While not a flawless classic, Philadelphia remains moving largely due to the strength of its two male leads and the sure-handed direction of Jonathan Demme. Revisiting the film 20 years after its original release (via the new Twilight Time limited edition Blu-ray), the most striking thing about it is what a time capsule piece it has become. Of course the spread of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. continues to be a serious problem. Discrimination against sexual orientations other than hetero has not vanished. But progress has been made on both counts since the film’s 1993 release.
The simplicity of the story and the understated sincerity of the performances help the film overcome its weaknesses. Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner do everything they can to direct viewers’ emotions, quite forcefully at times. Most everything here is painted in black-and-white simplicity. Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a lawyer wrongfully terminated on the basis of having not disclosed his AIDS diagnosis. Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) leads the team of senior partners who made the decision to can Andrew. They’re unapologetically homophobic and unsympathetic toward Andrew’s plight. Andrew is the good guy and Wheeler’s gang makes up the bad guys. Not that it would really make sense any other way, but Demme lays the “saintly hero against dastardly villains” routine on fairly thick.
Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) is a local hotshot attorney who reluctantly accepts Andrew’s case after all the other firms turn him down. Joe is by far the most ambiguous character here and Washington skillfully walks the line between bigotry and tolerance. Hanks won the Oscar, despite having relatively little to do from the middle of the film onward. Once the symptoms of Andrew’s illness take hold, he begins to slip out of view. Yes, Hanks lost a lot of weight for the later sections of the film, but such physical transformations do not make an effective performance on their own. The best decision Hanks made was to steadfastly avoid any clichéd “gay” stereotypes. Back in ’93 it was a pretty big deal for such a mainstream star to tackle a role like this. By generally underplaying, Hanks makes Andrew likable and relatable to all but the most blindly ignorant homophobes.
So why did we need to see an extended emotional breakdown as Andrew listens to his favorite opera? It’s the single weakest scene in the movie and a genuine lapse of taste by Demme. Joe, the brash, uncultured philistine, sits back in awe as the AIDS-weakened Andrew summons the strength to over-emote as the music plays. We even get some stylized lighting to emphasize that we’re glimpsing Andrew’s soul. It’s garish but also, more importantly, irrelevant. Would we care any less about Andrew’s plight if he preferred to groove to a Milli Vanilli record?
Back to Washington’s underrated work, his character is the only one with an actual story arc. At the beginning, Joe is admittedly disgusted by homosexuals and openly opposed to their practices. While it takes a lot of courage for Andrew to butt heads with the big, bad, law firm, Joe has challenges of his own in taking the case. He must face ridicule from his colleagues and eventually question his own previously firmly-held beliefs. The greatest restraint of Philadelphia is that it keeps Joe’s motivations somewhat unclear. Is he after the potentially big payout or has he truly adopted a stance of tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals? By the end, we don’t know for sure. Even so, we get the sense that he is a decent person, realistically flawed though he may be.
No complaints here about Twilight Time’s 1080p transfer of Philadelphia. Tak Fujimoto’s appropriately muted cinematography looks fantastic, with a beautiful layer of natural film grain that remains consistent throughout the entire film. Lots of fine detail on display, important for conveying the matter-of-fact physical manifestations of Andrew’s illness in the excellent makeup work. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is heavily dominated by dialogue, which it handles just fine. There’s not a whole lot of call for fancy, immersive effects. The sound design is simple and presented perfectly.
The Blu-ray carries some features from the previous DVD edition, but not nearly all. Fans of the film will definitely not be discarding their older copies. What is included here is a commentary by director Demme and screenwriter Nyswaner, a six minute EPK featurette, four minutes of “Courthouse Protest Footage,” and 11 minutes of deleted scenes. We don’t get a pair of more extensive documentaries that were part of the DVD or the video for Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar-winning song “Streets of Philadelphia.” Fans of Howard Shore’s sensitive score will love the isolated track, new to this edition, presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Julie Kirgo contributes another of her informative, thoughtful essays, found in the Blu-ray booklet.
Philadelphia can be ordered through Screen Archives, at least until the 3,000 copies run out.