Everyone has seen Philadelphia, right? It’s that 1993 film directed by Jonathan Demme with Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington featuring one of the best songs ever written by Bruce Springsteen (Streets of Philadelphia, he also won an Oscar for it). Above all, it’s a big movie about AIDS and homosexuality. Now considered a classic, I saw it on TV I don’t know how many times when I was a teenager and now I have re-watched it in Bluray. And so I asked myself: does Philadelphia deserve to be considered a great classic?
I believe that it’s a good thing that this film exists, that it has been made, and that it’s still popular almost thirty years on. At the time of its release, it was criticized for being out of time, since AIDS was a thing already in the second half of the eighties and this film only came out in 1993. Of course it wasn’t the first Hollywood film to deal with the theme, but it was the first to do it with a high budget and with two superstars like Hanks and Washington. In fact it was a huge success, it won a couple of Oscars (one went to Springsteen and the other to Tom Hanks, which was almost inevitable since the actor lost 14 kg to play the character and the Academy always rewards these physical transformations), and it was surrounded by controversy from both sides of the barricade.
The LGBT community complained that there were no explicit love gestures between homosexual characters (Hanks’ partner was played by a young Antonio Banderas), and the conservative community complained that the story was too much in favor of homosexual AIDS patients. It should be said that it’s impossible to make a film on such a controversial topic without attracting some controversy!
The truth is that the film in some parts manages to go beyond cliches and two-dimensional characters, and in others it doesn’t. For example, I found it interesting that Joe (Denzel Washington), who helps Andy (Tom Hanks), is a homophobe! On the other hand, the bosses of the law firm are pure evil villains with their thirst for power, their big cigars in their mouths, their money, and their heterosexuality loudly declared at every occasion (despite those big cigars in their mouths suggesting otherwise). On the one hand, this makes them a little one-dimensional, but on the other it’s refreshing to see that the standard heterosexual white male who normally is the protagonist of all Hollywood films here is the antagonist against two lawyers, one white and homosexual, and the other African American with homophobic tendencies!
The members of Andy’s family, are equally one-dimensional: all adorable and supportive of him at all costs, as opposed to the slimy lawyer who defends Andy’s former employers played by Mary Steenburgen. Although I’m inclined to give this a pass because the key here is the relationship between Andy and Joe, even more than the process itself which, to tell the truth, is not even that interesting. And Demme seems to know that, since despite showing a lot of testimonies (one of the witnesses is Roger Corman, I don’t know why), there’s no tension deriving from the trial: the outcome is known well in advance and when it’s revealed it’s not even emphasized! The finale is all about Andy, and it’s a moving to see videos of his when he was little (with Tom Hanks’s footage when he was little!): he was a person who loved life, loved his job, and had done nothing wrong to deserve such a painful and horrible end.
Here’s what Demme says loud and clear: there’s no difference between those who contracted AIDS due to a wrong transfusion in a hospital and those who contracted it by having sex! This is one of the many prejudices about that horrible disease, one that I believe still exists, and the film makes it clear that it’s absolutely unacceptable to make that distinction. Another message is about the fact that the social isolation that precedes death for AIDS patients is an unjust punishment that society inflicts on them. Nowadays things have changed a bit thanks to the great progress that has been made in the fight against the symptoms of AIDS, and now patients can live almost normal lives if they have access to the right drugs.
And perhaps now it would be fair to think about the fact that the majority of AIDS patients live in low-income countries, but the majority of drugs are only available in high-income countries. We hardly talk about AIDS in the so-called developed countries, but in a lot of African countries and other parts of the world it’s still a devastating and incurable disease! But let me stick to my Philadelphia review… And I conclude by saying that it’s worth watching it, despite all its shortcomings and limitations, in order not to forget AIDS, nor how our society was basically unable to accept it at least for the first fifteen, twenty years after its first appearance. Ciao!