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Oeuvre: Demme: Philadelphia

Oeuvre: Demme: Philadelphia

Philadelphia is a reminder of both Demme’s strength as a filmmaker and the quality of his character.

Following the critical and commercial success of 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme turned his attention to passion projects. In 1992 he completed a documentary about his cousin, Cousin Bobby, and in 1993 came his narrative follow up, Philadelphia. Demme had been determined to direct a film about the AIDS crisis since his friend, the illustrator and filmmaker Juan Suárez Botas, had been diagnosed with the disease. Demme used the success of The Silence of the Lambs to woo a studio, TriStar, as well as talent to the project. As a result of his efforts, Philadelphia is widely considered the first major mainstream American film release about the AIDS crisis.

While Philadelphia has been criticized for a conservative approach to its subject, particularly its closeted main character and the G-rated portrayal of the relationship with his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas), what is striking about the film is how many of the issues it grappled with–both narratively and behind the scenes–are still relevant today.

The film is structured around Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) after he’s fired from his law firm due to his sexuality and his AIDS diagnosis. More than 20 years later, job discrimination based on sexuality is still legal in many parts of the USA, which makes a current viewing of Philadelphia all the more poignant.

Even though Demme’s sensitive direction establishes every major character as multi-faceted and human, Philadelphia represents the filmmaker taking a firm stance. Whereas Silence of the Lambs was notable for manipulating audience allegiance in favor of both heroes and villains, Philadelphia shows Demme firmly establishing Beckett as the good guy. The casting of Hanks, one of the most likeable actors in Hollywood, helped accomplish this. But Demme also has a way of visualizing goodness, and as with Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling in Lambs, he treated Beckett similarly.

Behind the scenes, Demme faced pushback for hiring HIV-positive gay men to work on the production, most notably actor Ron Vawter, who had a significant role. As conservative as the film is in other regards, the representation that Demme strove for is apparent in the film, from the script by openly gay writer Ron Nyswaner right down to the extras. This is still an issue today, most notably when it comes to the lack of women and minorities being hired for key film roles, and it only speaks to Philadelphia’s legacy that Demme was considerate of these factors in 1993.

Philadelphia holds up well, and today’s progress in terms of treatment of people with HIV/AIDS, as well as the LGBT the African American community, thankfully makes the film feel a creature of its time. The filmmaking shows Demme in his element. The large number of courtroom scenes suits Demme’s signature
subjective camera POV (with actors speaking directly to the camera) particularly well. In addition, the film’s very subject continues his career-long fight to recognize the disenfranchised. His fondness for portraying isolated characters shines thanks to strong performances from Hanks (who won his first of two consecutive Best Actor Oscars for this role) and Denzel Washington as his lawyer, Joe Miller. In Philadelphia’s case, both men are isolated by society: Andrew for his sexuality and disease and Joe for his race. The courtroom close-ups that visually dominate the film help viewers feel as if these isolated characters are speaking directly to us; the film actively confronts bias by placing its victims front and center.

The film’s legacy has been profound, its success paving the way for more candid television and film representations of the AIDS crisis and of the lives of LGBT people in general. It even inadvertently inspired a comedy. In Hanks’ Oscar acceptance speech, he thanked a high school teacher for inspiration, and the incident formed the basis for 1997 film In & Out. Today, Philadelphia is both a reminder of Demme’s strengths as a filmmaker, as well as the quality of his character.

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