Director: Jonathan Demme
Stars: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Roberta Maxwell
Plot: After a man is fired from his job because he has AIDS, he aims to sue his former employers for wrongful dismissal with help from a homophobic lawyer.
How do you prove to cinema audiences and film critics alike that you belong among the Hollywood A-list? Starring in a series of light-hearted comedies is unlikely to make anyone really sit up and take notice, so why not take on a challenging role that is against type, yet is backed up by a plot that confronts our attitudes and prejudices? Tom Hanks’ career prior to 1993 was littered with fairly memorable performances, but there was little to suggest that he was particularly versatile. Then came his performance as wronged lawyer Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia.
We follow Hanks’ Beckett as he goes about his normal working life at a corporate law firm in Philadelphia. He keeps his homosexuality and the fact that he is HIV positive from his work colleagues, living with his partner Miguel Álvarez (Antonio Banderas). He is assigned a very important case but on the same day, one of the firm’s partners notices a lesion on Beckett’s forehead. He goes home for a few days, attempting to find a way to hide the lesion whilst finishing his work, handing in the documents in time. However, after being rushed to the ER after suffering from spasms, he receives a call from the office to say that the papers are missing and there is no trace on the firm’s computer system. The documents are found at the last-minute but Beckett, having seemingly been a rising star, is fired from his job for being unprofessional in light of this recent event.
Beckett believes that his dismissal was engineered by someone trying to remove him from the firm due to his AIDS diagnosis, by hiding the paperwork to make him look incompetent. He seeks representation from a number of lawyers, before arriving at the office of Joe Miller (Washington). Miller is homophobic and initially sceptical, visiting his doctor after their meeting to check if he has contracted the disease via a handshake. After spotting Beckett in a library, being asked to move into a private room away from other people, Miller steps in and decides to take on the case. As the lawsuit proceedings begin at court, the head of the firm, Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) decides against settling out of court as he fears it would do more damage to his reputation. Beckett and Miller must now prove that Andrew’s former employers were complicit in wrongful dismissal, as his disease starts to get the better of him.
Philadelphia is not only Tom Hanks’ film, it also belongs to Denzel Washington. Hanks won an Academy Award for Best Actor, but Washington’s performance deserves as many plaudits for a difficult role which he fits into brilliantly. The whole film relies on the chemistry between the lead double-act being a success and it emphatically delivers on this score. The development of the relationship between Beckett and Miller begins rather frostily, but progresses to the point where they have a close friendship which is key in our empathy. Hanks lost a great deal of weight in preparation for the film and his increasingly gaunt appearance, though sanitising our exposure to the worst physical effects of AIDS, compliments his very affecting performance. We really see the storyline through the eyes of Washington’s Miller – the common prejudice that he initially shows and constantly surrounds him is shocking but such is Washington’s acting ability, our own attitudes which may have been sketchy to begin with, change as his change.
Jonathan Demme’s direction is typical of its time, not offering anything unusual in the way of cutting and editing apart from sweeping courtroom angles and the expected wonky camera to depict the progress of Beckett’s ailing health. The supporting cast features many well-known faces such as the usually superb Mary Steenburgen, who plays a rather one-dimensional defence lawyer and her Parenthood (1989) co-star Jason Robards as the seemingly callous but ultimately repentant Charles Wheeler. Where Philadelphia really hits the mark is in combining an affecting, personal story with a gripping courtroom drama – a difficult task pulled off very well indeed. If there is one minor quibble, it would be the lack of screen time given to Beckett’s and Álvarez’s relationship, which appears to be just a token subplot, but the main focus is rightly on developing Miller’s understanding of Beckett’s impossible predicament.
Philadelphia is not quite a masterpiece, but with Hanks and Washington as the two leads and a certain sensitivity given to the subject matter, this is both compelling and heartfelt in equal measure.