A whole two decades on from Philadelphia’s groundbreaking original release, has Hollywood seen a bolder portrayal of gay men? Only Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain comes close. Here was a director – Jonathan Demme – arriving off the triumph of multi-Oscar-winner The Silence Of The Lambs.
Here was an actor – Tom Hanks – just finding his groove as the likeable everyman. Here was a film about a gay man dying from AIDS, dealing with the disease when the stigma still loomed large. That Hanks won his first Oscar for the film seems almost scant reward for the guts it took.
The same could be said for Denzel Washington, who plays Joe Miller, the ambulance-chasing lawyer who, despite his open dislike of gay people, takes on the case of Andrew Beckett (Hanks), allegedly sacked by his law firm for incompetence when his illness finally comes to light.
In a rancorous role that risks alienating the audience, Washington is quite brilliant here – and hard to hate thanks to the real villains: Jason Robards and his corporate cronies, who handle Hanks’ pariah with proverbial tongs.
Trailblazing though it is, Philadelphia doesn’t go all the way. There are no scenes of intimacy between Andrew and his lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas); Hollywood not quite ready for that. Andrew’s wholesome family are also a bit too right-on. But Demme is smart not to rant, and channelling Capra in the courtroom finale, he doesn’t need to.
From Hanks’ quietly dignified turn, his face and body increasingly emaciated and scarred, to the soothing hush of Bruce Springsteen’s vocals over the final credits, Philadelphia is defined by its understated, softly spoken power.
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