A FILM TO REMEMBER: “PHILADELPHIA” (1993)

Scott Anthony
Jun 26, 2018 · 8 min read

Before I get into this, I want to make mention “A FILM TO REMEMBER” will be a series about films that have reached a milestone anniversary since their origin in being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. The articles will contain the film’s plot outline, director, cast, a compilation of trivialities, various photos, movie trailer, critical reception and more. So, let’s start:

We are here to mark the celebration of the 25th Anniversary of Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia”. Let’s take an inside look at the film.

PLOT OUTLINE:

When a man with HIV is fired by his law firm because of his condition, he hires a homophobic small time lawyer as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit.

Still image of filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

STUDIO:

TriStar Pictures

DIRECTOR:

Jonathan Demme

CAST:

  • Tom Hanks … Andrew Beckett
  • Denzel Washington … Joe Miller
  • Jason Robards … Charles Wheeler
  • Mary Steenburgen … Belinda Conine
  • Antonio Banderas … Miguel Álvarez
  • Joanne Woodward … Sarah Beckett
  • Robert W. Castle … Bud Beckett
  • Ann Dowd … Jill Beckett
  • Charles Napier … Judge Lucas Garnett
  • Roberta Maxwell … Judge Tate
  • Karen Finley … Dr. Gillman
  • Robert Ridgely … Walter Kenton
  • Bradley Whitford … Jamey Collins
  • Ron Vawter … Bob Seidman
  • Anna Deavere Smith … Anthea Burton

GENRE(S):

Drama

TAGLINE:

No one would take on his case…until one man was willing to take on the system.

Still image of Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia”.

The film is known for becoming one of the most recognized LGBTQ films in the annals of cinema as it became one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to acknowledge HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia. The film signaled a shift in Hollywood films toward more realistic depictions of gays and lesbians. The film was inspired in part of the events and lives of attorneys Geoffrey Bowers and Clarence B. Cain, its reception was overall admirable though it might indulge in some clichés but its stellar cast, sensitive direction and meaningful message are more than enough to compensate.

Here’s what some of the critical receptions have been for the film over the years:

Roger Ebert from Chicago Sun-Times says: “‘Philadelphia’ breaks no new dramatic ground … And yet ‘Philadelphia’ is quite a good film, on its own terms.”

David Ansen from Newsweek says: “‘Philadelphia’ may not be the film Demme’s fans expect — its emotionalism is unfiltered by cool. But it has the power to open more than a few blinkered hearts.”

Todd McCarthy from Variety says: “[An] extremely well-made message picture about tolerance, justice and discrimination is pitched at mainstream audiences, befitting its position as the first major Hollywood film to directly tackle the disease.”

Rita Kempley from Washington Post says: “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.”

Geoff Andrew from Time Out says: “Safe and apolitical it may be, but Philadelphia succeeds as a deeply affecting humanist drama.”

Still image of Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia”.

As you can tell by the critical reactions, the film received some critiqued in it’s banal elements but overall it was mostly positively received apart from having talented actors delivering remarkable performances, this thoughtful human drama was not the first film to confront the HIV/AIDS crisis, but it was, even in the conventional skin of the courtroom dramatics, the most heartbreaking and passionate undertaking of its kind, that makes a pressing and compassionate message in acknowledging HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia in conveying the hornet’s nest of ignorance, prejudice, half-truths and devastating lies connected with HIV/AIDS. But I’ll let you decide…


So, to get a better look at the film, here’s a link to the movie trailer of Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia”:


Here I have provided 12 interesting and intriguing trivia facts (I wanted to keep it limited) about “Philadelphia”:

  • Based in part on the AIDS discrimination lawsuit by Geoffrey Bowers, a young lawyer working for a prominent multinational law firm. On December 4, 1986, he was fired by a vote of the directors and departed the firm the following day. The board originally decided to fire him in July of that year, sidestepping company policy by not interviewing his supervisors, asking for a list of his clients, or ascertaining his billable hours. His supervisors protested, which delayed his firing, but the partners voted again that October, twelve votes to three. The initial vote in July to fire him took place two months after Bowers received good marks on a routine performance evaluation. The vote of dismissal took place one month after the positive evaluation and one month before firing Bowers. As with the character of Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks), Bowers also suffered from the visible lesions caused by Kaposi’s sarcoma. The case took six years in all.
  • The film’s journey from script to screen was an extraordinarily rocky one. The script underwent over 25 major revisions, the film’s rights were embroiled in bankruptcy proceedings, and the subject matter sparked some major protests.
  • Director Jonathan Demme wanted people not familiar with AIDS to see his film. He felt Bruce Springsteen would bring an audience that would not ordinarily see a movie about a gay man dying of AIDS. The movie and the song, “The Streets of Philadelphia,” did a great deal to increase AIDS awareness and take some of the stigma off the disease.
  • Originally, Jonathan Demme was going to cast a comedic actor in role of Joe Miller (played by Denzel Washington) as he felt it would be a good counter balance for Tom Hanks who had already been cast and to give an audience the “it’s okay” to watch a film about a gay man dying of AIDS. Demme had considered casting either Bill Murray, or Robin Williams. But when Washington showed interest in the part, he gave the role to him instead, because Demme had wanted to work with Washington for the past few years.
  • Jonathan Demme initially wanted Daniel Day-Lewis to play Andrew Beckett. He turned it down in favor of “In the Name of the Father” (1993). Michael Keaton was the second choice to play Andrew Beckett. He turned down the role and made “My Life” (1993) instead.
  • Tom Hanks had to lose 26 pounds to appear appropriately gaunt for his courtroom scenes. Denzel Washington, on the other hand, was asked to gain a few pounds for his role. Washington, to the chagrin of Hanks, who practically starved himself for the role, would often eat chocolate bars in front of him.
Still image of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in “Philadelphia”.
  • The home movies at the end which show Andrew as a child are real life videos of Tom Hanks in his childhood.
  • The courtroom scenes were filmed in an actual courtroom that the city let the filmmakers use. It was not a set.
  • There was a statistic that there were 53 gay men who appeared in various scenes in this movie and within the next year, 43 of them had died. On his “Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed” website, Brian Cronin more or less confirmed but also corrected this statistic, based, in part, on a New York Times article and other research. According to Cronin, the film’s producers approached the “Action AIDS” non-profit organization in Philadelphia, and asked it to help recruit, as extras, 50 or so gay men whose appearance was indicative of their having AIDS. Contrary to the statistic, the 40 or so who subsequently died — including Ron Vawter, who played main character “Bob Seidman” in the film — did not die in the first year after the film was either produced or released; rather, they died over the next few years thereafter. Freelance writer Clifford Rothman also wrote about this subject in a 1995 New York Times piece that further confirmed at least some of this information.
  • Jonathan Demme has stated that he was moved to direct the film after a friend of his, the illustrator Juan Suárez Botas, was diagnosed with AIDS.
  • Many gay rights activists and historians have credited this film with being the first major motion picture to tackle the AIDS epidemic, bringing awareness to the issue, and working toward lessening the stigma of having AIDS. Despite the praise, others have been critical that it took Hollywood over a decade to address the issue.
  • Bowers’ family sued the writers and producers. A year after Bowers’ death, producer Scott Rudin interviewed the Bowers family and their lawyers and, according to the family, promised compensation for the use of Bowers’ story as a basis for the film. Family members asserted that 54 scenes in the movie are so similar to events in Bowers’s life that some of them could only have come from their interviews. However, the defense said that Rudin abandoned the project after hiring a writer and did not share any information the family had provided. The lawsuit was settled after five days of testimony. Although terms of the agreement were not released, the defendants did admit that the film “was inspired in part” by Bowers’ story.
Still image of Tom Hanks in “Philadelphia”.

To conclude, Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” is a narrative that’s timely and powerful, but too often, even at its most assertive, it works in safely predictable ways. However, in the acknowledgment of HIV/AIDS, homosexuality and homophobia it mostly succeeds in being forceful, impassioned and moving, sometimes even rising to the full range of emotion that its subject warrants with excellent performances from Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in bringing awareness to the issues, and working toward lessening the stigma of having HIV/AIDS in this influential and enriching quintessential LBGTQ film.


Scott Anthony

Written by

Background in film, a cinephile enthusiast, who’s here to talk film, its talens, its history and its industry.

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