The Cultural Politics of Philadelphia


I was contemplating whether or not it was a good choice to start of this film retrospective pet project with Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. I’m a straight white girl who when this was released in 1993 was still learning how to speak so I wasn’t aware of the cultural climate and how that encompassed homosexuality and AIDS. But I do know where I was in 1993 and that was Pennsylvania so I’m pretty sure that makes me highly qualified on the impending subject.

It’s timely to reflect on Philadelphia after the release as such films as Freeheld and Danish Girl this past year. One being a landmark case in gay rights and the other containing a cisgender male playing a tragic transgendered figure. These films are less surprising or influential in 2016 than Philadelphia which was one of the first major Hollywood films to deal with the AIDS crisis head on. Also like these recent films, this movie feels like Oscar bait which can have a negative effect on any film’s legacy. I recently revisited Philadelphia, curious to see if its sentiments feel outdated and if it deserved the accolades it received as well as the ones it didn’t.

Just as a refresher, Philadelphia is a film inspired by a real court case where a lawyer was unjustly fired by his employer because he had AIDS. In this adaptation, the lawyer is Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who hires the small time attorney Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to defend him and in the process teaches Miller to be more accepting of the gay community that he dislikes.

I first wanted to note that Philadelphia was written by Ron Nyswaner who is openly gay which to me seems important especially in a time when a film like Straight Outta Compton can be written by two white dudes. I think it’s important to recognize that this film was not written by an outsider’s perspective because when I critique the script’s views, I realize Nyswaner knows more about what it was like to be gay in 1993 than me but in the same respect Mart Crowley’s Boys In The Band, equally groundbreaking, feels like a relic in the spectrum of cultural conversation.

Nyswaner has good intentions with his screenplay, I believe those intentions to be in the vain of wanting to humanize mainstream views of gay people and those living with AIDS. Miller is supposed to signify the populace who find the gay lifestyle disgusting and fear standing next to anyone with the illness. The objective of the movie is to show that Beckett while gay is an amazing man, hard working, lovable, compassionate, undeserving of how his company treated him and undeserving of his tragic death. By the end of the film Beckett and Miller are friends as Miller has become more accepting over the course of the trial.

Overall, this film isn’t completely obsolete with its viewpoints. They’re well intentioned and very palatable but you know why I’m writing and that’s to say that there are some problems. Mainly is that plot is too simple. This is a movie about a message, and in that, character’s complexities fall by the wayside. I don’t get a deep enough sense that anyone has a life outside of the case. Part of this comes from a too large and too underdeveloped supporting cast. I wanted more depth to the relationships Beckett and Miller had outside of each other. We spend some time with Miller’s wife played by Lisa Summerour but for our main character Beckett, the relationship with his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) is severely lacking. There are so few scenes of them together that I have little understanding of their love or closeness. We’re introduced to so many friends and family of Beckett but none that we spend quality time with, they’re all there to be supportive or concerned when needed.

I blame some of this on a problem that has plagued films in the past which feature gay characters is that they make them sexless. The only sex we know Beckett has in the film is the circumstance that gave him AIDS, but we don’t get to see a positive physical relationship between him and Miguel. In truth there was a scene of them in bed together that was cut and I’d probably be retracting some of this statement if it had been included but instead the finish product presents an empty relationship between these two.

ph cut scene

With all of this said, I reflect back on the 1993 Academy Awards where Philadelphia took home Oscars for Best Performance by Hanks but lost for screenplay. I’m very surprised this movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture because it’s prime Oscar bait but at the same time I’m glad it didn’t for that same reason. It’s a wonderfully made film as Jonathan Demme always knows how to craft an engaging visual narrative but the film is too much message and not enough substance for me to side with it as a remarkable film. Hanks’ win feels cliche for how often Oscar go to performances of someone dying, I’d say Washington brings a lot more to the film considering his character is the one with the emotional arc.

The ending of the movie is the best summation of how I feel which is while not terrible is still slightly out of touch. The film ends with Beckett’s death, a mostly quiet scene of everyone saying their goodbyes in the hospital then we move to the funeral reception at his parents’ house. The camera zooms in on a TV screening home movies of Beckett as a young child, playing and having fun. We watch this for awhile before the credits roll. These unrelated home movies are being shown to convey that Beckett was just a boy who grew up like all of us. The movie is taking too much of the extra step to humanize him which by now in 2016 we don’t need to be shown that “gays are people too”. Because of these unnecessary emotional pulls it causes the film to end on quite a whimper making this film just slightly more forgettable.
Hopefully that’s not the same for this review.


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