Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Jonathan Demme | Philadelphia

i’m ready
by Douglas Messerli

Ron Nyswaner (screenwriter), Jonathan Demme (director) Philadelphia / 1993

For some rather inexplicable reasons, I did not see the movie Philadelphia in 1993, when it originally appeared in Los Angeles. My husband Howard did, but not I, and I only visited it on Netflix the other day, 27 long years after its first appearance.
      Although I have no justifiable excuse for my long reluctance to see this film, I can partially explain it: Tom Hanks is a reliable actor and I am sure is one of the nicest persons in the film community. But his constant portrayals of somewhat blundering straight men have basically left me cold. For him to play a big firm lawyer, suddenly discovered to have acquired AIDS and his gay life behind it, required, I felt, more than a little imagination. Why might they not have chosen an openly gay actor or even a hidden gay actor in the Cary Grant mode?

     Hanks reminds me a bit of the truly talented Meryl Streep, who can wonderfully mime almost any character she plays; but where is the real person behind the figures both she and Hanks portray? More and more, I perceive, I like actors who bring their own personalities into their roles: Bette Davis, Kathryn Hepburn, Cary Grant, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino—every one of them over-acting, but yet bringing their own identities into their performances. Hanks and Streep are just as talented, perhaps, but they lose themselves in their acting personalities as they adeptly transform their own beings into the characters they portray. In a sense they are deep deceivers, actors who become someone else in the process of their art. I never liked chameleons.  
     Hanks won an Academy Award for pretending to be a gay man with AIDS. Hepburn won several awards for being Kathryn Hepburn, a smart, fast-talking, independent-minded, possibly lesbian woman, who flew planes, talked down her male companions, and chewed-up her stories with her obviously New England upbringing. Grant played the lover to men and women equally, recognizing his own personal sexuality and charm. Just by refusing a breast over a leg in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, you knew he was somehow an honest human being, a bit removed from Grace Kelly’s ferocious sexual approaches.
     Somehow Hanks seems clumsy in being the lover of both Jason Robards—as the legal firm’s leader, whom we recognize is a man desperately seeking a son, hugging the man he has chosen to his breast—and the always beautiful and extremely intense lover of Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas). The character Hanks plays, Andrew Beckett, seems to be on both sides of the various issues the movie explores: is he a calculating explorer destroying young companies through his legal actions, while still tenderly relating to his handsome lover?
     In short, I don’t quite trust the character, let alone believe in the absolutely loving Beckett family, father, mother (and who could disbelieve Joanne Woodward?), sisters, brother who support him despite the viral conditions of Andrew Beckett’s life. It may have been true, inspired (some say based on the story of lawyer Geoffrey Bowers), but it doesn’t ring out as a truthful statement of the era. In his roles Hanks likes to portray morally responsible figures smudged-out and up by an evil society at large. In reality, love was not so very easy, family and friends preferring to turn away from those who had suddenly HIV death-sentences, and they were terrified in those early days of acquiring the newly-discovered disease themselves.

    As the movie declares, many felt it was a disease actually chosen by those suffering from its consequences. By this time, it may have been, since we all suddenly began to discover how we might get infected; yet what can you do when you love and need to be loved by those of the same sex? The truth has still today to not be fully explored: how and why were so many young gay men destroyed by some disease that apparently might have come out of Africa? And yet today thousands are still suffering, many of whom, despite new drug regimens, will surely die.
      Yet, in retrospect, how could you not enjoy this Jonathan Demme film, filled, as it is, to the gills with some of the best performers of the period, Hanks, Mary Steenburgen, Banderas, Woodward, Karen Finley, Bradley Whitford, and Anna Deavere Smith?
     And then Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) enters, a successful black man who carries his homophobic upbringing as a chip on his shoulder, yet who gradually grows to perceive how mistaken he has been and even develops his own kind of love for the dying Beckett. One might almost imagine that Miller represents the kind of Godot Beckett was eternally waiting for.
      This “grinder of the grain,” the original meaning of Miller's last name, boils down the legal issues that Beckett has established quickly, deciding despite his own fears of AIDS, to represent (after nine other lawyer’s refusal) Beckett’s petition of the unfairness of his being fired from his job for having AIDS.
      Washington is a brilliant actor always and plays this role almost as a reverse of the understandably pontificating Beckett as he gradually perceives that the prejudice that Beckett has been subject to is not so very different from what he has experienced all his life.
      Fortunately, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner does not make too much of this, allowing us to fill in the blanks of the slowly comprehending legal defendant.
      Miller wins his case with a 5-million-dollar compensation for the dying Beckett, but in this film it hardly matters. The plaintive dies soon after, celebrated in his family’s home by a memorial that almost wipes out his real significance, portraying only his happy early days as a child on home movies.
      I guess, even in 1993, I sensed that this totally Hollywood film was not the way to truly comprehend what had happened to so many gay men, lesbians, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual people—not to forget the millions of straight women and men who have died from the terrifying disease.
      In the end, Philadelphia—a city in I lived many days each week in that very same period—is a strange version of a “feel-good” movie. But who can truly feel good when a man dies just for going to bed with a lover? Or when a woman dies for simply having sex with her husband?
     Yet I must confess, I cried throughout the entire film—which, of course, is the reaction that allowed it so many awards in its time. Perhaps seeing it so late in my life, so long after the worst of the AIDS infections, is simply better. It’s a good movie about important issues. But the devastation of the disease was not won by large legal compensations, but simply by death. As Beckett can only admit near the end of this film, “I’m ready.” You truly can’t take it with you.

Los Angeles, January 22, 2020
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (January 2020).

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