I've never seen Philadelphia before, but I know enough about this movie to know that it's going to make me cry like a tiny tiny child. I am immediately regretting the run of depressing movies I've chosen for this blog -- first animal deaths in Forbidden Games, then suicide in Ordinary People, now AIDS. I am a stupid person.
Before I get into Philadelphia, I want to plug a film that I'm a really big fan of. I sort of have a morbid fascination with movies about AIDS -- I've seen more than any person without a seriously masochistic streak should. I even went to see The Normal Heart on Broadway a few years ago and cried my eyes out the entire time (seriously, it was embarrassing). So from a connoisseur of AIDS movies, please sit down and watch How to Survive a Plague. It's a crazy well-made documentary on Netflix about AIDS activism in NYC in the early 90s, and it's honestly one of my favorite movies ever. Seriously, if you haven't seen it yet, just watch it.
Andrew Beckett is a brilliant lawyer at a conservative law firm, moving swiftly up the ranks through talent and sheer force of will. The only problem? He's gay, and has recently been diagnosed with AIDS. Although the beginning of the film shows him brimming with vitality and optimism, it's only a matter of time before Kaposi's sarcoma, the telltale lesions so frequently seen on AIDS patients, begin to make an appearance. And in the early 90s, as soon as someone could physically identify you as having AIDS, you were done. Goodbye job, goodbye relationships. And usually, sooner rather than later, goodbye life.
Andy was luckier than most in his situation, in that he had a loving, supporting family that stood by him, and a great partner, Miguel. 90s era Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas are like the perfect couple and to be honest I'm sort of disappointed that they're not actually gay and deeply in love with one another in real life. Perfect acting and one of the most realistic portrayals of a gay relationship that had been shown in cinema up to this point in film history.
But when Andy gets fired for vague performance-related issues and decides to sue his law firm for discrimination, the things that help him the most are his legal brilliance and the help of an unlikely ally, homophobic lawyer Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington.
He's probably the most interesting and complex characters in the film, and his journey throughout the film is fascinating to watch. For most of Philadelphia, he freely admits that gay people disgust him and that he just doesn't understand how they can "choose" to live like that.
His reaction to Andy's confession that he has AIDS is one of the most telling and poignant in the film. As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Miller subtly and almost subconsciously puts as much space between the two of them as possible. And he turns him down at first. Says thanks but no thanks.
It's only once he sees Andy going over law books at the library and is politely encouraged to read in one of the private rooms that he decides to help with the case. It's interesting to see how he is able to reconcile his distaste for gay people and his desire to see the law carried out properly.
Even after he agrees to take the case and serve as Andy's lawyer, he makes it abundantly clear that his feelings about gay people haven't changed. In fact, he almost gets into physical confrontation at a pharmacy when a young gay man innocently asks him to go for a drink.
But as the film goes on, and he gets closer to Andy, it's clear that at the very least, he has begun to see gay people not as some vaguely threatening monolithic group that is going to threaten his concept of manhood, but rather individuals, regular people just like him.
And one of the best things about Philadelphia is that they don't turn this character development of Miller's into some overblown sentimental revelation. It creeps up on him, with his growing affection for Andy and disgust at the way he's being treated. Because that's how people usually do learn and change, right? Over time rather than all at once.
Another thing I think Philadelphia gets right is in its depiction of its hero, Andy. Tom Hanks won his first of two consecutive Academy Awards for this film (the next would be for Forrest Gump), although he's really just playing the same type of character he's always played: the almost unfairly likeable everyman who is smart and funny and kind.
But in a lot of ways, that in itself is what makes this performance so revolutionary. He's not playing Andy with a lisp and an effeminate walk, like we had seen in so many films before this. He's just a guy, a regular guy, who happens to be gay. And when you describe the character of Andrew Beckett, the fact that he's gay probably wouldn't even be the first thing you would say about him.
It's sort of something that we take for granted nowadays, with the tremendous strides the gay community has made in television and film over the past 25 years, but the idea of a gay character whose sexual orientation was not his primary descriptor was a really big deal in 1993. With AIDS a major fear in society at the time Philadelphia was being made, this kind of portrayal went a long way in humanizing the people affected by it.
I guess this is a result of me having grown up in a time where, even though AIDS still kills untold numbers of people in the United States and abroad, there aren't so many fears and false information about the disease, and more importantly, antipathy towards the victims. But it is shocking to me the way that the prosecution behaves towards both Andy but also the woman who testifies for the defense who also has AIDS.
I can't even comprehend the fact that they're asking the woman with AIDS to say how she got it, then when they find out that she contracted AIDS by way of a blood transfusion, they clarify that she got the disease through "no fault of her own". As in, "the big homo over there had butt sex, so he deserves what he gets, but you, non-threatening straight lady, you have our condolences." Outrageous. I've never wanted to punch Mary Steenburgen in the face before but I super do now.
When all is said and done, Philadelphia certainly earns its place in film history and LGBT culture. For me, some of the moments in the film that were trying to evoke an emotional response didn't hit me in the gut (Andy's operatic scene, for example), but these were more than made up for by smaller-scale, subtle moments that underscored the injustice of Andy's situation. And of course, the matter of crying is not so much if it will happen, but when.