Tuesday 13 February 2007

Philadelphia (1993) Jonathan Demme

Philadelphia, quite apart from winning a major Oscar and another one that nobody really cares about, came with the reputation of being a serious weepie. It follows the story of Andrew Beckett from being promoted to being a senior associate at work to being fired for being a gay man with AIDS. He's obviously not well from moment one and he knows it, as even ten minutes into the film he's lying to avoid answering questions about blemishes, applying cosmetics to cover up skin coloration problems and undergoing painful procedures like colonoscopies. Yes, everything points towards a major weepie with a very topical 90s twist, especially when within a very short while Beckett suddenly has a shaven head, a beard and a growing collection of open wounds on his head.

I have two main problems with this film, that are pretty hard to overcome. Firstly, that major Oscar was won by Tom Hanks as Beckett, setting into play a whole new trend of comedians pretending to be serious actors. To be fair, some of them are damn fine at it, and I'm not going to say that Hanks isn't one of them, but I still have trouble seeing him as anything other than the perfect candidate to play the lead in Big. I grew up watching Hanks play comedy and play it very well indeed and that's ingrained enough that I have problems not laughing every time I see him. I realise that I'm not supposed to do that when he's trying not to lose it because he's been fired from his important well paying job and he's about to die of a horrible debilitating disease, but it's difficult, damn it!

My other problem is that I'm suppose to feel sorry for him for all that he's going through, and that's difficult to avoid given the circumstances. Almost every time we see Beckett, he looks worse. His face gets thinner, his eyelids get redder, his cough gets louder and he's obviously weaker with every month that goes by. However he's a lawyer who works for a high powered law firm, hardly a job that has any great sympathy in my book. Worse yet he's a lawyer who handles copyright law and while I don't wish a single person on the planet death from AIDS or anything else, I don't see many groups of people lower as human beings than high powered copyright lawyers. Certainly it's not a job that's likely to pick up any sympathy from me.

So through my own personal prejudices, I have problems with the film from a sympathetic angle. I have no problem with gay men or black men, I just despise lawyers, especially copyright lawyers, so this isn't a great weepie for me. I got more emotion out of the aria and that really wasn't the point. However as a film I can appreciate that Philadelphia is very well constructed indeed. I wasn't even that bored during the extended legal sequences which tend to send me to sleep. A lot of that is due to the performance, not of Tom Hanks, but of his legal counsel played by Denzel Washington. Counsellor Joe Miller isn't as prejudiced as many, even many in this film, but he does have problems with gays. He flares up when a young black man tries to pick him up in a drugstore and he's forced to reexamine his own fears and prejudices as he defends his gay client. He's superb and to my mind much better than Hanks.

The senior partner at Beckett's former law firm is also superb. He's Charles Wheeler, played by veteran actor Jason Robards, who has more than one great performance behind him, not least a wonderful showing as Al Capone in Roger Corman's The St Valentine's Day Massacre. This is one of the best though, powerful and controlled, and it's hard to notice anyone else when he's on the screen. There are other names here that are notable, not least Roger Corman himself, in a small role as someone Beckett won a case for but who is being obviously coached by the opposition. Another surprising name for me to see here in a film about dying gay men with AIDS is Charles Napier, who I remember from Russ Meyer movies like Supervixens and Cherry, Harry and Raquel that are about very lively heterosexual women with huge knockers, possibly the most diametrically opposed subject matter possible.

Mary Steenburgen looks amazingly young to me as one of the opposition lawyers and she speaks wonderfully. She and a number of her colleagues do a great job of forwarding their case while inwardly resenting what they're doing. Antonio Banderas is many a woman's dream date but he's Beckett's boyfriend here, Miguel Alvarez. He doesn't get to do much at all except be a little bitchy on occasion, but I guess that's understandable. He isn't the focus of the show, after all. Unfortunately Beckett isn't to me either. Oscar or no Oscar, this film belongs to Denzel Washington and Jason Robards, both of whom already had Oscars of their own by this time. I'm surprised that neither were even nominated here. I'd have voted for both of them over Hanks.

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