Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Discrimination of a Different Color

"Now, explain it to me like I'm a 4–year–old."

Denzel Washington

In what is being described as a crowded pre–Christmas weekend for movies, Tom Hanks (possibly the most bankable male star — certainly one of them — of his generation) and Emma Thompson apparently struggled at the box office with their new movie about Walt Disney and the making of "Mary Poppins."

My guess is that it won't be long before the Hanks name will come to the rescue of "Saving Mr. Banks." It's hard to remember a time when Hanks wasn't a huge box–office draw. He had been nominated for an Oscar (for "Big"), and he had been in some other successful movies ("Sleepless in Seattle," "A League of Their Own") by this time in 1993 (and he had had his share of flops, too) — but the bulk of his Best Actor nominations (and all of his victories) were still in the future.

On this day in 1993, Hanks' future arrived.

Before "Philadelphia" was released 20 years ago today, no big–screen movie had truly dealt with the many and complex issues — social and political as well as medical — surrounding AIDS.

There had been earlier movies about AIDS, but they mostly seemed to focus on the medical mystery that existed regarding the disease and how one might come down with it. "Philadelphia" took on the issues that anyone with a deadly — and mostly misunderstood — disease must face.

From the start, AIDS patients were shunned like polio sufferers once were. Gradually, their suffering was the subject of movies and TV shows, but there was still a great deal of misunderstanding about the disease, how it was spread, all that stuff, and there was virtually no knowledge of the issues that AIDS sufferers faced — in schools, in the workplace, in the community at large.

"Philadelphia" tried to tell the story of one fictional individual afflicted with AIDS who was dismissed from his workplace.

Joe Miller: The Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against otherwise qualified handicapped persons who are able to perform the duties required by their employment. Although the ruling did not address the specific issue of HIV and AIDS discrimination ...

Andrew Beckett: Subsequent decisions have held that AIDS is protected as a handicap under law, not only because of the physical limitations it imposes, but because the prejudice surrounding AIDS exacts a social death which precedes the actual physical one.

Joe Miller: This is the essence of discrimination: formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with the same characteristics.

Andrew Beckett (Hanks) was a young lawyer in Philadelphia who had just been promoted to partner of his prestigious law firm and had been given a case involving the firm's most important client. He was also gay and had contracted AIDS, but he kept both his sexuality and his medical condition secret from his employers.

Within two weeks of his promotion, the file for this case disappeared, then was mysteriously found at the last minute, and Beckett was dismissed, ostensibly for incompetence, but he believed he was fired because someone at the firm had discovered that he had AIDS, and he went about suing the firm for wrongful dismissal.

To represent him in court, he got Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a personal–injury lawyer and unapologetic homophobe who at first declined to take the case but later agreed to do so for the money and exposure it offered. An interesting and ironic — and, in some ways, predictable — transformation took place. Miller began to realize that the discrimination that Beckett and others like him faced wasn't any different from the racial discrimination that Miller and others like him faced.

Discrimination is discrimination, whether it is based on race, religion, age or anything else.
Judge Garrett (Charles Napier): In this courtroom, Mr. Miller, justice is blind to matters of race, creed, color, religion and sexual orientation.

Joe Miller: With all due respect, your honor, we don't live in this courtroom, do we?

There were complaints from the gay community and elsewhere about some aspects of the movie. Some of the complaints focused on a perceived tendency to compromise on some harsh realities in order to appeal to a wider audience.

I'll give you an example of the kind of thing I mean.

I'm not gay, but I have friends who are, and some of them — in fact, many of them — have encountered the most resistance from those from whom support was expected — family and friends.

Hanks' character was fortunate in that he had a large, supportive family — "I didn't raise my kids to sit in the back of the bus," his mother (Joanne Woodward) told him — but many gay people have suffered the sting of the rejection of parents and siblings. Whatever the reason for it, that kind of rejection is painful, and I honestly felt that director Jonathan Demme kinda copped out on that one.

But Demme didn't entirely shy away from showing the pain of isolation brought on by the stigma of AIDS. It was most vividly illustrated when Hanks initially visited Miller, his one–time courtroom adversary, in search of legal representation and left rejected.

That scene was even more poignant when it was combined with Bruce Springsteen's haunting (and, eventually, Oscar–winning) song, "Streets of Philadelphia." I've never been the Springsteen fan that many of my peers are, but I have always admired that song.

Neil Young, another songwriter favored by those of my generation, shared the award with Springsteen.

Hanks received his second Best Actor nomination (and his first Oscar) for his performance in "Philadelphia."

Washington wasn't even recognized with a nomination from the Oscars. He had been nominated three times before — winning Best Supporting Actor for "Glory" — and, as of 2013, he has been nominated for Best Actor four times (winning in 2002 for "Training Day") — but he received no recognition for his work in "Philadelphia."

Neither, for that matter, was Jason Robards recognized for his work. Robards was one of my favorite actors, as is Mary Steenburgen (who played the law firm's legal representative in the suit), but neither was nominated by the Academy.

There were others who made memorable contributions for which I suppose it was a given that they would not be nominated for Oscars.

Possibly the most memorable was the performance of Ron Vawter as an associate at the firm. His character testified after Hanks' character collapsed in court and was taken to the hospital for what apparently was the last time.

Vawter's character said he didn't know that Hanks' character had AIDS, but he had suspected it. He was asked if he had ever mentioned his suspicions to Hanks. He replied that he had not, that he had not even given Hanks a chance to talk about his condition. "I think I'm going to regret that for as long as I live," he said.

There was irony in his words (even though they weren't his words but words he had been given by the script writer). Vawter was suffering from AIDS and died of a heart attack while flying from Zurich to New York less than four months after the debut of "Philadelphia." He was 45.