Although AIDS had been tackled on TV, most notably in the acclaimed 1985 drama An early Frost, and in independent cinema (the 1990 film Longtime Companion), Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia was the first mainstream Hollywood movie about the disease. Tom Hanks, in a role that won him his first Best Actor Oscar, stars as Andrew Beckett, a homosexual Philadelphian lawyer who is fired by his firm after they discover he has AIDS. They claim they dismissed him for incompetence at work, so he hires a hotshot lawyer to defend him in a suit against them. Of course, the lawyer he hires, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington, is homophobic and harbors misconceptions about the disease, but in the course of their fight he learns from Andrew and comes to respect him.
Demme fills his heartfelt drama with accomplished actors, from Hanks (who pulls off an opera-appreciation scene lesser actors would have fumbled) and Washington to Jason Robards, as the firm's bigoted boss, and Antonio Banderas as Andrew's companion. Some may argue that Demme sanitizes the ravages AIDS inflicts on a person in the film, but Hanks's sympathetic, passionate performance more than makes up for any attempts at softening the subject matter for a mainstream audience.
The courtroom scenes were filmed in an actual courtroom that the city let the producers use. It was not a set.
Cameo: Tak Fujimoto the cinematographer appears as a doctor in the hospital immediately following the birth scene.
Tom Hanks had to lose almost thirty pounds to appear appropriately gaunt for his courtroom scenes. Denzel Washington, on the other hand, was asked to gain a few pounds for his role. Washington, to the chagrin of Hanks, who practically starved himself for the role, would often eat chocolate bars in front of him.
Andrew Beckett: What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?
Joe Miller: I don't know.
Andrew Beckett: A good start.
Judge Garrett: In this courtroom, Mr.Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion, and sexual orientation.
Joe Miller: With all due respect, your honor, we don't live in this courtroom, do we?
Joe Miller: Some of these people make me sick. But a law's been broken here. You do remember the law, don't you?
GOOFS AND BLUNDERS
Crewman is reflected in the hospital door as Joe Miller opens it, after the trial.
And yet Philadelphia is quite a good film, on its own terms. And for moviegoers with an antipathy to AIDS but an enthusiasm for stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, it may help to broaden understanding of the disease. Reviewed by: Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times.
The story is timely and powerful, and the performances of Hanks and Washington assure that the characters will not immediately vanish into obscurity. Reviewed by: James Berardinelli of ReelViews.
This Hollywood movie about a gay man afflicted with AIDS is evocative, understated and ultimately deeply affecting. Hard-earned tears of truth. Reviewed by: Rick Groen of The Globe and Mail (Toronto).