Reframe: Philadelphia

When director Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was released in 1993, it was a watershed moment. As the first big studio film that attempted to tackle the AIDS crisis and one of the very few with a gay protagonist, Philadelphia was a film with a lot riding on it.

Despite the presence of Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Demme coming off his Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, the studio was still a bit skittish about backing a big-budget depiction of “gay life,” and focusing on such a tragic aspect. The topic was handled with admirable sensitivity but the film’s overly cautious approach had its detractors. In the highly-charged era before effective treatment options were available, an acquiescent lesson in tolerance lacked the sense of urgency that most gay activists wanted to see in the cultural conversation.

But the story Demme chose to tell was a necessary opportunity for many Americans to broach the difficult topic and approach that conversation at all. Some may have felt Philadelphia made its protagonist so virtuous as to border on saintly, but it’s not hard to understand why the choice was made to err on the side of caution. Naturally Tristar wanted the film to appeal to a broad audience. From a financial angle, a $26 million investment was no small amount of money to budget on a project regarded as risky at the time. On the creative end, conscientious filmmakers always hope their messages connect with a many people as possible. Particularly in this instance, compassion for HIV+ individuals was a sentiment that needed to reach deep into America’s heartland. With Hanks you are already halfway home in scoring sympathy from audiences in all walks of life. Though the role, in all its stoic purity, must surely have created a challenge for the actor. His Andy Beckett had fewer dark shades to play and hence was perhaps less three-dimensional than one might have wished.

Viewing the film today, a quarter of a century later, all these reservations are even more conspicuous than they were at the time. It was more than a little wise to cast Hanks as a lawyer diagnosed with AIDS whose firm fires him due to his condition — few actors radiate goodness and decency with such ease. Making Andy Beckett a paragon of justice looks more than a little like stacking the emotional deck.

Equally wholesome, Philadelphia portrays the relationship between Beckett and his partner Miguel (played warmly by Antonio Banderas) as something so chaste in representation that at times they seem more like close friends than lovers. Only in the second half of the film when the couple is shown dancing at a costume party does any sense of romance come through. The two are allowed just one kiss in the film – shot from behind Hanks’ head and invisible to the viewer. (Though much more troublesome is the rarity of mainstream onscreen gay passion seen even today.)

Fortunately, the lovely work by Hanks and Banderas at least partially transcends the obstacles placed in their way by the studio and the reams of nervous script notes that we can only imagine. It’s a shame that a milestone in queer cinema feels deliberately compromised, but then again maybe it’s surprising that so much authentic gayness survived in the finished film after dozens of heterosexuals got done straightening the gay writer’s screenplay.

All the same, in a sense, Philadelphia often seems afraid of its own hook. As if it didn’t understand that the very reason people would go to see it is for the thing it’s supposed to be about – the things that Tristar execs were too nervous to show? More likely, the studio simply didn’t trust a nationwide audience to be comfortable with a more complete illustration of a gay couple leading a gay life – and demanding the dignity they deserve as a life slips away.

It’s with no small note of irony then to point out that what Philadelphia accomplishes especially well is the depiction of the journey of Washington’s homophobic defense attorney, Joe Miller.

When Andy and Joe first meet, Beckett is near the end of his rope in finding an attorney to represent him in his wrongful termination suit against his former firm. Miller is a talented lawyer, but he’s also the kind of guy who runs personal injury ads on your local TV. The two men shake hands. Miller is ever eager to take on a new client. That is until he finds out that Andy is gay. At which point he wipes his hand on his trousers – as if to try to scrape the gay away. Needless to say, Miller initially turns Beckett down.

In a bit of cinematic serendipity, Miller later finds himself in the legal section of a library while Beckett is there doing research for his own case. Beckett is sicker now. His Kaposi lesions are more obvious. His coughing unmissable. A library employee asks Beckett if he will relocate as other patrons have complained about his presence. Seeing this from afar, Miller is affected, he’s touched, he shares Beckett’s pain. Philadelphia smartly never tells you exactly why, but I’ve always surmised that as a black man – in that moment – Miller recognizes the sort of clumsy and baseless discrimination he himself has suffered, if for different reasons.

The two then form an odd couple. Miller’s conversion is far from immediate though. As the case gains notoriety, Miller is approached in a convenience store by a young man showing appreciation. The conversation starts out friendly, until the fellow hits on Miller. He takes that forward gesture as a personal affront. Responding angrily and even making a scene as he departs. While he doesn’t say the words aloud, it’s clear that he’s not only offended by the come on, but by the mere suggestion that anyone could think he might be gay.

The magic in the way that Joe Miller changes is how, in the gifted hands of Washington, it’s almost invisible. It’s a fair argument to say that if you have to be personally affected to gain empathy for the plight of another, that isn’t empathy at all. That’s self-interest. At the same time, exposure and experience do color our perceptions, and when our humanity is openly accessible, it can lead to growth.

Such is the case with Washington’s Joe Miller. He begins the film as a man repelled by the idea of having even the most modest of contacts with a gay man, to standing next to Andrew Beckett on his death bed. And when Andy weakly reaches for his oxygen mask, Miller intervenes, taking it upon himself to adjust the mask for him. In that quiet, profoundly beautiful moment, Joe Miller has become a new man. A better one. In my 48 years on earth it is one of three times I have cried in a movie theater.

Joe Miller’s story has probably played out in a variety of fashions over the last 25 years since Philadelphia was released. In the homes of straight men learning of their child’s sexual preference. In the workplace where the person in the office or cubical next to them happens to be gay. Perhaps a friend who kept it silent for so many years who finally confides.

Philadelphia as a film is a bit of a time capsule. Hearkening back to a time when gay men were not only disallowed the right to marry, but when many could not even be who they are outside the walls of their own homes. In that regard, and in its many onscreen compromises, it’s a film that may appear antiquated in its approach.

Still, in its deeply humane – if overly cautious – telling, it’s success paved the way for bolder projects to come forth. It’s hard to imagine Brokeback Mountain or Call Me By Your Name without Philadelphia’s more modest embrace across the rainbow, a quarter of a century ago. That’s a significant achievement that goes beyond its unique artistic value.

Because in its depiction of Joe Miller, the film is not only remarkably effective, it is prescient. For all the compromises made to get Philadelphia onscreen, the steps Joe took toward a more enlightened tomorrow is the part they got more than right. That’s the part they got perfect. It’s the part that shaped a graceful arc in what was once too straight to bend.

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