Thursday, April 12, 2012
Movie Review: Philadelphia (1993)
A landmark film in the portrayal of homosexuals, AIDS, and homophobia on film, Philadelphia crashes through long-established barriers and puts a human and heroic face to the long-suffering gay community.
With no reputable attorney willing to help him, Beckett turns to ambulance-chasing lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to represent him in a wrongful dismissal case. Initially reluctant and himself suffering from homophobic tendencies, Miller gradually moves past the labels and gets to know Becket's circle of family and friends, including lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas) and mother Sarah (Joanne Woodward). During court testimony, and with Beckett's health failing badly, Wheeler's lawyer (Mary Steenburgen) argues that Beckett was fired for growing incompetence, while Miller presents the dismissal as a pure case of discrimination against Beckett's sexual orientation.
Tom Hanks won a deserved Academy Award for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett. In a surprisingly physical role, Hanks frightfully wastes away from an energetic lawyer into a gaunt, diseased AIDS victim, dangerously thin, with hollow eyes and pasty skin. Washington's Joe Miller represents the era's pervasive man-in-the-street attitude towards gays, at best insecure and more commonly mistrustful and ill-at-ease. Washington injects plenty of soul into the film's main journey, as Miller treads carefully into a previously mysterious world and matures into a champion of anti-discrimination.
Philadelphia's supporting cast is stacked with talent. Antonio Banderas is the passionate lover, Jason Robards the crusty old fox of a lawyer, Mary Steenburgen the icy defence counsel, and Joanne Woodward is marginally underused as Beckett's mother. They collectively make sure that Hanks and Washington have worthy foils and sharp sparring partners in every scene.
Director Jonathan Demme pays equal attention to Beckett's professional legal and personal survival battles, the common thread in both being the struggle for dignity and acceptance. While the overall pace is brisk, late on Demme does get bogged into a few prolonged scenes designed for the sole purpose of inducing tears. These overly melodramatic moments take away from the essential matter-of-factness that successfully drives the film, as well as unnecessarily dragging the running time past the two hour mark.
With his first ever song written for a movie, Bruce Springsteen also picked up an Academy Award, Streets Of Philadelphia an appropriately haunting and melancholy tune. Philadelphia may not be cinematically perfect, but it nevertheless a powerful achievement, and a milestone on the essential road to a more inclusive and more mature society.
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