Even during its theatrical release, Philadelphia was viewed by supporters as the first if not the most important American film to address the warped view of AIDS being a gay disease, and one potentially communicable by means not yet discovered by baffled scientists. The more sober critical pokes – those not branding the film as pro-gay propaganda - accused the filmmakers of essentially making a message film specifically catered to average urban populations, using a familiar template of a wronged innocent man fighting against a behemoth in court to get justice rather than the millions typically associated with nasty legal battles.
Philadelphia is manipulative – there are scenes that while earnest stop the film cold to hammer a message already established by Tom Hanks’ deservedly Oscar-winning performance – but it still works as an effective drama about wrongful dismissal and latent / persistent prejudices. Director Jonathan Demme consistently emphasizes the reactions of his cast with huge close-ups, sometimes tracking in fast for sustained reaction shots, but the technique doesn’t weaken the film’s dramatic arcs because the performances and character arcs are so solid.
The storyline is somewhat fragmented – date stamps allow the filmmakers to jump ahead to further highlights, thereby avoiding scene redundancies – and the delivery of small morsels of Andrew Beckett’s (Hanks) sudden dismissal sustain a modest mystery as to whether the star litigator was dismissed due to a genuine blunder or clever set-up, but it also allows for the partial moral growth of Beckett’s homophobic lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who takes on the case on the principle of a corporation breaking the law, and becomes more humanistic.
In the commentary track, Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Swing Shift, Gross Anatomy) explain the film’s development from an idea to a full concept, with scenes crafted from real-life events as well as experiences from some of the cast & crew – an amalgam of material which made Philadelphia a personal crusade fort many – and according to Nyswaner, it breaks tradition and stereotypes by showing Beckett as a gay man with a wholly supportive family. Critical reaction a family reunion prior to Beckett’s trial in particular probably stemmed from a sense of familiar melodrama extended by Demme and Nyswaner.
One subsequent scene is especially overwrought: Beckett plays Miller an opera, and explains the high-pitched emotions of the singer, which Demme covers in buoyant crane shots that swoop above & around Hanks to emphasize the link between his hunger to live and remain true to himself and the opera. The film’s closing scene also labours the loss and victimization of Beckett with a lengthy montage of home videos, yet the melodrama is significantly tempered by Neil Young’s extraordinary song, “Philadelphia,” which presents in its hushed tones and subtle lyrics the same message as the opera scene.
Perhaps because it retains a classical structure – a Washington Post pull-quote reads “Like the best of Frank Capra” – Philadelphia will continue to age gracefully; its sentiment and manipulative sections may feel a little more heavy-handed, but Demme and Nyswaner’s message is elegantly crafted, and hugely aided by the cast’s affecting reactions. Hanks’ pale eyes probably convinced fence-sitters he deserved the Oscar in 1993, a year which also brought forth the TV drama And the Band Played On (chronicling the birth of AIDS), and a little-remembered HBO AIDS allegory Daybreak. (AIDS had made its way into films, but through stealth references and cautious characters: the makers of The Living Daylights in 1987 curtailed James Bond’s sleeping around by having him chase after one woman.)
Twilight Time’s DVD ports over most of the extras from Sony’s 2-disc 2004 Anniversary Edition (itself replacing a single disc 2002 DVD), including a steady commentary track by director Demme and writer Nyswaner who go through every aspect of the film’s production, especially the superior cast of veteran and newcomers (like Grey’s Anatomy’s Chandra Wilson).
A vintage making-of featurette from 1993, mostly scored deleted scenes (all variable in levels of redundancy, extraneous material, and speechifying), and the news footage of the courthouse protestors being interviewed by a local news crew are also included, plus theatrical trailer. TT’s new extras are an isolated stereo score of Howard Shore’s music score, and booklet liner notes by Julie Kirgo.
The remaining differences between TT’s BR and Sony’s DVD are multilingual subtitles, separately titled and indexed deleted scenes, the Bruce Springsteen music video for the Oscar-winning song “Streets of Philadelphia,” the original Joe Miller TV ad performed by Washington, text filmographies, and more interestingly, two separate documentaries.
The first, “”People Like Us: Making Philadelphia” (57 mins.) consists of 9 indexed sections which offer more behind-the-scenes footage and interviews, and One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave: Secrets from the Dolly Madison Room (18:33) is the short AIDS patient directed by Juan Botas and Lucas Platt which led Demme hiring Daniel Chapman, one of the patients, as a consultant and bit part prior to his passing of AIDS in 1994.
Fans of the film will certainly scratch their heads as to why Sony chose to release a 2-disc 10th anniversary special edition in 2003, but regard Philadelphia as passé on its 20th anniversary and allow the 2-disc edition to go out of print. Kudos to Twilight Time for recognizing the importance of the film, made when, as mentioned in the commentary track, Hollywood was developing 10 scripts where only heterosexual characters were at the epicenter of the contrived dramas.
© 2013 Mark R. Hasan