PhiladelphiaReviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 09/15/04 22:40:57
Now here's a controversial one - the portrayal of homosexuals and the ravages of AIDS in the movies. How exactly does a machine like Hollywood, not exactly known for its subtlety, cover subjects like these? Does it make a gritty, realistic adult portrayal of the issues at hand? Or does it make a soft-hearted and ultimately dishonest plea for acceptance? Take a guess.Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is one of Philadelphia's most promising lawyers. He's the hot rookie and is hired by a top law firm headed by Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards). Andy is also gay and dying from AIDS. When the physical signs of the disease begin to manifest themselves, the firm gets cold on Andy and he's out of a job. They tell him it's because he has an attitude problem and his work is mediocre, but Andy knows it's more personal than that. After no other law firm will take his case for unfair dismissal, his last resort is old adversary Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). Joe, a homophobe with an innate fear of AIDS, is reluctant to take the case also because of his personal reasons, but after seeing Andy humiliated in a public library, can't resist standing his corner with him.
You can see immediately why Hollywood took this film to their heart. Hey, it's about ISSUES! But in typical Hollywood fashion, they can't resist the temptation to dumb the issue down to make it easier to sell. It's a difficult thing sometimes, criticising a film like 'Philadelphia' as it leaves the critic open to accusations of homophobia themselves, but 'Philadelphia' patronises the homosexual community so much, it's like an instruction video for schoolkids "Listen kids - gays are people too, you know?".
For instance, Andy's family are a carbon-copy of the Walton's. A more loving, accepting family you could never hope to meet, right down to the last second cousin. But wouldn't it have been more interesting and realistic to show some conflict within the family? Would all of Andy's male heterosexual relatives been so accepting of him? I know people now who are still ostracised from their family because they're gay.
And, gosh darn it, if Andy isn't the sweetest human being you could ever hope to meet! He's handsome, great at his job, and loves babies too! This isn't to say gay men aren't like that at all, but this film is so scared of being homophobic, that it refuses to portray Andy as anything less than whiter-than-white. This is where it's so patronising, that it becomes damaging.
There's one instant where the film does attempt to address the grey areas of these issues. Andy is questioned as to how he got AIDS , and it's revealed that it comes from an anonymous sexual encounter in a cinema. But this issues of personal responsibility is neatly sidestepped by Joe asking Andy to take his shirt off and reveal the lesions on his body. So just when the film is starting to make you question just how much danger Andy has been putting himself in, it distracts you with a moment of 'yuck' to make you conveniently forget these very relevant questions. "Hey everybody, don't worry about how he got it, just look at how nasty it's made him look!". It's this fogging of the personal and moral questions that makes 'Philadelphia' ultimately dishonest. Would this trick have been played if it was heterosexual man? Probably not, and it again highlights just how patronising the films attitude is. We have to tip-toe around the dark areas, because he's - whisper it quietly- gay. There's attempts to colour in the murky moral areas, but it takes more than groups of protesters crying "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!" to achieve that.
Likewise, the law firm Andy sues. Instead of making them flawed, but understandable human beings, they're monsters. They're homophobic, racist and sexist. All at the same time! Who'd have thought it. They sit around in their boys locker room telling homophobic and misogynistic jokes with an uncomfortable Andy present. Does this really happen? Very probably. Is there more to human beings than the odd sick or bad taste joke? Very probably, but the the film won't show that, it's too busy showing things in black and white. And 'Philadelphia' is guilty of the very cliches it sets out to crucify. Joe gets hit upon by a handsome student in a drug store. Because Joe is obviously gay as he's defending a gay man in court, right?
This was the first Tom Hanks performance to garner him an Oscar and it's easy to see why - he's playing a gay man AND a victim of prejudice and disease! The Academy voters couldn't have wrote his name down fast enough when they saw that. Two issues for the price of one in the same performance. Too bad he's totally blank in the performance. There's nothing going on beneath the make-up, he's such a wholesome chap with the seedy aspects of his life brushed under the carpet. Hanks skill is to use his everyman persona to reflect the character back at the audience, but the script gives him nothing to work with. His best part is with no dialogue, coming out of Miller's office after Miller has initially dismissed his case. He says nothing, but surveys the cold streets with his watery blue eyes and for the only time we get a sense of the fear and hurt within Andy.
Otherwise, he's bland and we have to suffer the 'aria' scene, where Hanks (for once) goes totally over-the-top. Entranced by opera (he's definitely gay then) he stumbles around his flat, spouting gibberish about why he loves the music and its meaning, and all the while Jonathan Demme puts a ridiculous red glare over the scene. A pointless, arty and distracting scene designed to do nothing more than showcase Hanks, but it stands out like a sore thumb. It's hard to credit that this is the Demme that delivered the sleek and tense 'Silence of the Lambs' as the courtroom scenes have no power to them and the whole film has a flabby pace to it.
Washington however, is the only reason to really watch 'Philadelphia'. His is the only character that has any depth to it. Miller is a conflicted man, he hates gays but he also knows that it's an irrational fear. He also knows that a law has been broken and that takes precedence over anything else. Washington gives a tenacious, controlled performance that never tumbles into tearful histronics, but has an adult air to it that the rest of the film sorely lacks. If anyone, it should have been Washington that was Oscar tipped for this film.As a courtroom drama, it's extremely limited because the film makes no bones as to who is in the right and as to how it's going to turn out. As an AIDS and gay rights drama, it's patronising and downright offensive. 'Philadelphia' is the type of film that purports to ask intelligent questions, but actually makes the audiences mind up for them instead. A great waste of a topic, director and cast, the gay community deserve better. Will it move you by then end? Probably. Has it earned that right? Absolutely not.
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