Talking Pictures

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Posted by keith1942 on August 28, 2012

The gay party – Joe and Andy in fancy dress.

USA Columbia Tri-Star 1993. Director Jonathan Demne. Screenplay Ron Nyswaner.

This fairly successful film at the box office combines a popular genre with an interest in a social problem. The genre is the court room drama, a type of narrative that lends itself to confronting not just crime, the law and justice but the attitudes of characters and audiences to the issues and values of the story. There have been a number of films that use the plot of court room dramatics to address what I call liberal issues – the classic 12 Angry Men (1957) deals with prejudice against ethnic young people as a jury consider a case,

In Philadelphia an African-American lawyer Joe Miller {Denzel Washington] takes on the case of a white lawyer Andy Beckett [Tom Hanks] who claims he lost post in a lucrative legal firm because he has Aids. The film thus marries the genre with the issue of homosexuality and homophobia. Produced early in the 1990s the film clearly responds to anxieties around the new epidemic and its frequent association with homosexuality. This also relates to the centuries old prejudices about certain sexual orientations: themselves changing under the impact of the Gay Liberation Movement [also represented briefly in the film]. The movie thus engages with two of the most important civil rights movements in post W.W.II USA: but women are left with subordinate roles in the film.

The film was publicised as Hollywood’s ‘first Aids movie’. Independent films and films from other countries had preceded it: Long-time Companions (USA, 1990), Les Nuits Fauves France 1992), The Band Played On (USA, 1993) among others.

A key scene in the film involves Joe, who is homophobic, and Andy, who is dying of the Aids disease. This scene runs from the point where Joe prepares for the courtroom Q + A with Andy. There is a fade-in on Joe sitting and Andy walking towards him with a cup of coffee, and the scene ends with a close-up of Joe at home with his sleeping wife, [there is then a cut to the following sequence]. The scene runs for 10 minutes.

Joe has remained after the party to rehearse Andy for the Q + A [Question and Answer] when he testifies on the following Monday. Ignoring Joe’s attempts to question him, Andy first raises the subject of his approaching death, then asks how Joe likes the music. This music is an aria from a C19th opera, Andrea Chernier.  Becoming more and more emotionally involved in the music, Andy talks of his feelings about love, death and loss which the case and his illness raise in him. Joe, whilst affected by Andy’s state, cannot cope with this raw emotion and when the aria ends, quickly leaves. On the stairs he hears the music start ups again, and for a moment is tempted to return and console the tormented Andy. But it is too much, he flees home to seek solace in the arms of his sleeping child and wife, whilst the audience still hears the aria, playing both in Andy’s flat and Joe’s head.

The sequence is filmed fairly conventionally to start with, establishing shot, mid-shots, close-ups – shot reverse shot in the conversation. Here though, as throughout the film, the technique of large close-ups is used extensively. Then during the emotional peak, whilst the aria is playing, the camera and the mise en scène become noticeable, with both unusual angles and emphatic colour: Andy is suffused in a red glow at the most dramatic point. For the finale as Joe returns home the camera returns to more conventional set-ups.

This sequence is the emotional centre of the film, bringing to a head the changing relationship of Andy and Joe. Andy is Ivy League, gay and successful. Joe is downmarket [the constant references to his TV advert], black and has to chase up every potential case. They are from the opposite sides of the track. Yet their common status as ‘victim’ brings them together. Andy is victimised because he is gay and has caught the ‘gay plague’, Aids. Joe is conscious of victimisation because he is black, though the movie only suggests this – in the baleful look of the library guard, in Joe’s place [with a fellow black lawyer] at the end [periphery] of the lawyers’ bar.  And in Joe’s comment that he will not ‘raise kids to sit at the back of the bus.’

This coming together through victimisation is fraught with difficulty. From the first moment we meet Andy and Joe their differences are highlighted by their respective sides on the same law case, and by Joe’s query of Andy’s use of the word ‘innocuous’. The case involves a construction company versus a small community group. In the course of the film Andy moves across from the side of corporations to that of that of those it exploits.

Andy and Joe at his office.

Later on, the audience discovers that Joe is separated from Andy even further by his homophobic attitudes. This, and Andy’s illness, send him first rushing to his doctor, and then bring forth a half-jokey but extremely prejudiced stream of comments to his wife (Lisa Miller – Lisa Summerour). The prejudice and fear find a centre in his protective fear for their newly born child, Louise.

By the time of the party Joe has started to change. Both the experience of the case and of related incidents, for example, his accosting by a young black gay legal student, have started to open his eyes. This change is registered in Andy’s remark early in the sequence, “congratulations councillor, you have survived what I assume to be your first gay party intact”. Joe’s remaining after the party has provided a small but notable visual point as Joe’s wife, free of his homophobia, is seen home by Andy’s male lover, Miguel (Antonio Banderas). The party has been arranged partly as a farewell before Andy’s approaching death. The audience learns this in one of the few intimate scenes between Andy and Miguel, a scene where once again an operatic aria is faintly heard in the background. Thus unexpressed overtones are already floating round this overt celebration.

And what follows is far away from the staid Q + A envisaged by Joe. Andy’s follow-up question emphasises the gulf between Joe and Andy. “Does this music bother you? Do you like opera?” Then Andy starts to show [rather than explain] what it is about this aria that means so much to him. The aria being played on the sound track is, as Andy tells us, from a late C19th opera, Andrea Chernier and performed by the iconic Maria Callas. Andy also translates several lines – “I bring sorry to those that love me”, “It was during this sorrow that love came to me”. For the filmmakers [and opera buffs] the particular aria provides an especially melodramatic tone. Set in the Paris of the C18th French Revolution, it tells the tale of a pair of ‘star-crossed’ lovers, who finally die together on the guillotine. The actual aria chosen, ‘La mamma morta’, is sung by the heroine Madalena, to a would-be-seducer as she bargains for the life of her lover. It recounts how she saw her family home burnt to the ground by ‘the mob’. The opera’s story reinforces the ideas about love and death that Andy extracts from the aria. However, the opera also suggests a rather subtle addition, as Andy literally performs the aria to Joe, paralleling Madalena’s distraught offering in the opera. In the opera the song moves the seducer to intervene on behalf of Madalena’s lover. And one sign of Joe’s changing attitudes and feelings is that he has already agreed to help Miguel after Andy’s death.

The emotional and literal fire of the aria is both recreated in the sequence. As Andy introduces the aria to Joe, the camera cuts to a high-angle shot, and high-angle shots dominate whilst the aria is actually playing. Andy, more and more caught up in the emotional intensity of the aria, performs the agony of the operatic character. Meanwhile, the staging creates other forms of intensity. Andy himself is bathed in a red light, long a cinematic sign for love, danger and fire. Meanwhile, a fire burns in a covered gate, and is nicely placed behind Joe in the wide-screen field of vision. The fire both metaphorically echoes Andy’s excess of emotion, but the guard speaks eloquently of the inhibitions that restrain Joe from any involvement.

Jonathan Demne and his co-film-makers appear to have deliberately staged this scene in a melodramatic fashion, complete with excessive emotion, exaggerated gesture, the literal melos of the opera, and the figurative melos of colour and camera angles. During the high point of the aria Andy writhes to the music, grasping the symbol of his plague, the saline drip, bathed in the garish red light. The oblique angles and close-ups of the camera reinforce the feel of the unusual. Joe, who remains seated, is literally speechless, watching Andy in a perplexed fashion, his face shifting in and out of vision, and in and out of shadow. Joe understands and wants to respond to Andy’s figurative cry, but he cannot bring himself to do so. The later turn back at the top of the stairs suggests Joe’s struggle. And the desperate embraces of child and wife on his return home display how deeply Andy’s emotions have touched him. However, the gulf is too great.

This is not just the gulf of Joe’s homophobia, but the class and cultural differences between them. The choice of the aria, from a popular but not terribly well known opera, is a mark of the high culture of Andy’s life and taste. A reminder of the query of ‘innocuous’. Andy’s homosexuality is intrinsically related by the movie to his cultural life. The staging of the film emphasises his differences from other people. Thus in his first visit to the Aids clinic, Andy is engrossed in opera on his personal stereo, seemingly indifferent to the fellow sufferers around him. He is thus aligned with Madalena of the opera, victim of the ‘the mob’, i.e. anti-gay and anti-aids prejudice.

This embodiment of differences would seem to undermine somewhat the overt project of the film, the coming together of people, symbolised in the title song, ‘Philadelphia’, often termed the ‘city of brotherly love’. Indeed, Joe himself uses the phrase in response to a question by a journalist. Finally, what seems most noticeable about Andy is his differences. Thus the overcompensated portrait of his family, whose love and acceptance of both Andy, his sexual orientation and his disease, seem too good to be true. During the party Andy’s sister happily watches him cradle her baby: a clear contrast to Joe’s hysterical fears for his daughter. Possibly, it is also a substitute for direct depiction of the sexual relationship between Andy and Miguel. The film obviously feels such a display might alienate the straight audience. Whilst there is an amount of dialogue about sex and indeed gay sex, we do not see any such act between Andy and Miguel, not even a kiss: [apparently such a scene was shot but not included in the final cut].

However, this downplaying of their relationship inhibits the movie from much exploration of their joint emotions. It does, of course, allow greater emphasis on the ambiguous relationship between Joe and Andy. For the audience the emotional excess is likely to seal their interest in Andy. It would seem that Joe, with his typical homophobia [the ordinary Joe] stands in for the audience, and that his path from prejudice to acceptance is that also hopefully envisaged for the audience. For this project the sequence with Andy provides an emotional bonding ready for the subsequent interrogation and revelation that Andy has been ‘promiscuous’. In accepting that the audience takes on [as have Andy’s family] his whole situation and therefore a commitment to his cause.  They can thus fully enjoy his legal triumph and mourn his early demise.

Andy faces the partners.

Right through the movie the position of characters tells the audience of the development in the story. Andy’s physical distance from the Firm’s Partners in the sequence in which he finds out he is sacked: and again, the way that Joe places the desk between him and Andy at the first consultation. During the aria sequence, despite Joe’s development, there is still a real gulf, but a gulf of emotion, not just prejudice. This is resolved for the audience later, just as the verdict resolves the Andy’s suffering from discrimination. So, in the hospital scene, Joe not only sits besides Andy, but also helps him with his facemask. A little later he embraces Miguel, a sort of surrogate for Andy. Then in the final scene of the film, when we again return to the flat to mourn for the death foretold by the aria, Joe is accompanied not only by his wife, but also his daughter Louise. The circle has been joined, and this coming together is reinforced on the soundtrack

The film lays great stress on visible love and friendship. Andy’s family provides this both in a scene of an anniversary party at the family home and with their presence and frequent supportive gestures in the courtroom. And the film uses the concept of the ‘city of brotherly love’ to reinforce this. The opening credits are accompanied by Bruce Springsteen’s rendering of ‘The Streets of Philadelphia’ as a series of mainly travelling shots explore the city and its people: predominately images that stress friendliness and community.

This also provides a contrast to the opposition, the prestigious law firm of Wheeler and Benedick.  The partners who control this firm are [bar one woman] male, white and Wasp-like. In the courtroom they are a line of suited and affluent older white men; contrasting with Andy’s more varied group and indeed the mixed jury, one of whose members is visually suggested as gay. This also applies to the subordinate women. Andy’s mother (Sarah Beckett – Joanne Woodward) is loving and caring and deeply affected by Andy’s illness. One of the women members of the law firm is presented as ethnic. And a mother accidentally touched with Aids is a witness on his behalf.

The all-male white partners have, presumably, attempted to change their image by hiring a female lawyer to present their case with an Afro-American associate. However, she (Belinda Conine – Mary Steenburgen) is portrayed very unsympathetically; only at one point does she display any sympathy as she whispers ‘I hate this case’. But most of her court appearances are hard-edged and she harries Andy over both his performance as a lawyer and his personal sexual life. In a rare subjective shot Andy sees her through a canted camera.

Belinda Conine addresses the jury.

The courtroom is presented for most of the trail in what seems to be a fairly accurate representation of actual legal practice. The lawyers sit and question witnesses at a respectful distance. Joe evens tells the jury that there will be no ‘tearful confessions’. A claim the film ignores with two highly melodramatic scenes, one where Andy reveals the lesions of his disease on his torso: the other when he collapses as Joe questions Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards).

The casting in the film illustrates the skill at which Hollywood excels. Three key characters are especially interesting in the choice of performers. Andy Beckett is played by Tom Hanks, who won an Oscar for the role. One comment on him is ‘boyishly charming’. Possibly more than any other star of his generation he came to represent the idealised hero of ‘small town America’. Think of two of his later films: Forest Gump (1994) and Apollo 13 (1995). Denzel Washington as Joe Miller is also a major star, and possibly the first Afro-American film actor to consistently play leads with whom the ‘multi-ethnic audiences’ can identify. The Pelican Brief  (193) and Crimson Tide (1995) demonstrate this and also Hollywood’s continuing timidity in addressing sexuality across the colour divide. But the most intriguing is Antonio Banderas as Miguel Alvarez. There is a long tradition in Hollywood of casting European stars when sexual licence or sexual difference is suggested. But on top of this there is Banderas’ work with the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar.  Atame (Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, 1993) deals comically with sexual issues that I doubt Hollywood has ever addressed openly.

Philadelphia demonstrates not the melodramatic conventions of a genre piece, but the use to which mainstream films put the melodramatic mode. At the critical moments, both in the narrative and in character relations, the film utilises the excess of melodrama to generate emotional sympathy and involvement rather than relying on the force of verbalised argument. The aria sequence includes the excess and exaggerated playing so dear to melodrama. It is essentially about displaying rather than explaining. It also allows for ambiguity and variation in audience response. And at its heart is the unveiling by Andy to Joe of his innermost feelings. A literal display of the ‘forbidden’ which is the main factor in Andy’s sufferings.


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