In a nutshell, Bored & Dangerous says: “Tom Hanks walked away with the Oscar for Philadelphia, but it’s really Denzel Washington’s movie.”
“We’re standing here in Philadelphia, the, uh, city of brotherly love, the birthplace of freedom, where the, uh, founding fathers authored the Declaration of Independence, and I don’t recall that glorious document saying anything about all straight men are created equal. I believe it says all men are created equal.”
In my lifetime, the concept of HIV and AIDS has gone from something Eddie Murphy would flippantly joke about people kissing a gay guy and, “going home with AIDS on their lips”, to the cause of pretty substantial panic and discrimination. From a definite killer, to something that can be somewhat contained with proper care. And I never really thought about how amazing that evolution of the public consciousness regarding this issue was, until I watched a Philadelphia in a 2016 context.
Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a young, hot short attorney, working for the largest corporate law firm in Philadelphia. Coming off a win against the smaller time Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), Andrew is given a promotion by his firm’s cigar chomping, fat cat senior partner, Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards). The only problem is, Andrew is in the closet and has recently contracted AIDS. He’s been able to hide it from his employers until the outward, physical signs become too obvious. One day, when some files mysteriously go missing, it’s the convenient opportunity his bosses need to sack Andrew, while claiming it has nothing to do with his illness or sexual orientation.
Andrew decides to sue his ex-firm for unfair dismissal, and when his first nine choices for representation all turn him down, he ends up in the office of Joe Miller. At first, even Joe is reluctant, with an Eddie-Murphy-in-Delirious-like fear of AIDS. But his better nature wins out in the end, and Joe takes the case. So now it’s the AIDS afflicted gay guy and his ambulance chasing lawyer, taking on the biggest wigs in town, over an issue that was still scary in 1993 to a public who didn’t really understand what they were scared of.
Apparently, the character of Joe was originally written as Italian American. But it just seems to make so much more sense for him to be black. An African American character brings with him centuries of oppression and discrimination. So when Joe learns about Andrew’s AIDS while the two are shaking hands and immediately pulls his hand away, backing away to the opposite side of the room, these few seconds of non verbal action setup the entire message of the movie immediately.
Tom Hanks walked away with the Oscar for Philadelphia, but it’s really Denzel Washington who walks away with the movie. Not to take anything away from Hanks, whose physical transformation and weight loss is extreme. But while he spends large sections sitting silent in a courtroom, it’s Washington delivering the big speeches and it’s Washington whose character gets a real arc, as Joe Miller goes from AIDS fearing homophobe, to accepting Andrew Beckett for who he is.