Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Philadelphia (1993)

Dir. Jonathan Demme
Starring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen

It is reassuring to think that Philadelphia is a victim of its own success. It is less than twenty years old (although it seems more recent than that to someone who can remember it’s release) but the storyline struck me as dated. The attitudes and actions of the characters seemed almost incomprehensible to someone watching in 2012. The world depicted in 1993 seems dead and gone. And maybe it was the success of Philadelphia that helped effect that.

I am quite surprised that Tom Hanks has not cropped up on this cinematic odyssey earlier. Here he plays young hot-shot lawyer Andrew Beckett. Some critical legal paperwork goes missing from where he left it. He is sacked by the practice’s board as a consequence. 

Andrew, however, suspects that the story is not quite as clear-cut as that. Although he has not mentioned it at work, Andrew is gay. Furthermore, Andrew has started to exhibit the symptoms of AIDS. His belief is that the partners picked up on this and that this is the real reason he was fired. He intends to fight back by lodging an appeal for unfair dismissal. If he can find a lawyer to represent him.

Of course, no one will touch him with a bargepole. This is not just a metaphor. After he tries to hire his old adversary ambulance-chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) Joe immediately rushes to see his personal doctor to ensure that his clothing has not somehow become contaminated. It is clear that not only does Joe know little of the syndrome but that he has a personal antipathy towards gays. However some time later Joe sees Andrew’s quiet dignity when a librarian tries to hide him away in a private reading room: “Sir, wouldn’t you be more comfortable in a study room?” “No. Would it make you more comfortable?” Maybe he remembers the discrimination African-Americans routinely experienced just some 25 years earlier. He takes the case. Joe’s task is then to prove that Andrew’s work was completely satisfactory, that the law firm knew or suspected that he had AIDS, and that this then influenced them to fire him.

I would never say that homophobia does not exist today. Of course it does. But it is a lot less socially acceptable than it was twenty years ago. Society has moved on. There has been a change in attitudes over the intervening period. Probably the best way I can express it was that in the UK in the 1990s the Conservative party still routinely decried homosexuality. When they came back into office after the 2010 election they had a prominent front-bench spokesman who was in a civil partnership with his male partner. The Labour governments of 1997-2010 get blamed for a lot but I think they should get the credit for overseeing such a widescale shift in attitudes (Tony Blair had three gay men in his Cabinet). I am not sure I even met an openly gay man until 1995; I certainly didn’t associate with any until I reached university. Now I regularly spend time with people who are in open, supportive, loving long-term homosexual relationships, both in my free time and at work. Hell, I’ve even marched in the Manchester Pride parade (in drag). The tale presented in Philadelphia centres upon a case of institutionalised homophobia of the sort that I would find hard to believe would exist today. A man was fired because he was gay. While there is a limited understanding of AIDS expressed by some of the characters, it is Andrew’s homosexuality that upsets his bosses. They come to suspect that he is gay because one of the partners notices a lesion on his forehead and recognises it because he once worked with a woman who likewise exhibited these symptoms of AIDS. However she contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion; it wasn’t her fault. Andrew contracted it – as the opposing council (Mary Steenburgen) is keen to point out to the jury – by engaging in risky, anonymous, unprotected sex in a gay pornographic cinema. It is Brass Eye’s characterisation of “good AIDS / bad AIDS” 

Whether the characters approve or not of Andrew’s lifestyle (and Joe, at first, certainly does not), the case comes down to a matter of law: was Andrew discriminated against? Disturbingly the argument that is put forward by Andrew and Joe is that he was not discriminated against because of his sexuality but because of his disability. AIDS is a disability. Discrimination due to disability obviously seems to be an easier case to argue than discrimination due to sexuality. And this is where the setting comes in. Philadelphia is exactly the right backdrop for so many reasons. The clever ‘Philadelphia Lawyer’ has become a stereotype, so where better to have a legal case? The city was the place where the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed, so where better to have a story talking about the essential equality of man? And there is the name of the city itself, ‘Philadelphia’, from the Greek. It is usually translated as ‘The City of Brotherly Love’. This could relate to the support Andrew gets from his family, from his lover Miguel (Antonio Banderas), or from Joe, the former opponent who comes to respect his bravery. 

And the film argues its case passionately: “We’re standing here in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, the birthplace of freedom, where the Founding Fathers authored the Declaration of Independence, and I don’t recall that glorious document saying anything about ‘All straight men are created equal’. I believe it says ‘All men are created equal’.” “This is the essence of discrimination: formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with assumed characteristics.” But legal arguments are all well and good. What needs to happen is for them to become the attitudes of society. When the judge (Charles Napier) comments that, in his courtroom, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, colour, religion and sexual orientation Joe has to make the obvious point: “With all due respct your Honour, we don’t live in this courtroom do we?”

The attitudes of the senior partners of Wyant, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow & Brown nowadays seem positively antediluvian. Maybe not the private jokes in the sauna, sadly, but certainly the discrimination shown against a amember of their team. Likewise the picketers protesting outside the trial are now reduced to a minority of extremists. Yet I cannot pass without commenting that, to a certain extent, I thought the depiction of gay characters verged a little on the clichéd. Andrew and Miguel seem to have a very desexualised relationship (perhaps understandably given the circumstances). Andrew used to frequent a gay pornographic cinema where he had sex with a stranger with a Village People moustache. Andrew is moved to tears by opera (a very elite interest as I commented when writing about The Untouchables). When he throws a party it is a fabulous fancy dress affair, with men in drag, a barbershop quintet, a live band and Quentin Crisp on the guestlist. All gays are, of course, incredibly cultured and talented and extroverted. Personally I think we will really have arrived over the rainbow when we see Hollywood depict a gay character as ignorant, slobby and unpleasant. Considering that Joe is introduced as a bigoted black man here, I hope that we are well on that road.

When the Motorcycle Cop was the only member of the Village People
to attend the Pride march questions had to be answered...
This should not take away from the quality of the story, the writing or the performances. Denzel Washington is great as the macho showman who confronts his own prejudices. But the film – and the Oscar – is most deservedly Tom Hanks’. He may have found fame with flicks like Big and Splash but it is in Philadelphia that he finally revealed what he could do.  There is an absolutely heart-wrenching moment when Joe first turns his case away. Andrew walks out of the office and stands on the step. Up until this point he had always come across as very self-assured – cocky even. But now fear, desperation and loneliness wash across his face, all held in close-up. It was brave of Hanks and director Jonathan Demme to go for that shot. If it hadn’t have been pulled off right it would have been excruciating. But it was and in that moment everyone in the audience empathises with how Andrew must feel. It is a perfect moment and encapsulates, for me, the quality of the performances on display here. 

What have I leant about Pennsylvania?
Having been to Philadelphia previously it was exciting to see, during the opening montage, a selection of images of places I remember: Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the statue of William Penn atop City Hall, the Delaware River waterfront, the Reading Terminal Market. However these were interspersed with other shots: condemned builders, panhandlers, the homeless lying in the streets. The message: Philadelphia is not just the glossy tourist attractions. It has the same problems any big city would have with crime and deprivation. It is a salutary reminder. 

Philadelphia continues its association with lawyers. The fictional Wyant, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow & Brown is the city’s biggest law firm. It recruits the best and the brightest from the law school at Penn State University. It maintains a private box for the directors at the local basketball stadium. It is eminently respected. The implication is that Philadelphia is a good place for law to be practiced. 

Can we go there?
Much like Manhattan, Philadelphia opens with a montage of the city's famous sites. But whereas Woody Allen shot his vision of New York in arty black and white and set it to the music of George Gershwin here Jonathan Demme juxtaposes images of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell with those of decaying houing projects and homeless beggars, all set to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘The Streets of Philadelphia’. He does not aim to show off the city; he aims to show the disease beneath the skin.

This means that the film was, accurately, shot on location in Philly. The Mellon Bank Building on Market Street was used to depict the Wheeler Building; the offices of a real law firm (Mesirov, Gelman, Jaffe, Cramer & Jamieson) were used for the fictional Wyant, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow & Brown. Across the street is the Pickwick Pharmacy, where Joe is asked out on a date by a gay law student. Joe’s office was much lower profile, and was located on the first floor of 1901 Chestnut Street. The office is now a bar called NoChe. 

Andrew and Miguel’s trendy loft apartment was located on 10th Street at Bainbridge Street. Andrew’s hometown, where the rest of his family still live, was Lower Merion in Montgomery County, just north of the city. (I find it weird that someone can grow up, go to a top university and then find a very well paying job, all without travelling any more than twenty miles. Thank heavens for Miguel bringing a little bit of diversity into Andrew’s life!) 

The library scene was shot in the Univeristy of Pennsylvania’s Fisher Library. It is actually a fine arts library rather than a law library, however. The courtroom used was a genuine courtroom however. It was Courtroom 243 in Philadelphia’s City Hall  (the white and green building with the tall spire topped by the statue of William Penn). It is the largest municipal building in the United States. There are guided tours at 12:30 Monday-Friday. The observation deck is also open on weekdays.

Overall Rating: 4/5

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