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A Philadelphia Story for Our Time


By Patrick S. Chung


directed by Jonathan Demme

at the Loews Janus Theater

"Philadelphia" is the first mainstream movie to deal explicitly with the AIDS crisis. But don't let that throw you off--this is not a preachy movie, not dull or morose. It is so fascinating, so touching that witnessing the movie is a cathartic experience. Maybe Hollywood has finally recovered that skill to tell tales well.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a lawyer in a top-notch white-shoe law firm in Philadelphia. He is portrayed as a competent, serious lawyer who knows the intricacies of the law as well as he knows about the T-cells and platelet counts in his blood. His sexuality never enters the office, because it is unrelated to his business--neither the fact that he's gay nor that he is HIV-positive are dimensions here. Director Jonathan Demme wastes no time and delves right into the subject.

Beckett is eventually fired from the firm on the pretext of incompetence, and engages Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a charismatic ambulance-chaser, to claim wrongful dismissal on his behalf. Miller is staunchly homophobic, and it is only when he sees first-hand the discrimination which Andrew faces in a law library that Miller can sympathize and agree to represent him. In the process, Miller carefully reconciles his own loathing of homosexuals with his clear feeling that the law was broken when Andrew was fired. Miller grows realistically, not Hollywood-miraculously, never completely reversing his views but admiring Andrew and having the confidence to defend this admiration against the taunts of his homophobic peers.

The trial unfolds with many emotional subtleties. A woman who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion during the birth of her child must testify against Beckett, and tries hard to help him on the stand; senior law partner Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) fumes, "Andy brought AIDS to our men's room," and later looks regretful when Andy testifies about his love for the law and about his respect for Wheeler as a lawyer. Belinda Conine (Mary Steenburgen), the lawyer who attempts to prosecute Andy's sexuality as the cause of his disease, murmurs, "I hate this case!" after having made Andrew look into a mirror at his own pale, dying face on the stand. Steenburgen plays the role with expert, steely control.

Tom Hanks, now no longer the funnyman, plays Andrew Beckett with outstanding talent. An actor more accustomed to making audiences roll in the aisles, he portrays this character so realistically that we feel almost part of his family--that's why we start to cry at the end of the movie. Denzel Washington as Joe Miller speaks frankly what most of us are taught and conditioned to believe, that "queens are funny; queens are weird...all they want to do is get into your pants." It is through Joe Miller that society's "fear [and] loathing of homosexuals" is vented for all to see. Jason Robards as Charles Wheeler is stern and imposing, just as a pillar of the establishment should be; but Wheeler, like most of the characters in this movie, is hardly a caricature.

The main interaction we see is between Beckett and Miller. In one eerie, powerful scene between the two, Andrew Beckett becomes absorbed with Maria Callas' rendition of the aria "La Mamma Morta" from the opera Andrea Chenier, reciting the lyrics and dancing with his I.V. stand. It is in this scene that Andrew tries to convey the totality of his experience to Miller. Andrew is crying at the end. Miller tries to hold back his tears, and leaves the apartment, but then wants to go back--he almost knocks again on the door, then draws away.

The scenes between Andrew and his life partner, Miguel (Antonio Banderas), are sweet and realistic scenes of two people in love. Although there is hardly any physical contact between the two, the feelings are unmistakable and eloquent. What makes this film so affecting is not so much the subject as its treatment--it presents two points of view fairly, without subordinating one man's life. "Philadelphia" manages to handle something very serious with effortless elegance. It is uncompromised, beautiful, truthful in detail and resonant with emotion.

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