When you think of movies that have changed the game of what should or shouldn’t be presented on the big screen, films such as Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind, Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs, the 1915 Birth Of A Nation, To Kill A Mockingbird, Schindler’s List, many, many movies that were deemed impossible to put together or were risky gambles that paid off in terms of their longevity. There’s plenty of these movies out there.
And one of those films that I think severely gets overlooked as one of the most important movies of all time is the 1993 Tom Hanks/Denzel Washington drama, Philadelphia:
Philadelphia is a 1993 American drama film and one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, and homophobia. It was written by Ron Nyswaner, directed by Jonathan Demme and stars Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington.
Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Andrew Beckett in the film, while the song “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Nyswaner was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to Jane Campion for The Piano.
Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer infected with AIDS, is fired from his law firm in fear that they might contract AIDS from him. After Andrew is fired, in a last attempt for peace, he sues his former law firm with the help of a homophobic lawyer, Joe Miller. During the court battle, Miller sees that Beckett is no different than anyone else on the gritty streets of the city of brotherly love, sheds his homophobia and helps Beckett with his case before AIDS overcomes him.
What makes Philadelphia such an important movie was the fact that it was the first movie to focus solely on AIDS and homosexuality/homophobia. It was the first Hollywood big-budget, big-star film to tackle the issue of AIDS in the U.S. (following the TV movie And the Band Played On) and signaled a shift in Hollywood films toward more realistic depictions of gays and lesbians. According to a Tom Hanks interview for the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, scenes showing more affection between him and Banderas were cut, including one with him and Banderas in bed together. The DVD edition, produced by Automat Pictures, includes this scene.
This is one of the most influential movies of the 90s, not only does Denzel Washington’s performance in this works well but he managed to find a way to keep up with this powerhouse performance by Tom Hanks. Hanks is just amazing in this movie playing Andrew Beckett, many had already knew that Hanks was a terrific actor before this movie came out but this solidified his starring power from this point on.
The two of them are great on screen and they make their characters likeable even with some of the traits they come across with, Washington’s character is homophobic but as the film progresses, he realizes that Hanks’ character is a human being too who got screwed over by the law firm and helps in the case. In a way, Washington does kind of a role reversal to Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, Peck’s character in that movie was more than happy to take the case of a black man accused of rape of a white girl because Peck’s character has a strong belief that all people are to be treated fairly, to turn the other cheek, and to stand for what you believe.
With Washington’s character, he’s hesitant at first because of his homophobic beliefs but as the film goes on, as I said, realizes that Beckett is just a normal person regardless of his sexual preference. A touchy subject that still holds precedence to this very day.
This also came out at the height of the AIDS crisis when famous names such as Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury, and Arthur Ashe all died of AIDS, back then, a lot of people believed that once you got AIDS, you were pretty much done, even with treatment.
It wasn’t until Magic Johnson in 1991 announced that he was diagnosed with AIDS dispelling a lot of the rumors persisting with the disease, still widely held at the time, that HIV was a “gay disease” that heterosexuals need not worry about; his bravery in making this announcement was widely commended. And he’s still alive to this very day at age 57.
Director Jonathan Demme and writer Ron Nyswaner do an excellent job of not going too overblown or going overdramatic on any scene in this movie, every scene here feels authentic and realistic down to a tee and there was never any point during this movie where anybody was overacting or going over the top. They succeeded in making this story come to life in a way where it feels real and sensible.
To me, Philadelphia is the 90s equivalent of To Kill A Mockingbird, tackling a touchy subject for the time and doing it without being afraid to speak out for the truth like some other movies, *cough*Concussion*cough*.
Philadelphia is a movie that exceeds in acting, direction, writing and realism, it’s a literal example of a perfect ‘triumph of the human spirit’ movie and should definitely be considered as one of not only the most definitive movies of its’ time but also should be considered one of the most important movies of all time.
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