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Brotherly Love BY STEVEN G. KELLMAN PHILADELPHIA Directed by Jonathan Demme p HILADELPHIA opens with an aerial shot of landmarks in the Pennsylvania metropolis. A song called “Phila delphia” is sung at the beginning and the end. Yet, aside from facile cynicism about the City of Brotherly Love awash in homophobia and about injustice alive in the home of Liberty Hall, there is no reason that the film could not have been set in Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, or dozens of other American cities plagued by AIDS and lawyers. A more appropriate title for this topical courtroom drama might have been Presumed Infectious. It is the story of Andrew Beckett \(Tom promising career is thwarted by fatal disease and dismissal from the city’s leading legal firm. Within weeks of being assigned an important corporate case and appointed senior associate, Andy is fired for alleged. incompetence. A discreet homosexual whose AIDSrelated lesions are becoming too conspicuous to ignore, Andy is convinced that his colleagues have turned against him because of his health and his sexual orientation. Andy sues his former employers, resulting in the litigious spectacle of plaintiff, defendants, and counsel all members of the bar. “What do you call 1,000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?” asks Andy in almost his final breath. His acid answer is not: “Free Willy rewritten by John Grisham,” but rather: “A good start.” Near the start of Ron Nyswaner’ s earnest script, Andy solicits the legal services of Joe Miller \(Denzel who is initially repulsed both by Andy’s physical condition and his homosexuality. “I admit it,” Joe tells his pregnant wife. “I’m prejudiced.” As important as the course of Andy’s judicial battle is Joe’s conversion from homophobia to respectful toleration. After first turning Andy away, Joe, a storefront independent famous for his garish TV ads, ends up taking on the mandarins who evicted Andy from their elegant offices. Not incidentally, Joe is black, a fact that mutes the ugliness of his aversion to gays and that reinforces his Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative liter ature at the University of Texas at San Antonio. role as righteous underdog. At worst, Washington’s Joe is an amiable bigot, but that worst is soon improved through association with Andy and his friends. Joe’s immediate response to the initial visit from Andy is to rush to his family doctor and quiz him about AIDS. It is hard to believe that, more than a decade into the pandemic, a streetsmart dude like Joe does not already know the basic details he is told. Joe instructs the doctor to start with the most rudimentary information, as though he were six years old. Later, in court, he asks a witness to testify in very simple terms, as though the lawyer were six years old. In both cases, the rhetorical ploy applies most logically to the audience outside the film. It is a justification for inserting very elementary facts, so that even the most obtuse viewer, who might have wandered into Philadelphia expecting to see a comedy with Katharine Hepburn and James Stewart, cannot avoid drawing very clear conclusions. For those of us who have gotten to seven years of age, the effect is stultifying. Much is being made of the fact that Philadelphia is the firs.t major movie release to center on a char acter afflicted with AIDS. It is not a truth universally acknowledged that feature films have a responsibility to tackle current social problems. Where is the cinematic saga of the Great American Health Care Plan? Who will star in a tragedy about the federal budget deficit? One can imagine anxious conferences at Tri-Star Pictures over how to make gay AIDS drama both meritorious and marketable. The result is a movie that will neither outdraw Wayne’s World 2 nor outclass The Piano. The pieties of Philadelphia do nothing to enhance the standing of Jonathan Demme, who, with Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, and Stop Making Sense, established himself as the most interesting American director of his generation. Hanks’ performance as Andy Beckett, disfigured by lesions and debilitated by exhaustion, is said to be courageous, except that stars routinely collect kudos for abjuring glamour and appearing either handicapped or hideous; consider Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, Vanessa Redgrave in Playing for Time, or Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Except for the solitary indiscretion at a gay porno theater that resulted in his infection, Hanks’ Andy is a responsible middle-class professional, monogamously attached to his longtime companion Miguel \(Antonio family, including a mother, played by Joanne Woodward, whose face for most of the film is a portrait in loving grief. “I didn’t raise you kids to sit in the back of the bus,” she says, supporting Andy’s decision to fight for his rights and reinforcing the civil rights metaphor that suffuses a film in which the victim’s lawyer is black and his lover is Latino. The villain, Andy’s legal mentor Charles Wheeler, is played by Jason Robards, Jr., a master at portraying white Protestant sourpusses. It is hard to admire the city’s top corporate lawyer when we see him tell bad fag jokes in the sauna and later brutally discard his most dedicated disciple. None of this is to say that Andy Beckett should have been portrayed as flagrantly queer, an attorney who insists on his right to fondle the bailiffs or come to the office dressed in a skirt. Homosexuals who lead conventional lives also deserve our respect and merit the attention of the camera, too. But Philadelphia is a morality play, and its morality is already played out before we see the opening frame. Even Wheeler’s own lawyer, played with cool aplomb by Mary Steenburgen, ends up sympathizing with Andy. “I hate this case,” she whispers during a particularly distasteful moment in court. When a pretty secretary who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion is called to the stand and expresses solidarity with the homosexual plaintiff, no one on the jury or in the audience can possibly miss the point that all AIDS patients are innocent victims. Sixthgraders certainly need to learn these things, but to the rest of us, especially those who have already seen Longtime Companion or Silverlake Life, Philadelphia is bound to seem patronizing and primitive. “Didn’t you have an obligation to tell your employer you had this dreaded, deadly disease?” Joe asks Andy during their first meeting. Though Andy’s health soon deteriorates to the point that, even if not fired, he could not have fulfilled his professional duties, the question is begged. Philadelphia overwhelms ethical subtleties with antipathy toward the smugness of corporate lawyers and with sympathy for a dying gay man, his Latino loVer, and his black lawyer. In that sense, at least, this Hollywood movie is diverting. 20 JANUARY 28, 1994