On some count it’s easy for me to say that Philadelphia isn’t really Jonathan Demme at the very best of his own ability because it feels like such a drastic change of pace to follow up from the comedies he was known for and the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs. But in the late filmmaker’s memory, I have to admit that there’s another level where I’ve always found myself respecting Philadelphia by a good lot. Being one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to bring attention to AIDS and homophobia and its impact on society, considering how far we’ve come today it’s still interesting to look at how the world’s perspective has changed at least two decades later. Even if this is a lesser entry in the filmography of a director like Jonathan Demme, there’s still a special sort of recognition I believe Philadephia deserves for what it had done back on the day of its release.
Starring Tom Hanks as the homosexual Andrew Beckett, Philadelphia, inspired by another story of one of Demme’s own friends who had suffered from AIDS, revolves around Beckett’s trial after he was fired out of fear other people on his law firm would contract HIV. Denzel Washington stars as his defense attorney, the homophobic personal injury lawyer Joe Miller, who sees something more inside of Beckett’s marginalization to show the world what is wrong with their perception of homosexuality and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This isn’t something fairly new by today’s standards but for what Philadelphia was back in the day being one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to shed a light about the impact of homophobia upon society, I can’t help but feel as if there’s still another level to where I do owe it my respects especially because of where the public perception of homosexuality has gone as being more widely accepted.
The way that Philadelphia has gone on to portray AIDS may have been something for the time in which it came out but quite frankly I can’t say it has aged very well in that regard. Not as if it’s something I wish to hold against the film as a whole, but the public image of homosexuality has gone a long way from how it is being shown to us in Philadelphia. Jonathan Demme did indeed build the film upon how it would commonly be known to the public, but at the same time I can’t say he’s at fault for what’s being presented here. I can’t say that he was at fault because it was still nice to see that for the time, a positive representation of homosexuality was coming onto the screen for a wider audience to embrace as a whole. Of course I’m speaking only for how I see things around me as oneself who is just unsure of his own gender identity, but perhaps how far we’ve come hasn’t been helpful on Philadelphia‘s end.
Nevertheless, in Tom Hanks’s role as Andrew Beckett there was still something that stood out to me because of what more had come out from how he portrayed a homosexual man. We saw that he was suffering at the hands of how the society around him has been treating him because of what’s already being made clear about him; whether it be from the first scene where it is revealed he is fired for hiding his lesions as well as the scene in the library in which he is moved to a private space. What Demme does really well in Philadelphia is capture a massively homophobic environment especially for the time, and he still presents empathy for the experience that such people would be suffering at the hands of people who don’t see homosexuals as humans much like Andrew Beckett. And even if Beckett may not be the best-written homosexual character of the sort by today’s standards, we still see him as a human being because of what Tom Hanks places into the role.
Aside from all of that, I can’t really say that there’s all too much about the issue to talk about with Philadelphia when the courtroom scenes come about because this is where it ends up falling flat at least for myself. The courtroom scenes only turn Philadelphia into a typical courtroom drama rather than something especially mind-blowing which is something that audiences should be exposed to for the time because of what it brings to the public eye. It’s not so much of a big issue, but these scenes still hit me off as fairly weak compared to those that want to expand upon how the environment around Andrew Beckett has been treating him because of his homosexuality. These scenes aren’t particularly bad per se, but it does leave behind a really jarring mix between the thought provoking and the standard, and these scenes don’t really expand upon the issue that Demme is bringing into light.
For the time, I’d only imagine that Philadelphia would be a greater deal than it would be now because of what it shed a light upon back in the day. It hasn’t exactly aged as well as it should, but the fact that we still are sitting through something that empathizes with the homosexual experience inside of a homophobic society, I can’t help but say that I’m glad that it exists. I don’t suppose that we would have come nearly as far as we have with the public image of homosexuality had Jonathan Demme not come in to direct a film like Philadelphia. Promise comes forth when the film starts with a Bruce Springsteen song and ends with a Neil Young song, both of which are just about the city of Philadelphia – but on the count that both have indeed helped in bringing attention to Jonathan Demme’s work during the time, it’s only a happy thought I would say. Philadelphia is worth watching, but mainly for how far we’ve come today in society’s acceptance of homosexuality. Though as a whole, it’s still pretty good.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via TriStar Pictures.
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Screenplay by Ron Nyswaner
Produced by Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon
Starring Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas
Release Year: 1993
Running Time: 126 minutes