Picks and Pans Review: Philadelphia
It took Hollywood a shamefully long time to make a movie that has as its hero a gay man who suffers from AIDS, but now that it finally has, it's a stunner. What Philadelphia does with grace and, yes, even humor, is remind us that every one of the 200,000 persons who have died of the disease was someone's son or daughter, brother or sister, lover or coworker.
That seems like such a simple message, but as the film eloquently demonstrates, nothing is simple with AIDS. Philadelphia tells the story of a talented lawyer (Hanks) in the City of Brotherly Love who is fired by his white-shoe firm once the top partners realize that he has AIDS. He sues for wrongful dismissal, hiring a hustling ambulance chaser (Washington) after nine other lawyers pass on the case. During the trial that ensues, the initially hostile Washington comes to realize that sexuality has little to do with being a man and that discrimination against those with AIDS can never be justified. All this may sound heavy-handed, but, as directed by Jonathan Demme, only a few scenes play that way, mostly the ones in which Washington has to launch into boilerplate antigay tirades.
Above all, credit for the movie's success belongs to Hanks, who makes sure he plays a character, not a saint. He is flat-out terrific, giving a deeply felt, carefully nuanced performance that deserves an Oscar. Washington provides strong support, as does the rest of the cast (Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards and Antonio Banderas), but Joanne Woodward, as Hanks's mother, is simply extraordinary. From a scene early on where, well aware that her son has AIDS, she matter-of-factly asks Hanks, "Honey, how're your platelets?" to a scene at the end where they arc together in the hospital, she perfectly captures both the strength and the heartbreak of a mother who cannot fathom why her child is destined to die before she does. (PG-13)