Saturday, March 24, 2012

Director's Spotlight #5.11: Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. March’s director is the perpetually underrated Jonathan Demme.

Grade: 75 (B+)

The Silence of the Lambs was an unqualified success for Jonathan Demme. The film was the biggest box office hit of Demme’s career (nearly $300 million dollars), and the film’s surprise sweep of the five major categories at the Oscars (Picture, Director for Demme, Actress for Jodie Foster, Actor for Anthony Hopkins, and Screenplay for Ted Tally) has been equaled by only two other films (It Happened One Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). The film was met, however, with criticism of the “Buffalo Bill” character as another in a series of negative homosexual characters in the history of movies. Demme was quick to make the film’s point that the character wasn’t a homosexual or transsexual, but rather a man who hated his own identity. He did, however, recognize the absence of positive gay characters in mainstream film, and he had been developing a project that covered homosexuality, homophobia, and the AIDS crisis. The resulting film, Philadelphia, is perhaps the greatest plea for tolerance in Demme’s career, and helped bring greater awareness to America after it was a $200 million hit.

Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks in the role that won him his first Oscar) is a promising young lawyer at a major law firm. He has been handed an important case by one of the partners. But Beckett is not open about his homosexuality, nor about the fact that he is suffering from AIDS.  When one of the partners notices a lesion on Beckett’s head, he informs the other partners, and Beckett is fired under the pretenses of incompetence. Beckett tries to find a lawyer to help him file a wrongful termination suit, but no one will take his case. He turns to Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a personal injury lawyer whom with he had previously opposed. Miller is homophobic and ignorant of how AIDS works, but he eventually sees that the law has been broken and that he must take the case.

Philadelphia is one of Demme’s most conventional films, at least at first glance. The film maintains a mostly serious tone throughout (as demanded by the subject matter)- the quirky humanist of the 80s comedies is largely in retreat. But Philadelphia is still a very strong piece of filmmaking. Demme and regular cinematographer Tak Fujimoto bring typically fluid camerawork for early scenes touring the city of Philadelphia, showing it in all of it’s glory and woe. Demme and Fujimoto also carry over The Silence of the Lambs’  great use of close-ups and first-person perspective shots. These shots are almost always used as either A. to show Andrew’s reactions to his environment, or B. to show the world’s reaction to Andew. When senior partner Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) and other partners (Robert Ridgely, Ron Vawter, Roger Corman) notice Andrew’s lesion, their faces overpower the frame, their reactions devoid of understanding or compassion. Close-ups of Andrew’s face make great use of Hanks’ ability to convey Andrew’s pain, fear, and perseverance. Better still is the use of Andrew’s first-person perspective in his testimony: as the questions become more probing and Andrew grows weaker, the camera begins to tilt, first slightly, then almost completely to the side. This man is falling apart.

Demme’s love of music carries over well (albeit in a mostly restrained way). The film is notably soundtracked by two Oscar-nominated songs: Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” (which won) and Neil Young’s “Philadelphia”. The first song is used as an introduction to the film, the second as a farewell. Both songs plea for understanding, acceptance, and tolerance. Both songs were written by major mainstream rock stars whose mass appeal helps court the sympathies of the average American who might not be initially open to a film about AIDS and homosexuality.

The Demme of Stop Making Sense isn’t completely gone, however. Demme makes great use of live music as well, first at a gay costume party attended by Andrew, Joe, and Andrew’s partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas). There, a gay barbershop quartet sings a lively version of “Mr. Sandman”, and Q Lazzarus sings the Talking Heads song “Heaven”, about a place where nothing bad ever happens. Best of all is a much-lauded sequence involving Andrew’s love of opera (more on that later).

Demme’s use of kitsch Americana is very restrained compared to previous outings as well. One of the best sequences in the film, however, shows Andrew at a gay costume party with partner Miguel. Andrew invites Joe (who shows up in the hilariously square costume of a “law suit”, or a suit with the Constitution on it). The costume party brings a moment of levity to a heavy film, and it shows Demme’s appreciation for all walks of life in America. Demme also makes good use of home movies, first as Andrew tours his old home and meets up with his family, and later, after Andrew’s death (really not spoiling anything here), when his family watches home movies of him as a happy, healthy child.

Demme uses striking background characters as he did in the past, albeit in a less quirky way. Instead, Demme brings in gaunt figures as other men and women suffering with AIDS and familiar faces to bring weight to the proceedings. The intolerant partners are played by Jason Robards, Robert Ridgely, and Roger Corman. The partner more sympathetic to Andrew’s plea and regretful over his firing is played by character actor Ron Vawter, a friend of Demme’s whose HIV-positive diagnosis inspired him to make the film. The judge is played by Demme-regular Charles Napier, one of the jury members by producer Kenneth Utt. One of the film’s cleverest bits of casting is the sweet-natured Mary Steenburgen as the prosecutor. Steenburgen has won an Oscar as the put-upon wife in Demme’s Melvin and Howard, but here Demme casts her as the woman whose job it is to smear Andrew’s character (against her wishes). This gives  her a strange power to insinuate without seeming overtly venomous.

Best of all is Demme’s casting of noted character actors as Andrew’s family (most notably Joanne Woodward as his mother). Demme had expressed a 1960s-style “One World” philosophy in his previous films. That’s on display here (most notably in a courtroom scene involving an African-American woman coming to Andrew’s defense), but the film makes an even better case for tolerance in the family. Andrew’s family is the kind that a gay man or woman would love to have- warm, loving, accepting, and supportive. The characters are perhaps not as well-drawn as they should be, but Demme brings his signature warmth to their scenes together. If only more families were like this.

These characters are support for the two leading roles in the film- Hanks as Beckett and Washington as Miller. The two parts ask not for a transformation into another perosn, but rather for actors with familiarity. Hanks was a likable comedic actor known primarily for Splash and Big up to this point, and he brings his innate savvy and likability to his role as Andrew. We immediately like him and side with him. He’s a lawyer, but he’s a Demme-style moral young man. Andrew remarks, “I love the law. I know the law. I excel at practicing it.” His favorite part? “Every now and again, you get to be part of justice being done.” As he grows sicker (here’s where the transformation comes), we feel his pain and yearn for anything to ease his woes. In the film’s most celebrated scene (and likely the one that won Hanks the Oscar), Andrew plays his favorite opera aria for Joe. The song serves as an emotional expression of Andrew’s inner torment- “I bring sorrow to those who love me…live still…I am life…heaven is in your eyes…I am oblivion”.

Washington, to his credit, is also good as Miler. He brings his innate dignity and intelligence to his role as a man whose ignorance clashes with his intelligence. He’s a good lawyer, father, and husband, but he’s uncomfortable around homosexuals and he’s not above making cheap jokes about them. As he grows to sympathize with Andrew, however, an understanding forms.

In it’s handling of social issues, Philadelphia is a plea for tolerance and understanding. Its setting in the city of brotherly love, the birthplace of America, is no coincidence. The city, and the nation, does not reflect the ideals it put forth. It rejects Andrew and others like him, makes them lonely and hopeless. When Andrew’s trial becomes public, it attracts both supporters and hateful characters (including a Westboro Baptist Church inspired group). Rather than admit they’ve done wrong and help Andrew, the firm tries to smear his character and punish him for being promiscuous- it’s his own doing. The film’s happy ending is a hard-won optimism- it doesn’t change that Andrew will (and does) die, or that there is still much hate within the world, but there’s optimism that everyone can change.

Philadelphia’s handling of social issues, however, is hardly perfect. Much criticism was leveled at the relationship between Hanks and Banderas. The two show a tenderness together, but in trying to court mainstream sympathies Demme eliminates any passion between the two. They do not make love, they are not shown in bed together, they don’t embrace. They don’t even kiss. The criticism that there are zero explicit gay sex scenes is a bit off the mark- it is trying to appeal to mass audiences and bring awareness to them- but Demme goes too far in the other direction. Worse, the film displays an almost stifling earnestness in its second act, which mostly follows Joe as he defends Andrew and struggles with his own homophobia. There’s a bit too much sermonizing, and the film’s “can’t we all just get along” harms the gripping story at the film’s center. Demme wanted to make an important movie about an importance subject, but the subject occasionally overwhelms him. This problem is absent in the superior first act and mostly lessens in the third act (both of which follow Andrew, as they should). But the third act shares another problem with the second- by this point, Philadelphia turns into a fairly straightforward courtroom drama. It’s superbly acted and mostly satisfying, but it’s rather conventional by Demme standards.

Still, it’s hard to deny Philadelphia’s moving story, power, and warmth. Demme’s personality occasionally takes a backseat to the message, but the film mostly works anyway, and Demme’s always been one to yield the floor to the subject matter. It worked to his advantage here. He would have a trickier time with his next film, Beloved.

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