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‘Philadelphia’ and 25 Years of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia

A couple of years ago, as my brothers and I settled in for movie night, we realized we didn’t have an inkling of what to watch. “Let’s settle on genre first,” my brother said, “Comedy? Family Drama? Thriller?” Having a genre/theme in mind definitely helps in the navigation through Google. For some reason, I wanted to watch a Law movie, maybe because at that point I was preoccupied with legal TV drama The Good Wife — though at times it feels like there is more drama than lawyering going on.

So onto Google we went, and Philadelphia was one of the top few options. The fact that this movie has Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in lead roles made it extremely watchable. Once I discovered it was directed by Jonathan Demme, the man who also directed The Silence of the Lambs, I was immediately sold. Based on just that information, we proceeded to watch the movie.

Needless to say I enjoyed it, I wouldn’t have volunteered to pen this article if I didn’t. I feel the film discusses issues like discrimination and prejudice in a very palatable way, though some might feel that the movie’s content is simply not enough. Philadelphia is not a perfect movie, but it did what it needed to do, and was what it needed to be.

Discrimination

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Image via Turner Classic Movies

Initially, the character of Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) was supposed to become a comedic Everyman, kind of like a Robin Williams type character. He was to be an insider, in contrast to Andy Beckett’s (Tom Hanks) outsider. That all changed when Denzel Washington expressed interest in doing the movie. So now both characters were outsiders, having to deal with discrimination due to race and sexuality. This change actually helped the movie, since Joe’s experiences as an African-American man allowed him to see things from Andy’s shoes.

There is this wonderful scene where Washington’s character is in the library, and he gets a dirty stare-down from one of the patrons. Andy is in the same library, but his situation is amplified where stares are no longer enough. They want him exiled from the space. It is here that Joe feels Andy’s situation acutely, and realizes that he treated Andy the same way everyone else does when he came into Joe’s office to ask for his services. Joe is shown to be willing to take on literally any case, whether it was winnable or not, yet rejects Andy because he doesn’t want to be anywhere near him. His reaction mirrors that of the general public, the fear of catching something and the condemnation of Andy’s “lifestyle”.

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Image via Film International

Joe is the furthest thing from a bleeding liberal heart. He hates homosexuals and can’t understand how a man can pound away on another man — his words, not mine. However, the more time he spends with Andy defending his case, the more he sees the man who exists underneath all the labels that cover him. He sees a man he grows to admire, and even call a friend. The movie recognizes that this is the only way to get rid of discrimination; our like/love for the person must grow bigger than the box they find themselves stuck in.

Tom Hanks’ Award-Winning Performance

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Image via The Ace Black Blog

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Tom Hanks won the Oscar (Best Actor) for his performance in this movie. The win came as a bit of a surprise, given the other heavyweight contenders nominated in the same category. If you look through the comments section of any Oscar acceptance speech by Tom Hanks, there is the disappointment that Liam Neeson did not win for Schindler’s List. I won’t comment on that, but I do think that Tom Hanks gave the performance of his career in this movie.

Before this, he was the lovable guy in Big, then he was the adorable father in Sleepless in Seattle. Tom Hanks has been likable his entire career. His eagerness to take on this role was because he wanted to do more than just be the goofy guy we all love. He gave the role of Andrew Beckett the authenticity it needed. His commitment knew no bounds, from his research about Aids and his physical transformation as the illness takes hold of Andy. The scene where he listens to opera music with Washington’s character was the most moving part of the movie to me. His immersion in the music, his sense of lament for his life being cut short — my god, I can’t even write about it without feeling the urge to cry.

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Image via Film International

There were critics who said that his sexuality was not on display enough. We wouldn’t be able to know that Beckett was gay until it was verbalized to us. That is the whole point. Do homosexuals need to be a certain way just because of their sexuality? Would Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas (Miguel) cuddling in bed help us see this more? The two of them in bed together was actually a filmed scene that never made it into the movie, and it was a decision that was questioned despite Demme’s response that it just didn’t fit in dramatically. I think what people don’t understand is that when a loved one becomes sick, you take on the role of their caretaker, and the lover aspect gradually slips away. This is what Demme meant by the lack of dramatic fit.

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Image via Virtual History

Moreover, there were wonderful intimate moments between the two which showed us what they meant to each other. Andy gently touching Miguel as they listened to music, their slow dance together, Miguel tenderly kissing Andy’s hand during his last moments. To see all this and to know that in the eyes of the Law, Miguel wasn’t considered his family, was heartbreaking.

The Music

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Image via MyMovies

Demme commissioned Neil Young to create the theme song for Philadelphia, but after hearing the song, decided it was far too morose of a song to start the movie with. Hence, it is the song we hear at the end when we are watching the home videos of a young Andy.

He then turned to Bruce Springsteen, and was surprised when Springsteen didn’t turn in a hard rock type of song. But “Streets of Philadelphia” was the perfect fit for the beginning of the movie. I was lucky enough to be watching the movie with subtitles on, which made me pay attention to the lyrics. It really reflects the social death that AIDS sufferers feel, long before their physical death. The beat is a simple one, and Springsteen doesn’t employ any vocal gymnastics — he just sings.

For me, watching Philadelphia again as we are on the brink of 2019, is a reminder of how far the world has come since then, but also the sadness that division and hate will unfortunately always be a constant thing. It is an easy thing to hate, in part because we find it difficult to deal with things foreign from who we are. However, Philadelphia also reminds me to be hopeful of the possibility of moving beyond the hate, that maybe we won’t leave our fellow men “wastin’ away on the streets”. Let’s love a little more, and hate a little less. Happy 2019, everyone.


Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on Philadelphia? Comment down below!

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Natasha Alvar

Natasha is an English Literature teacher. She believes that stories are the essence of being human, and loves sharing this world with her students. One day, she hopes to break into the literary world with an offering of her own, but for now, she finds enjoyment in writing plays for her students as well as penning content for Moviebabble. You can follow her @litmysoul on Instagram, if you want.

12 Responses

  1. Sam Simon says:

    Thanks for your post! I saw this movie about 20 years ago, I remember that I liked it a lot, but I should certainly re-watch it one of these days..

    • You are lucky to have seen it when it came out! Sometimes I feel I am missing out when I stumble onto these older movies. It is a hard movie to rewatch though, because it makes one feel so much. I lost count of how much I teared up while watching.

  2. Very nice review! You made me want to see the movie.

  3. Thoughtful as usual, Natasha.

    On a personal note, having been HIV+ for almost 18 years, I find that younger people tend not to bat an eye when they learn my status. They tend to be well educated on the subject. It’s older people who still seem to have a problem with it. That may be about homophobia more than fear of the disease. But for the most part, I rarely feel any negativity because of my status. And with today’s meds, my disease is mostly just an inconvenience. Like you said, we’ve come a long way since the days when the movie came out.

    And for the record, Hanks translating the Maria Callas aria is the scene that tears me up the most. I think he would have won the Oscar for that scene alone.

    • Hey Brian! It’s always good to hear from you 🙂 Thank you for sharing your story with me. It makes me glad to see what strides we have made as a society (more to come hopefully!)

      Agreed so much about the Maria Callas aria scene! I sometimes forget what a good actor Tom Hanks is, mainly because he makes it look so natural, if you get what I mean? But that scene is a poignant reminder. What do you think is going through Joe Miller’s mind as he watches him? I have always wondered.

      Anyway, happy 2019! How is the new year treating you?

  4. I am literally in awe of your insights about this film. You’ve captured what I saw, experienced, felt during and after. It was such an emotional overload I’ve only been able to watch it twice. You brought it all back again.

    • I concur! I watched the film when it first came out, and I haven’t been able to watch it again. It’s just too heartbreaking.

      • I know what you mean Liz. I went into it the first time with no expectations, but it stuck me long after, which is why I had to write about it. It was really the push Tom Hanks needed to venture into more dramatic roles after.

    • Thank you so much! I watched it for the second time for this post, and it took me two days to get through it again because it was such an emotional experience.

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