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This movie won Oscars for Best Actor (Tom Hanks); and Original Song ("The Streets of Philadelphia").

‘Philadelphia’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 14, 1994

YOU'D HAVE to be permanently housed in the outer stratosphere not to have heard about Rock Hudson, Arthur Ashe and Magic Johnson; not to be aware of the deadly epidemic stretching from San Francisco to Kampala; not to hear about transfusion-tainted nuns and AIDS babies; not to have seen the men and women weeping before blanketed memories on the Mall; not to have known someone in your professional or personal life who has succumbed to this 20th-century reaper.

I'd like to welcome Hollywood back from its extraterrestrial journey -- and also discuss "Philadelphia," its valiant attempt to catch up with human history. Directed by Jonathan Demme, and starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, this AIDS courtroom drama is so pumped full of nitrous oxide, you could get your teeth drilled on it.

In terms of the ugly, debilitating truth about AIDS, or in terms of homosexual life -- both of which this movie purports to portray -- "Philadelphia" is lost and floating somewhere on the far side of Pluto.

An earnest attempt -- I believe -- on the part of Demme and scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner to fuse entertainment with social commentary, the TriStar Pictures movie is all show and no tell. In propaganda terms, it makes Leni Riefenstahl's pro-Nazi documentaries of the 1930s look like the work of Super-8 movie amateurs. "Philadelphia" is not a movie, it's a prophylactic. It's the kind of safe-sex filmmaking that protects its viewers from all discomfort and sensation, while congratulating them for getting a little closer to the disease.

One day in Philadelphia, city of -- geddit? -- brotherly love, high-energy lawyer Hanks finds out: a) he's been made senior partner at his prestigious Main Line firm and b) he's probably HIV-positive. ("What's that on your forehead?" asks a senior partner, pointing to a purple lesion, moments after Hanks has been given the promotion news.) Hanks undergoes major denial (coating his face with bronze makeup, taking more blood tests, ignoring his loss of energy), as he works on his latest case -- a crucial one for the firm.

But his physical deterioration becomes so bad, the office -- led by Jason Robards -- starts to notice. When a vital document for the case he's working on is suspiciously mislaid, the firm finally has the opportunity to fire him. Deciding to make a discrimination suit out of it, the now-emaciated Hanks teams up with former legal adversary Washington, a squeamish-on-gays, ambulance-chasing attorney (apparently, the only Philly lawyer willing to represent him).

Meet the good side in the ensuing, no-holds-barred courtroom duke-out. The other side, Robards's forces of darkness, is sneakily represented by a window-dressing combo of lawyer Mary Steenburgen and a black assistant. At the beginning of the case, Washington tells the jury to forget "all those movie trials with their last-minute witnesses," because this is going to be the real thing. But what follows is precisely one of those movie trials; if there isn't a last-minute witness, Hanks himself provides the necessary last-minute melodrama.

The list of ridiculous elements is practically endless. But among the worst:

x Hanks and partner Antonio Banderas occasionally touch each other but never really kiss. There's one little hi-honey peck when they greet each other at the hospital, but it's obscured by the placement of the camera.

x In the throes of his disease, Hanks is surrounded by the most insufferably supportive, politically correct family since "Diff'rent Strokes."

x Much of the movie is taken up with Washington's remedial education about this whole Gay/AIDS Thing. Homosexuals gross him out. He recoils from Hanks's touch. His subplot wife has a baby: He learned what birth was all about, then he found out about death too. But after taking on the case (I've forgotten why), Washington starts to see the way gays are treated in this world. He uses his fired-up consciousness to prod the jury, the opposition and America.

x This leads to the movie's most cringe-inducing moment, when Steenburgen -- after resorting to low-blow tactics -- mutters "I hate this case" to her partner.

It's dismaying to think how many obstacles Demme and Nyswaner had to overcome to throw this toothless wonder up on the screen. It's even more dismaying to think that Hollywood's future opinion of "AIDS movies" will likely depend on the movie's box-office fate. Poor ticket sales (this movie's deserved result) will then justify Hollywood's safe-and-warm seat at the back of the cultural bus. It will breathe a collective sigh of relief for passing through "Philadelphia" unscathed.

PHILADELPHIA (PG-13) -- Area theaters.

Copyright The Washington Post

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