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

‘Philadelphia’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 14, 1994

An all-American crowd scene in "Philadelphia" teems with fighting-mad AIDS activists and poster-wielding homophobes. "AIDS cures homosexuality" reads one handmade sign, caught and held for a moment by Jonathan Demme's cameraman. It's a clue -- maybe not a subtle one -- that prejudice, not gayness, is on trial in the heart-wrenching courtroom drama at hand.

Set in the City of Brotherly Love for ironic reasons, "Philadelphia," like so many classics of this lofty genre ("To Kill a Mockingbird"), tries the beliefs of the American people. Are they as noble as they imagine? Is not this a land where all men are created equal -- or must they be straight men?

It's less like a film by Demme than the best of Frank Capra. It is not just canny, corny and blatantly patriotic, but compassionate, compelling and emotionally devastating. Mr. Smith in this instance is Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a crafty ambulance chaser who advertises on TV. Like Paul Newman's alcoholic loser in "The Verdict," Joe is the film's true protagonist. It's he, not his client, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), who needs to change. Though he has committed himself to the law, Joe is a judgmental man. Homosexuals make Joe's skin crawl.

Andrew, on the other hand, is a spiritually evolved human being -- just, forgiving and kind. Yes, he is dying of AIDS, but that is not a matter of character, as the movie points out. Yes, he was unfaithful to his partner, Miguel (Antonio Banderas), but that is hardly an uncommon occurrence. He and Miguel -- like Hillary and Bill -- have already put that behind them.

Well on his way to the next world, he is already half-man, half-angel when he asks Joe to represent him in a suit against his former employer. Andrew, the young top gun in a prestigious law firm, has been fired for alleged incompetence, but he is sure that it's because he has AIDS. Joe, who can hardly keep himself from wiping his hand on his pants after shaking Andrew's hand, is initially reluctant to take the case. But his better instincts prevail.

The bad guys are an all too familiar passel of pale-skinned, cigar-sucking fat cats, exemplified by Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards), Andrew's mentor and head of the firm. Wheeler is a member in good standing of the old boys' network; his vengeance is especially harsh because he feels he has been betrayed. Andrew testifies that he didn't tell his employer about his illness as he had planned after Wheeler chuckled appreciatively at a lame anti-gay joke.

Director Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner don't cut the antagonists much slack, nor are they guilty of any more delicacy in portraying Andrew's nauseatingly supportive family -- an upbeat brood that makes the Waltons look like the Eichmanns. But then, Demme and friends don't give a damn for subtlety. This is a no-holds-barred weeper that is guaranteed to boost Kleenex stock.

Though it has been criticized for its mainstream thrust -- there are no romantic scenes between Miguel and Andy -- it is self-censorship and star power that will save it from the ghetto of art houses. It is, at the very least, a giant step forward for Hollywood, which tends to portray homosexuals as either psychopathic cross-dressers or the giddy fruitcakes who live next door.

Actors don't come any more average-Joe-like than Hanks, who shows both enormous courage and immense ability in the role of Andrew. Bald, emaciated and marked by purple Kaposi's sarcoma lesions, Hanks heart-wrenchingly re-creates the dreadful cost of the disease. In its own way, "Philadelphia" is really a buddy movie, and Hanks and Washington are as beautifully teamed as Gibson and Glover in their squad car. Genial, handsome and full of subversive humor, Washington brings far more than the irony of skin color to the role of social avenger.

Boldly acted and superbly directed, "Philadelphia" has as much to say about the grief of parting as it does about equal rights and the beauty of compassion. "Goodbye, my angel," Andrew's mother (Joanne Woodward) whispers before leaving him for the last time. Angels and AIDS again. Perhaps there is a correlation. It would be nice to think so.

Philadelphia, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 for off-color language and adult subject matter.

Copyright The Washington Post

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