There are not many movies where you see two incredible actors shouldering equal responsibility to bring gravitas to their story. However, on rare occasions that such an occurrence has presented itself, it has not disappointed. So was the case with the 1993 movie Philadelphia, starring acting giants Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in pivotal parts. Helmed by Jonathan Demme and penned by Ron Nyswaner, Philadelphia is a story centered around Hanks’ Andrew Beckett, a lawyer who gets fired from his firm for being gay and having contracted AIDS. Andrew decides to stand for himself and seeks a good lawyer to fight his case. Enter Washington’s Joe Miller. What happens with the case and how the two collaborate on it forms the rest of the story.
Genre-wise, Philadelphia is a courtroom movie that sometimes resorts to heightened drama in order to evoke a strong emotional response, thankfully this is not done too many times during the course of the film. What the makers finally rely on is their core actors’ talents and the director’s sensitivity in handling of the subject.
From becoming a reluctant counsel of Andrew to forging a deep friendship with him, Washington displays enviable range as an artiste. He is at first suspicious, uncaring, crude even, but once he gets to know Beckett and his problems better, he identifies with him. After all, Washington’s Miller has also faced discrimination, and he knows what it does to a person. And here Beckett was not only facing injustice, he was tackling it while being extremely ill. Hanks’ performance is second to none, as he stands shoulder to shoulder with Washington, together they lead the battle not only inside the courtroom but on the movie-front too. Their chemistry and friendship seems authentic and makes you root for their characters that much harder.
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Many believe that the part where Miller asks Beckett to take his shirt off in the court to present his AIDS lesions as proof is the most defining moment of Philadelphia. And while it is of course an impactful, emotional scene, my personal favourite sequence from the film is rather bland in comparison, at least in terms of the drama that is going on.
Once they begin working on the case together, Beckett and Miller are seen sitting in the library, leafing through notes, and there is a line in the end which Washington’s Miller reads out to Beckett and the room at large as the camera pans out. “This is the essence of discrimination. Formulating opinions not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with similar characteristics,” goes the line. And it is a solid statement that lays bare the entire theme of the movie. Beckett and Miller have been prejudiced because of how they appear to people, and not because of their personality or values. It is this that binds both the leads together, and the film as well.
You can watch Philadelphia on YouTube.