring homosexuality and AIDS. Films about homosexuality (since a revision in the Production Code in 1969 made the word even mentionable in films), from the camp The Gay Deceivers (1969) to the James Ivory/Ismail Merchant adaptation of E.M. Forster's long suppressed novel Maurice (1986), had never done well at the box office. Films dealing with AIDS, such as Longtime Companion , had played to small audiences on the small art theatre circuit. It can be argued that the cinema is developing a new, more mature audience as Philadelphia was a financial and critical success in a year that saw Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List and Ivory/Merchant's Remains of the Day. Nor did Philadelphia stir up as much controversy as nervous exhibitors had feared from protesting religious fundamentalists and other reactionary lobbies. Probably these pressure groups had given up any hope for an industry that wallowed in decadence and indecency. Surprisingly most objections to the film came from the expanding gay press that thought Demme should have taken a more militant line demanding action to conquer AIDS, the modern plague. Tom Hanks, who won the 1993 Academy Award for best actor for his extraordinarily demanding performance as AIDS victim Andrew Beckett, acknowledged this protest and explained to interviewer David Thomson:

I think it's all very legitimate criticism . . . I'm not surprised at all that . . . anybody who is part of that aspect of the gay community that is, what? Counter-culture or whatever. What they wanted was something that was going to represent their lives. Philadelphia didn't do that. . . . But past that, you have to say, yes, that's true, but look what the movie is for what it is, not what it is not.

The storyline is for the most part straightforward. The mise-enscène is, with one startling exception, as naturalistic as possible, especially in colour. An outstandingly promising and personable young lawyer is entrusted with a top assignment by the most prominent and respected law firm in the city. (Viewers may wonder why Philadelphia, not particularly prominent in the AIDS crisis, was chosen as the setting. The city has a traditional reputation in the United States for producing the sharpest lawyers, trained, like Beckett, at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.) The firm claims that he has been dismissed for inefficiency and failure to live up to his promise; but he claims that he was fired when they discovered he had AIDS, and he sues on the grounds that it is against the law to fire an individual for a disability that does not prevent the fulfillment of his or her duties. No other lawyer, however, is willing to oppose the powerful firm until Beckett breaks through the prejudices of a former adversary, struggling black lawyer Joe Miller, who wins the case. Justice is done in legalistic terms, but everyone loses. Beckett dies shortly after the jury decides in his favour; the old law firm loses a good deal of money and some of its long-cherished reputation; the Beckett family loses a brilliant son; and the future of Joe Miller and of Beckett's Hispanic-American lover do not appear promising despite their immediate financial rewards.

The film is not about AIDS as a social and political problem. It uses the enormous present concern over the epidemic as a means to an end in broaching a far larger, timeless problem. The issue that concerns the filmmakers is based upon a distinction that has been crucially central to the American protest movements—whether this is a nation based upon people or upon law, as Andrew Beckett makes clear when he justifies his suit by explaining, "I love the law, to see justice done."

The film is a very rare example of the oldest form of drama in the European tradition, classical tragedy in a medium that has been almost entirely exploited by melodrama. So far the most substantial and challenging reservations about the film have been directed at the sudden change three-quarters of the way through, from the neutral naturalism of the visual image to an unprecedented surrealistic sequence during an interview between Beckett and Joe Miller, his attorney. Miller has been trying to keep his client's mind on the testimony that he will give the next day; but Beckett becomes evasive and puts on a recording of Maria Callas singing the aria "La Momma Morta" from Umberto Giordano's opera André Chénier. The screen is suffused with a demonic red glow as a smouldering fireplace blazes forth, symbolizing the passionate fire burning in Beckett.

The producers tried to cut this episode, and many reviewers have found it irrelevant and fatuous; but Demme and Hanks fought to retain it, even though its significance has been generally misunderstood. Typical of the bewildered reaction is Alan Stanbrook's comment in The Sunday Telegraph that "many will wince at the embarrassing scene where Hanks tries to explain what opera means to gays." As Hanks stressed in this interview, the film does not attempt to represent some collective psyche of the gay community. The episode is a strictly personal statement, as he moves from routine questions about the litigation into the vision that explains his sometimes inscrutable behaviour, when Beckett speaks for himself as an "adventurous spirit," declaiming histrionically over the soaring music: "I am divine. I am oblivious. I am the god come down from the heavens to earth to make of earth a heaven."

This reference to divinity establishes the link between classic tragedy and the film. Whether intentionally or not, scriptwriter Roy Nyswaner echoes the myth of Philocetes, a great bowman, who is banished during the Trojan War by his fellow Greeks to a deserted island when a snakebite gives him a noxious and incurable wound; but they must bring him back as a seer decrees that Troy can only be taken with his bow and arrows. Philocetes comes to a happier end than Andrew Beckett, but their relationship is highlighted by one of the key lines in the film as the jury playing the role of the classic chorus decides that when the firm gave Beckett the big assignment, they were sending in not a disappointing employee, but their "top gun."

Even more pervasive as a subtext throughout the film is the myth of Icarus, the son of the ingenious Daedulus, who made the men wax wings with which to fly out of the labyrinth where they were imprisoned. Icarus flew too close to the sun and the wax melted, so that he fell to his death in the sea. Andrew Beckett is another "adventurous spirit" who has flown too high and taken too many risks. In the surrealist opera episode, viewers are presented a glimpse beneath the quotidian reality of the legal proceedings into the inner vision of Andrew Beckett, who is motivated by a principle that David Thomson finds at work in some of Hank's other films, that "Fantasy soars above any hope of duty or intelligence." Beckett is brilliant, seeking to end injustice and make a heaven on earth; but he is also oblivious to dangerous risks in his pursuit of the ideal. This complex and still puzzling film shows the possibilities rarely realized so far of using the cinema to update classic myths as they have been used in the past in literature to probe our present condition.

—Warren French

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