Why is that we have this morbid fear of people, who are supposedly different, or not normal as per our standards? I am not talking about pyschotic cases or serial killers, i am talking about people, who exhibit behaviour that is supposedly “different” or not “acceptable”. I can say this from my own personal experience. Being an introvert from childhood, i was some how never seen as “normal”, i was given the tag of being “aloof”, “arrogant”, just because at times i preferred to be on my own. At every stage i was reminded my dressing was shabby, i lacked social manners, and i could never be a success in life that way. And that was the main reason why i was able to emphathize with Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. My empathy with Andrew Beckett, Hanks character, had nothing to do with my sexual preferences though, it was more to do with the “discrimination” he faced for being different. For me what stood out in Philadelphia was the way director Jonathan Demme, bought to light the discrimination faced by Beckett for his sexual preferences, as well as the fact that he has been suffering from AIDS. Honestly speaking, till i saw the movie, i was having my own prejudices against Gays. Now while the movie did not turn me into a Gay Pride activist, what it did was to make me emphathize more with them, as well people who suffered from AIDS.
Andrew Beckett, is twice discriminated here, he is Gay, and worse he is suffering from AIDS. Both are issues on which people still have no clear idea. Ignorance, or even worse half knowledge is what leads to discrimination. Take the scene when Joe Miller( Denzel Washington), meets Beckett for the first time. He reaches out to take Andrew’s hand, and when he hears he has AIDS, he just withdraws it back. And after that, you can see Miller’s reactions, he is unsure whether to offer a seat to Beckett, and makes sure he does not place his hands where Andrew has. Not much dialog is spoken in that scene, but the small gestures, and the acting by both Hanks and Washington in that scene, brings to light the larger issue, the unspoken fear society has against people like Beckett, who are treated like outcastes for no particular crime of theirs. Its not that Miller is totally unaware of his disease, in a chat he has with his doctor much later, he claims to know that AIDS is transmitted only through blood tranfusion or sexual contact, but he still has his fears. As he tells
Yeah, but Doc, isn’t it true they keep finding out new things about this disease? So you tell me, today, there’s no danger, and I go home, and I hold my baby, and six months from now I hear on the news: “whoops! We were wrong.’ You can carry it on your clothes, your skin, and now I’ve got to worry about my kid. What are you doing?
And add to it, Miller’s own homophobia. Something he considers unnatural, against the laws of nature. He just can’t understand how two guys can fall in love, have sex, have relationship and even live together. Miller was me for quite some time, growing up, i believed that only a man and woman could fall in love and have sex. Though i had some idea of homo sexuality, some how i could never understand it, made no sense to me. Even when his wife, Lisa, tries to convince him otherwise, he still could never bring himself to accept it. In a way, there is really not much difference between Miller and Beckett, both are succesful lawyers, living the American dream, having a nice suburban home. The only difference is in their personal lives. Miller is the normal guy, with a wife and kids, having a happy family. Beckett is gay, living in with his partner, Miguel( Antonio Banderas), but then again, its his own personal choice, and is happy with it.
It is at the library, that Miller begins to empathize with Beckett, again not fully. He observes the behavior of the other people in the library, when they hear about Beckett looking for information about HIV related discrimination. Again here director Demme, focuses on the small gestures, a Chinese Professor moving away from the table, on hearing that Beckett is AIDS affected. Even Miller’s empathy for Beckett in that scene, is due to the fact he was unjustly fired, on grounds of “poor performance”, who till then was the blue eyed boy of the legal firm for which he used to work. Again here, just before Miller takes the book from Beckett, he looks at his hands, for a moment, he still is unsure. The way director Demme films the rest of the scene, is brilliant here. As Miller and Beckett, begin to read out aloud the passages from a previous Supreme Court judgement, the camera roams around the library, looking around the people, and then after some time, barring Miller and Beckett, the library hall is deserted. As the VO’s of Miller and Andrew echoes across the room, the camera keeps disssolving into the characters, and then we see Miller and Beckett, sitting on the same side. Just when i feel that both characters have now come together, Beckett sneezes, and Miller pushes his chair back. Its like Miller has come closer to Beckett, feels on the same level with him, but yet the distance is still there. So near, yet so far. For me it was the way the relationship was built up between Miller and Beckett, and the honesty with which it was treated, that stood out. Miller is willing to take up Beckett’s case, but still has a distance from him.
The fact that Gays are neither “queer” nor “abnormal” is beautifully established in the scene Beckett has with his family, where he breaks the news about his personal life, and his condition. We dont really know about his family’s condition, but the dinner table conversation, establishes the fact that Andrew’s mom and Dad, have been through hard times. Instead of hysterical melodrama and hand wringing, what we have is a tacit understanding by the family, that they are willing to accept Andrew as he is. And yet we still feel the pain of Andrew’s Dad, when he pauses while telling his son to go ahead.
But for every Joe Miller, and people like Beckett’s family members, you have men like Charles Wheeler(Jason Robards), his homophobic boss. People like Wheeler, and his associates are even worse than the average homophobes. Where Miller managed to confront his homophobia gradually, Wheeler conceals it and then makes it out that Beckett, was fired on grounds of incompetence. The point here is Wheeler is fully aware that he had violated the law, which states that it was illegal to fire some one on the basis of their sexual orientation , so he builds up a case of Beckett being incompetent, and promiscous which made him contract AIDS. But then till he was discovered of having AIDS, Beckett was their blue eyed boy, their star performer, so the question of incompetence held no ground. And the fact that another employee Maria, was retained inspite of having AIDS, meant that Beckett’s dismissal held no valid grounds.
One of my favorite scenes though, would be the one where Beckett is listening to the opera Andrea Chernier, and then he points out to Miller, his favorite aria, La Mamma Morta. Honestly speaking, i have no clue about opera, nor am a big fan of it. But what really touched me was the way Beckett relates it to his own personal life.
Do you hear the heartache in her voice? Then, here come the strings. Everything changes. The music fills with hope.
And then Beckett joyfully swaying to the music, going into raptures over the Aria. Here was a person, who had lost everything, his job, his career. His health was ruined, and he had just turned into a walking skeleton. But yet he was still not bitter about life, nor the way he was treated. He was taking his death face on, or maybe for him, the death was a release from the misery. Which makes it more poignant, the sympathy we feel for Beckett, is not just for his physical condition, but for the way he handled his crisis with dignity, grace and restraint.
And the performances of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, just elevate the movie further up. Two powerhouse actors at their best, and every scene with them is a delight to watch. Tom Hanks has this knack of totally getting into the character, without making a big fuss about it. And so is it here as Andrew Beckett, where he makes his empathize with his condition, without resorting to over the top acting. Something which i do find in most of Hanks performances, most of them low key, restrained, subtle, but yet still managing to evoke the empathy. He totally deserved the Best Actor award, and matching him at every level, is Denzel Washington, brilliantly conveying the transformation from a homophobic lawyer, to some one who actually empathizes with his client’s condition. The movie also is helped by some excellent supporting performances by Jason Robards as Charles Wheeler and Joanne Woodward as Hanks understanding mother.