Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said, “It is difficult to say who do you the most harm: enemies with the worst intentions or friends with the best.” And so it is that Philadelphia was born out of director Jonathan Demme’s best intentions, in part an apologia for the supposed gay stereotyping of his prior film The Silence of the Lambs. The passage of time has brought the truth into focus: in the guise of piety, Philadelphia panders to a perceived straight-male majority, that peculiar subset of Americans who act like children and demand to be treated as such. In spite of Demme’s welcome visual and aural humanism (the opening credits sequence, removed from the film that follows, is an essential part of the director’s filmography), Philadelphia is more concerned with the demographic breakdowns of its potential viewership than in addressing its central issue—AIDS—with any serious complexity.
“Explain it to me like I’m a two-year-old” is the sledgehammer-obvious refrain of homophobic ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a character contrived by Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner to take on the case of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a fellow lawyer ostensibly fired from his firm for having AIDS. The working title of Philadelphia—People Like Us—hints at Demme’s failure to dramatize this situation beyond the superficial: the very specific use of “us” posits a false majority rule, a presumptive and prejudiced declaration that assumes gays and AIDS-sufferers want nothing more than to be absorbed into the pigskin-throwing purview of John Q. Hetero. Hanks is, of course, the perfect conduit for such a reductio ad absurdum, a highly overrated actor whose idea of progress is to play conceptual fags, retards (Forrest Gump), and blue-collars (Cast Away) with an aw-shucks ingratiation (a career path put to profound satirical use in Catch Me If You Can—his one truly great performance) that would be more offensive were it not for the existence of Robin Williams and Kevin Spacey, who hold the patent and copyright on martyr-ready American man-children.
Hanks-as-Beckett’s holier-than-thou optimism seems particularly ridiculous in light of the actual gays and AIDS patients Demme uses as background artists; no surprise that the naked civil servant himself, Quentin Crisp, exudes more personal and political history as a silent extra than Hanks and Antonio Banderas do as the homo couple you can take home to your Christian Coalition grandma. For Demme, a filmmaker whose raison d’être is the celebration of diversity, Philadelphia is an unfortunate misstep, though one tempered by the retrospective knowledge that the director had a string of masterpieces in store (Beloved, The Truth About Charlie, and The Manchurian Candidate) that would more than restore his standing as American cinema’s poet laureate.
Philadelphia comes to us in a two-disc special edition. The first disc houses the film in an anamorphic 1.85:1 high-definition transfer that (minus some speckles over the Tri-Star horse logo) looks spectacular. The film unfortunately has less of Demme and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto's surreal flourishes, settling more for stasis as opposed to movement, but when the visual stylings hit, the images pop (check out those reds during the opera sequence!). Audio tracks include: English 5.0 Dolby Digital and French, Japanese, and Spanish Dolby Surround. Featured subtitle choices are English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese, and Thai.
Disc one includes a new filmmakers' commentary with Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner. It's apparent they love Philadelphia and think it helped society more than hurt it (a point surely to be contended, ad nauseum, by supporters and detractors alike), though this life-long Demme fan wishes the director might have engaged the naysayers with a bit more intelligence and less of this track's knee-jerk defensiveness. Disc two houses the majority of the extras, which include a new behind-the-scenes documentary "People Like Us: Making Philadelphia" that is best when talking about the untimely death of gay Wooster Group actor Ron Vawter. A second documentary, 1992's "One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave," is a project originated by Juan Botas, a now-deceased artist who, at Demme's behest, videotaped his and other AIDS victim's treatments in New York City's Dolly Madison Room clinic; it's an understatement to say that this harrowing personal memoir reveals Philadelphia as a whitewashed poseur to AIDS's byzantine realities. A selection of deleted scenes are all worthwhile footnotes, especially the much-talked about bedroom scene between Hanks and Banderas, which-unfortunately-is just as tentative and unconvincing as the rest of their onscreen relationship. Also included is the music video for Bruce Springsteen's Academy Award winning song "Streets of Philadelphia," a selection of outtakes from the film's courthouse protest sequence, Denzel Washington's spot-on parody of a law-firm television ad, a short behind-the-scenes featurette made at the time of Philadelphia's initial release, filmographies, and a selection of Columbia/Tri-Star previews, which include the film's original theatrical trailer.
The road to Philadelphia was paved with good intentions.