Philadelphia – The Wiz Retro Rewind

Some things are great forever…some have an expiration date. For this fact alone, some “All-Time Greats” need a serious reality check to see if they still stand up or can still be considered great at this present time. Enter “The Wiz Retro Rewind,” where The Wiz re-examines some important and beloved films to see if it’s still good, still relevant or if could be expanded upon or updated.

On this entry, we look at a film that gave Tom Hanks his first Oscar for Best Actor. It’s hard not to think of a time when people questioned whether he could do drama, but this was the film that made many realize how talented he could be. This film won numerous awards at the time of its release and has also be honored by the American Film Institute with two of it’s 100 Years… lists. It’s #20 on the 100 Years…100 Cheers list for most inspirational movies. The character portrayed by Tom Hanks, Andrew Beckett is #49 in the 100 Years…100 Heroes and villains list.

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Philadelphia was considered an important movie in several aspects: in the entertainment aspect, it solidified Tom Hanks as a great dramatic actor, which led to him dominating the 90’s with celebrated performances.

What it also did, in a cultural aspect, is provide a lens to a long-suffering group of people who, at the time, were being highly ostracized and discriminated against, even in the early 90’s. Watching films from that time period, you can still see performances that can be deemed offensive to homosexual society.

Watching America’s favorite comedic actor play an AIDS stricken homosexual? That was a risk in many people eyes and, of course, it worked.

This is where Philadelphia ages well; it’s a reminder of how, at this period of time, we were overwhelmed with fear and a feeling of social isolation that homosexuals, even those without AIDS, were feeling at the time. It’s a reminder of, while we are better than we were two decades ago, there is still some things we have still have to work on.

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Transformative

Sometimes in older movies, the use of make-up to age or disfigure an actor can sometimes look dated or just too “movie-like”, especially for the 80’s – 90’s. It’s surprising to see that Hanks’ transformation from healthy young man to sickly AIDS stricken adult still looks convincing in a make up sense.

This can also go for the performance of Hanks as Andrew Beckett, a man who believes he is fired because of the fact that he had AIDS and is a homosexual. Hanks’ performance is still a grounded, heartfelt and emotionally draining to watch.

Transformative performances that require actors to undergo some sort of physical change can be distracting to watch (see The Machinist), yet the film’s subtle ways of showing Beckett’s physical decay is deftly done. Even when you go back to his healthier self in flashback, it doesn’t feel like a device of emotional manipulation.

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Snapshot of Less Forgiving Times

Philadelphia is a surprisingly adept and calculated picture of the treatment and shunning of the homosexual lifestyle in the 90’s. This is including recent movies like Dallas Buyers Club, which has a less morally instructed character than that of Andrew Beckett.

Yes, in the early 90’s, character just had to be likable to root for or to watch, for the most part. But the film does an outstanding job showcasing the isolation that Beckett felt throughout his entire ordeal. It not only gives you a grounded, realistic character but it also gives you a flawed person you want to root for.

The fact that his savior, played by Denzel Washington, isn’t fond of his life style or life choices, provides another dynamic that further illustrates the loneliness that he goes through just for being who he is.

This provides a distinct difference that LGBT movies (or popular ones) seem to not dive into anymore. Movies like Milk and Pride show that there are isolating qualities in the choice of being LGBT, but that there is still a strong, vibrant and supportive community for them (and as they should, it’s a great message for people who have long been in the closet or just need to find themselves).

Philadelphia provides another look at a different time that is lonely, scary and seems completely withdrawn from society (most recent film I can think of that does this is Brokeback Mountain). It doesn’t evangelize the character or his choices either: he’s a man who has made mistakes and is going to pay for them.

But the film’s main message is that of being able to accept the human condition no matter what form it comes into, which is surprisingly powerful even by today’s standards and events in LGBT culture. Philadelphia is a movie that should be in that wheelhouse, along with Brokeback Mountain and Milk.

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A Sign of the Times?

Now, with all that being said, some who watch and enjoy LGBT themed films may have a few issues with the film and the way it portrays homosexuals.

Mainly, the only time you really see homosexual acts are in circumstances that are considered to be thematic elements, or perceived. The way it also is portrayed is strangely taboo for a movie that is pro LGBT.

Questions of what homosexuals do in “sanctioned areas” (for example, the movie theatre that shows gay porn that people have sex in) and how their lifestyle is just…different, but okay.

Namely, what the film doesn’t seem to do a great job of is portray homosexuals as…normal people. Except for the main character of course. Antonio Banderas clearly is an overly feminine man so we can clearly see who is the “woman” in the relationship.

The only other gays you see in the film are flamboyant, obvious and clearly buy into the stereotypes of what more closed-minded people perceive them to be.

Hell, the only time any affection between gay lovers in even inferred is in the aforementioned seedy theatre sex that is strongly implied. You don’t see Hanks and Banderas kiss, you don’t see other gays kiss. You seem them flirt, in an overly aggressive way at times, which plays into other stereotypes.

To me, a straight man in his 30’s, it just feels like a compromise Jonathan Demme had to make to get the film funded, since many were still uncomfortable with men locking lips with each other on-screen (females, on the other hand, perfectly okay).

To some, that will offend and show the film as nothing more than a disingenuous relic. I don’t feel so, but it does need to be pointed out.

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Witness to Persecution

So, let’s say the LGBT themes don’t really mean much to you. In fact, you could go either way.

The film is also an effective courtroom drama. This part is carried by Denzel Washington, who plays Beckett’s attorney. His performance is one of his best, alongside performances like Glory and A Midsummer’s Night Dream, but it’s a showy performance that has its own tone to the film.

The film really has a two-prong feel to it: Yes, the story is truly about Beckett, but the movie reminds me of To Kill A Mockingbird, which has very effective legal drama along with the very effective personal drama.

The legal drama goes at a good pace and the tug and pull of a good legal suspense drama is in this movie.

Is it the strongest part of the film? No, it’s not but the film does blend both aspect well, even though both could make good movies on their own.

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Is it Good? Is it Still Relevant?

Who Should See It:

Fans of Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington
Film lover interested in LGBT themes
Those who watched and liked Milk and Dallas Buyers Club

Who Shouldn’t See It:

Those who are uninterested in past depictions of LGBT
Those who are bothered by “safe” portrayals of LGBT

Philadelphia is a movie that should be an important film in American culture. Sadly, it’s only important to a certain section of society, which is a shame. The movie works in message and treats with subject with as much respect as it could at the time.

There are parts to the film that might make others cringe, due to how insensitive it may seem, but it’s still a fantastic movie that should be experienced.

The Wiz Retro Rewind #7

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