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Philadelphia (1993) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

andy joe aids andy’s

Principal social themes: AIDS, homosexuality

Tristar. PG-13 rating. Featuring: Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Jason Robards, Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, Charles Napier, Ron Vawter, Robert Ridgely, Lisa Summerour, Roger Corman, Joanne Woodward, Kathryn Witt, John Bedford Lloyd, Anna Deavere Smith, Tracey Walter, Daniel von Bargen, Roberta Maxwell, David Drake, Paul Lazar, Obba Babatunde, Bradley Witford, Daniel Chapman, Ann Dowd, Holly Hickok, Chandra Wilson, Julius Erving, Robert Castle. Written by Ron Nyswaner. Cinematography by Tak Fujimoto. Edited by Craig McKay. Music by Howard Shore. Produced by Edward Saxon and Jonathan Demme. Directed by Jonathan Demme. Color. 119 minutes


Philadelphia was the first mainstream American film to focus on the issue of AIDS. The film also concentrated on homosexuality as commonly perceived in popular culture. Philadelphia became a popular success, a contender at the Academy Awards for the Best Picture of 1993. Tom Hanks won the Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in this motion picture.


Philadelphia opens with several scenes depicting the successful career of Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks), an up-and-coming lawyer with one of Philadelphia’s most prestigious law firms. In fact, Andy has just been handed control of one of the most important cases handled by the firm. The film jumps ahead several weeks, and Andy is unemployed and reaching out to various attorneys seeking representation in a wrongful firing lawsuit against his former employers. Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) is a hustling black attorney who specializes in accident suits. He has gained some notoriety for his television ads promoting his business. Andy consults Joe, who reacts negatively when he learns that Andy has AIDS. Joe tells his wife that he truly despises homosexuality and could never take the case. He later observes Andy in the reference room of the law library, and he feels outraged when he sees Andy treated unjustly by the library staff. He goes over to talk with Andy, discussing his case and eventually agreeing to represent him. Andy meets with members of his family, informing his brothers and parents that his lawsuit may result in bad publicity and notoriety. They encourage Andy to proceed with his suit no matter what the cost.

Months later, Andy’s suit come to trial. The position of the firm is that they were unaware of Andy’s condition or his sexual orientation. They claim he was fired because he was getting careless in his work, citing how he lost a brief that could have resulted in the loss of an important case. Andy suggests that his brief was deliberately removed from his desk and computer files by the firm so they could use it as an excuse to dismiss him. He explains that he admired Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards), the head of the law firm, but never revealed his homosexuality, particularly after hearing Wheeler and his partners chortling in the sauna over a series of sophomoric jokes ridiculing homosexuals. The night before Andy is due to take the stand, Joe and his wife attend a gay party thrown by Andy and Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas), his lover. After the party, Joe tries to prep his client about his upcoming testimony, but Andy sinks into a pensive mood, suggesting he might not even survive the trial. He then plays for Joe his favorite opera aria in a recording by Maria Callas.

When he is sworn in at the trial, Andy speaks quietly, openly, and with eloquence. He insists that the other members of the firm had concluded that he had AIDS because of the numerous lesions that began to appear on Andy’s face and neck. Melissa Benedict, a secretary in the office, had earlier been diagnosed with AIDS, and she was affected with lesions duplicating those on Andy. When cross-examined, Andy admits he contracted AIDS after getting picked up by another man at a gay porn theater. When questioned about the lesions appearing on his face. Andy admits that they cannot be seen from three feet away. Asking a follow-up question, Joe asks Andy to remove his shirt, and the lesions on his chest are large and numerous enough that the jury sees them clearly. After testifying, Andy collapses and is rushed to the hospital. The trial continues, and the jury decides in Andy’s favor, awarding him a generous settlement. Joe visits Andy at the hospital, where he is bedridden, saying goodbye to his family. After they leave, Miguel sits alone with Andy, who tells him that he is now ready to die. Joe is phoned that night and informed that Andy has died. Joe attends a memorial party in Andy’s memory. The film concludes while focusing on films of Andy’s youth.


Philadelphia has been widely acclaimed as a frank and open film dealing with both AIDS and homosexuality. In actuality, the focus is on discrimination against people living with AIDS and homosexuals. In this context, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) is actually the more important character in the film. Unlike Andy Beckett, it is Joe whose attitudes and personality change, as he transforms from a homophobe into a champion of both gay rights and the rights of individuals suffering discrimination to being HIV positive. When Andy first tells Joe he has AIDS, he backs away to the rear of his office, eyes widened in panic.

It is a brilliant touch that the most virulent gay-bashing on screen is delivered by Joe, in private to his wife and in public at the trail. Other acts of discrimination are largely conducted off screen. Even Wheeler’s gay jokes are more insensitive than vicious. For most members of the viewing audience, it is Joe’s progression that is the film’s primary axis, even though Tom Hanks won the Academy Award for best performance. Some of the changes in Andy seem too abrupt, as he goes from being a wiseguy attorney in a fashionable suit to appearing as a street bum and martyr within two weeks. The script highlights the martyr scenario, from his name Beckett (recalling Saint Thomas Becket, the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury) to his favorite opera Andre Chenier (a martyr of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution). Andy changes from wearing makeup to disguise his condition to actually highlighting it in one abrupt shift. At times, Andy even exasperates the patience of his lover, Miguel, such as when he decides to nobly skip his treatment one evening when the needle becomes clogged. The audience never really sees Andy’s rage, and it is only suggested by Wheeler’s smarmy attorney Belinda Conine, played excellently by Mary Steenburgen. The story touches on a great number of points, sometimes too briefly, such as the contrasting treatment of Melissa, who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, to Andy, who got it from a homosexual exchange of body fluids. Belinda’s unspoken implication, subtle yet noxious, seems to be if your illness is derived from risky behavior, you are not entitled to any sympathy or consideration. On the other hand, the script sometimes throws in one too many clichés, such as the protester who proclaims the old chestnut, “It’s supposed to be Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Nevertheless, Philadelphia handles most of the social issues quite well, providing excellent opportunities for viewer discussion.

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