PG-13, 2h 5m – Drama
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MOVING PICTURES is a series of reviews and essays that highlight films that had a powerful impact on viewers. To celebrate the films 25th Anniversary, this months pick is “Philadelphia”
When I was in eighth grade my mother took me to see the movie “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks and it had a tremendous effect on how I viewed not only cinema, but society in general. Being in junior high in the early 90’s conjures up some pretty specific memories: baggy pants, Bill Clinton, Vanilla Ice, the fall of the Berlin Wall (and with it Communism), and the national dialog on HIV/AIDS and homosexuality. When discussing such things, junior high students are not exactly nuanced when talking about serious subjects weaving in and out of the national thread. Fear and anxiety creep in. Fear born of immaturity, coupled with anxiety bred from intolerance. “You could get AIDS from kissing someone,” and being gay meant you were a “fag” or “queer,” and therefore destined to die by way of that horrific virus. These statements seem downright ridiculous now, but in the 1980’s and a good chunk of the 90’s, there were people that still believed this ignorance. It was a scary and confusing moment in time, and when people are scared, they find a scapegoat.
Peer pressure and the desire to seem “cool” – whatever that meant back then – led to a lot of homophobic jokes in those days. I can’t tell you if I ever partook in such tone-deaf and insensitive banter. I hope not, but I imagine I did. We’ve all said hurtful comments and we are all human. None of us are immune, especially at 13. If I did make any of these “jokes”, after “Philadelphia” they weren’t funny to me anymore.
On a cold winter day in Northern California my mother and I drove down to the closest theater playing the film (which was in Sacramento since where we lived in the foothills certainly wasn’t showing it) to see the movie Tom Hanks had just won Best Actor for. After viewing his beautiful and moving speech at the Academy Awards just days before, I guess she thought this would be an important film to show her junior high-age son.
For over two hours I sat in that theater and saw one of the most remarkable performances I had seen in my young life. A film about ignorance and intolerance, and the strength of the human spirit. Most of all, it was a film about fairness and justice. Justice for ALL men and women.
The last 20 minutes of the movie changed me forever. It was a lesson for me about human dignity and the right to love those you want to love and live the life you want to live. I remember leaving the theater so clearly, because I was silent for the entire drive home. I think I remember my mother asking me if I was okay. I wasn’t. It changed me, and thank God for that.
Tom Hanks gave the performance of his career. “Forrest Gump” may be better known, but his portrayal of the gaunt and dying Andrew Beckett was haunting, courageous and affecting. There is a scene late in the film where, on the witness stand, Hanks removes his shirt to show the court the lesions on his torso, an effect of Kaposi sarcoma (KS) and a weakened immune system. I will have that image seared in my brain far into the future.
Lost in the much deserved accolades for Hanks is the incredible performance by Denzel Washington as attorney Joe Miller, the “TV Guy” lawyer who makes his money on car accident settlements but decides to take Beckett’s case after initial hesitation. In his Oscar acceptance speech Mr. Hanks referred to Denzel as the “actor who really put his film image at risk” when agreeing to do the film. The juxtaposition between the healthy, straight Washington and the gaunt, gay, and dying Hanks is a powerful one. The movie starts with Washington being afraid to shake Andrew Beckett’s hand and ends with him touching his face at the hospital. The movie wouldn’t have worked without him.
The film is directed with great care and nuance by Jonathan Demme, coming off Academy Award winning success just two years earlier with “The Silence of the Lambs.” As told in the wonderful new Project (RED) and Coca-Cola produced featurette “The Last Mile” (26 min) that can be accessed when you use your digital download code included in the new 25th Anniversary 4K Blu-Ray, the film’s genesis happened when Demme found out his friend was diagnosed with AIDS and called screenwriter Ron Nyswaner to ask if he would make a movie about the disease with him. Demme doesn’t shy away from the hard truths of this film, punching in for close-ups that show us aspects of the disease we would normally wish to ignore.
The music of “Philadelphia” played just as big a role as any of the stellar cast. The picture opens with the Academy Award winning “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen. The song is effective in setting the tone, but it is Neil Young’s haunting piano ballad “Philadelphia” that closes out the film and brought the audience to tears. This film was significant in my memory for being the first time I ever remember crying in a movie theater. Young’s song, played as 8mm home movies of a young Andrew Beckett are shown as loved ones embrace and tell stories at his wake, still leaves me in tears.
The winter of 1994 saw the release of “Schindler’s List,” another powerful film that deserves its place in film history and might get a Moving Pictures column as well, but it was “Philadelphia” that woke up something in me that saw movies beyond just entertainment. They could be about something bigger than flying Supermen or killer robots. They could be about courage, justice, humanity, life, and death. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner commented on the “The Last Mile” featurette that Tom Hanks wrote a note to him that read “My life will always have two parts; before ‘Philadelphia’ and after ‘Philadelphia.’” For me, after seeing Jonathan Demme’s magnificent and very human “Philadelphia,” I knew the types of movies I wanted to make.
This is just one of the movies that has moved me over the years. I would love to hear yours.
For more information of Project(RED) please visit www.red.org