I first saw this film as a kid. I must have been about seven when I watched it with my parents and it was definitely my, and probably many other people's, introduction to AIDS. For me it continues to shape how I think about the virus, the stigma, and the epidemic. Longtime Companion opened a few years earlier but this was the first mainstream prestige film to deal with AIDS and homophobia. Having two big stars in Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington must have seemed like a big step for Hollywood. All of this is well and good, but rewatching the film for the first time in over a decade, I had serious problems with its filmic construction and especially its politics. While it remains important for being 'the mainstream gay AIDS movie', the film has definitely not aged well.
The Major problem is with the Denzel Washington character, Joe Miller. Joe acts as a guide for the straight audience into the scary world of gay-ness. His arc from homophobic to mildly understanding is shown as a victory, and it is Joe, not Hanks's Andrew, who goes through a pivotal transformation. He is the true hero of the film: not only does he save the gay victim, he grows as a person, thus giving the audience someone to root for. But this leaves Tom Hanks' gay character at a mediated distance where he can be sympathised with (or pitied depending how you see it). This film was made at a different time in both Straight society's relationship to homosexuality and the mainstream gay community's stance towards the oppressions and exclusions of straight hegemony. Today, the politics seem conservative and even condescending, positioning gay men as victims needing to be rescued and protected by the good straights from the bad straights. Contemporaneous films from New Queer Cinema, especially Derek Jarman's Blue, Gregg Araki's The Living End and John Greyson's Patient Zero, are much more relevant now for an understanding of the AIDS epidemic, and the anger and response of the gay community. Philadelphia is a film from another time in mainstream culture and it's unable to transcend its dated approach and politics.
The other problems are minor in comparison. Tom Hanks doesn't give a particularly remarkable performance (in my opinion it was the weakest of that year's Best Actor nominees). It may have been a brave choice of role and a good performance, but it's not on par with other AIDS performances (Steve Buscemi in Parting Glances, the cast of Angels in America, Penélope Cruz and Toni Canto in All About My Mother).
Jonathan Demme's directing also overreaches at points, especially the Opera set piece and the courtroom scenes with canted camera angles. Demme is at his best when he keeps his stylistic flourishes to a minimum. The strength of his classics, namely The Silence of the Lambs and Married to the Mob, is the seeming simplicity of his directing, which allows for pitch perfect performances, flawless narrative progression, and a complex and inventive intermingling and subversion of genre. Philadelphia is too fussy, especially in the moments when we are most required to empathize with the characters.
There are incredible parts of Philadelphia though. The performances of Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, and Joanne Woodward are all fantastic. Mary in particular, I think, deserved a Supporting nod for transforming a one dimensional role into something memorable.
There are also two sequences in the film which are incredibly moving and show Demme at his musical best: the opening credits sequence with Bruce Springsteen's "The Streets of Philadelphia" and the closing home video section with Neil Young's "Philadelphia" overlayed. Both sequences are so simple, yet the combination of music and expressive imagery are perfect distillations of the humanity of people with HIV and AIDS. For those two sequences alone I think the film deserves to be watched and remembered.
Bruce Springsteen takes those Streets of Philadelphia to an Oscar win
I would love to hear your thoughts on Philadelphia. I'm interested to know if people remember what the discussions surrounding the film were like on its original release? Was Tom Hanks' win one of those inevitable Helen Mirren/The Queen steamrollers or more of a surprise?