I love the law. I know the law. I excel at practicing it. What I love the most about the laws is that every now and again – not that often, but occasionally – you get to be part of justice being done. It really is quite a thrill when that happens.
-- Andrew Beckett, testifying
Up-and-coming young lawyer Andrew Beckett has just been fired by his prestigious law firm. His former colleagues claim he’s just not good enough; Andrew says he’s been fired because he’s got AIDS.
Determined to defend his professional reputation, Andrew hires fierce, brilliant personal-injury attorney Joe Miller to represent him as he sues his former firm for wrongful termination.
Separated from Andrew by a deep social and cultural chasm, Joe was initially reluctant to take his case. He wasn’t alone in hesitating: at least nine other lawyers had already refused to represent Andrew.
For Andrew the battle is clear cut: he’s fighting for his reputations, for his life, for justice. Joe, however, faces a different kind of struggle as he confronts his own fears and prejudices about homosexuals.
TriStar Pictures’ Philadelphia stars Tom Hanks as Andrew Beckett and Denzel Washington as Joe Miller. Also starring are Jason Robards as Charles Wheeler, the head of the law firm which fires Andrew; Mary Steenburgen as Belinda Conine, chief litigator for the defense; Antonio Banderas as Miguel, Andrew’s life partner; and Joanne Woodward as Andrew’s mother. Jonathan Demme directs the film, which is written by Ron Nyswaner. The producers are Edward Saxon and Jonathan Demme, and the executive producers are Gary Goetzman, Kenneth Utt and Ron Bozman.
Demme and Nyswaner first discussed the story idea four years ago. They had each just learned that someone close to them was suffering from AIDS.
“We said, ‘Let’s have the courage to make and entertaining movie that is sometimes funny about this very scary subject,’” Nyswaner says.
It took two years of Demme and Nyswaner sending articles back and forth, trading books and talking to family and friends to work out a compelling story.
“Jonathan brings an incredible need to tell the truth about how human beings think, feel and behave,” says Nyswaner. “His motto is, ‘Let’s entertain, and let’s be truthful, and let’s be bold.’ He’s a true humanitarian, so he brings that to every character in the script.”
It’s a script that Demme praises as containing “the most awesome array of rich, complicated, likable, maddening, fascinating characters, that I’ve come across in a long time.”
Richness and complexity of characters are especially evident in a pivotal scene in which Joe decides to take Andrew’s case. Joe initially refused to represent Andrew for “personal” reasons. Now, weeks later, he and Andrew are coincidentally doing research in a law library at the same time. Andrew is visibly showing the effects of his illness and is trying to fend off an insistent librarian who wants him to remove himself to a private room where, it’s implied, he won’t be able to infect the other library patrons.
Joe still harbors his own prejudices, but now he sees Andrew as a man vulnerable and alone who is being discriminated against, and it fills him with anger and compassions. Able to identify with Andrew in this instance of injustice, Joe then finds himself able to ally himself with Andrew in his larger battle against the discrimination he suffered when fired by his law firm.
“What brings us together,” Washington says, “is our love for the law. These are two very good lawyers, and once I started getting into the case with him, I can’t turn back.”
Saxon says: “There’s an Odd Couple aspect to this picture, which is about two very different characters. Joe and Andrew have the law in common, but otherwise they couldn’t be more dissimilar.”
Actors Eager To Sign On
Hanks and Washington, cast soon after the script got the go-ahead, were both anxious to work with Demme.
“I have been knocked out by Jonathan’s ability to make a movie since Stop Making Sense,” Hanks says. “I also relished working with Denzel, sparring with him; he’s a very witty guy. Rarely do I get to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe like this with an actor.”
Washington also has a high regard for Hanks. Before working with him on Philadelphia, Washington says, “I already knew what a great actor Tom was, but mostly in comedic terms, and I had a tremendous amount of respect for him. Now I’m even more impressed with what a good dramatic actor he is. I saw his dedication – how focused and disciplined he was.”
Washington was initially drawn to the production by his desire – after the experience of making Malcolm X and Much Ado About Nothing – to continue working with great filmmakers.
“I would have been attracted to any project Jonathan was doing because I just wanted to work with him. Then I read the script and saw how wonderful it was and how good Joe’s part was and how important the subject matter was. “
Washington will collaborate with Demme for a second time when he stars in Devil in a Blue Dress, which will be released by TriStar Pictures. Demme and Edward Saxon are executive producing the mystery, which is being produced by Gary Goetzman and Jesse Beaton. Carl Franklin (One False Move) is the director and screenwriter of Devil in a Blue Dress, which is based on the book by Walter Mosley.
Jason Robards was also eager to be a part of Philadelphia. “I thought it was a heartbreaking story. I didn’t care if I played and office worker in the background. I said, ‘I’ve got to be in this film.’”
Mary Steenburgen felt the same: “I said that I would do a walk-on in the movie because I would be so honored to be a part of it. There’s an amazing sense of purpose with this movie, a great communion among all the people who worked on it.”
In addition to Antonio Banderas (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) and award-winning actress Joanne Woodward, Philadelphia has a large and impressive cast. Ron Vawter (Shadows and Fog, Internal Affairs) stars as an attorney troubled by his firm’s treatment of Andrew, Robert Ridgely (Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Melvin and Howard) plays one of the attorneys most virulently opposed to gays, Charles Napier (The Silence of the Lambs, B.J. and the Bear) appears as the judge, and newcomer Lisa Summerour, who is making her feature film debut, plays Joe’s wife.
Others include Obba Babatunde (Tony nominee for Dreamgirls), who appears as one of the defense attorneys; the Reverend Robert Castle (Cousin Bobby) , who plays Andrew’s father; and Anna Deavere Smith (Obie for Fires in the Mirror), who portrays a paralegal in Andrew’s law firm.
The cast also included Andre B. Blake, Daniel Chapman, Roger Corman, Ann Dowd, David Drake, Karen Finley, Charles Glenn, Peter Jacobs, Paul Lazar, John Bedford Lloyd, Roberta Maxwell, Warren Miller, Harry Northup, Dan Olmstead, Joey Perillo, Lauren Roselli, Bill Rowe, Lisa Talerico, ,Daniel von Bargen, Tracey Walker, Bradley Whitford, Chandra Wilson, Kathryn Witt, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving in a cameo appearance.
Preparing For Their Roles
Immediately after he was cast, Hanks began to undertake a physical transformation for the role, working with personal trainers Paul McCauley and Dan Isaacson to lose, ultimately 30 pounds. He had to look like someone moving through progressive stages of AIDS, yet needed to be healthy and maintain high energy for the filming schedule. Make-up artist Carl Fullerton and hair designer Alan D’Angerio did extensive research on the effects of AIDS at medical libraries and clinics in order to give Hanks the proper look during each stage of Andrew’s illness. Hanks also read extensively on the subject of AIDS.
“I talked to any number of doctors and to men who had it,” Hanks says, “and I asked pretty blunt questions: ‘So what was it like when you found out? What went through your head?’ I couldn’t believe I was asking those questions, but those are the ones that I had to ask, and amazingly everyone I talked to was very forthcoming with information and suggestions and tips.”
To prepare for his role, Washington says: “I worked with some personal-injury lawyers, went to trials, learned how they think.
“It was harder for me to get the kind of homophobic attitude that Joe has in the beginning of the film – I had to work at that. I think it was very wise on Demme’s part not to have this character turn 360 degrees. By the end of the film, though, Joe has become more tolerant. At the beginning, Joe was nervous about being in the same room with Andy; but by the end, he’s actually touching him, he understands this is another human being who’s hurting, and what he’s labeled as shouldn’t have anything to do with their relationship.”
About The Production
“Dealing with the subjects that it does, our story could be set in any major city or even, at this stage, in many small towns, “ says Demme, who wanted a “real American city” in which to place the film. “But we decided that Philadelphia, known as the “City of Brotherly Love,’ the city where the Declaration of Independence was adopted, brought a special kind of resonance to a story about justice and brotherhood.”
A major requirement was the use of an empty court for four weeks. With the whole-hearted cooperation of Mayor Edward Rendell and Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Philadelphia film Office, the filmmakers were able to shoot in grand old courtroom 243 in Philadelphia’s City Hall while trials continued in surrounding courtrooms. IN fact, only one scene was shot on a soundstage; all the others were in actual locations: the University of Pennsylvania Library (designed by Frank Furness), Mt. Sinai Hospital, an architect’s loft in South Philly, the Spectrum sports arena ( where Julius “Dr. J” Erving appears in a cameo).
The modern marble and slate, leather and chrome quarters of the law firm of Mesirov, Gelman, Jaffe, Cramer & Jamieson became Andrew’s law firm of Wyant, Wheeler, Hellerman, Tetlow and Brown, and the Mellon Bank building was transformed into the Wheeler Building. The law firm donated its location fee to two local AIDS groups.
“The firm has a deconstructivist look – trendy but conservative,” says production designer Kristi Zea, who also served as associate producer and second unit director. “This was deliberate; this man (Charles Wheeler, played by Jason Robards) would not ever shed his old skin.”
The Swellegant Party
“Andrew and Miguel are living with a lot of heaviness, and their response is to throw the greatest party ever!” Jonathan Demme says. “My challenge as a filmmaker was to make the audience see a party that they will wish they had been at. There’s a Cole Porter song that inspired the nature of this party, the refrain of which is ‘What a swell party this is.’ It’s not just elegant, it’s swellegant, and because AIDS is a fatal illness, there’s a sense that this could be Andrew’s last party.”
The festive costume ball at Andrew and Miguel’s loft comprised a broad spectrum of ages, genders and sexual preferences. The costumes had many artistic and literary references: Quentin Crisp as Oscar Wilde, Roy Blount Jr. as Truman Capote, Everett Quinten and Black-Eyed Susan of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company as a ringmaster and flamenco dancer, Magritte and Van Gogh, Adam and Eve, the Pope and a bishop, Moliere, not to mention Gandhi (portrayed by independent filmmaker Enrique Oliver) and Mona Lisa.
Performers Q Lazzarus and the a capella quintet The Flirtations lent a party atmosphere, while Steadicam operator Garrett Brown (inventor of the Steadicam) circulated through the revelers.
“You don’t expect to see that party scene in this movie,” Tom Hanks says. “It could have been an incredibly intrusive moment that made no sense at all, but it stayed right on the path of where the movie is supposed to go. And it was a lot of fun to do.”
Andy and Miguel’s loft has a very different look. Some of the furniture was brought from Barcelona, and much of the art on the walls was created Juan Suarez Botas (a close friend of Demme and his wife, Joanne Howard, who had just died of AIDS).
“We felt that Miguel was pretty spiritual; we included iconography and religious items in recognition of the far-reaching effects of this disease.” Says Zea.
For a demonstration scene outside City Hall by supporters and protesters of Andy’s case, all the placards were adapted from actual demonstrations. (The filmmakers were heartened to find that it was much more difficult to recruit extras to portray anti-gay demonstrators.)
Reality was driven home in an emotional day of filming at a a local clinic, ActionAIDS, where 20 of the clients, many visibly suffering from HIV-related illnesses, participated in the scene.
Demme says: “What a privileged experience this has been for many of us who previously had not interacted directly with a person living with AIDS to witness firsthand the courage, the determinations, the humor, the wisdom and the spirituality of these unsung heroes of our age, engaged as they are in the epic struggle with this awesome disease.”
Philadelphia opens with the first song that Bruce Springsteen has ever written and performed for a motion picture. Entitled Streets of Philadelphia, the ballad is played during the opening title sequence of the film.
Also contributing original songs to the film are Neil Young, whose Philadelphia provides a moving musical close to the film, and Peter Gabriel, who wrote and performed Lovetown.
Other artists on the picture’s soundtrack include Spin Doctors doing their version of the John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Have You Ever Seen the Rain?; Indigo girls, who perform I Don’t Wanna Talk About It, which was written by Danny Whitten; RAM, a Haitian group Demme has long been interested in , doing Ibo Lele (Dreams Come True); and Pauletta Washington, a singer and Broadway actress Demme admired long before inviting her to contribute a song to the film. Washington performs It’s in Your Eyes.
“This is a story of a man who has been done wrong and wants justice…not retribution, but justice…We’re talking about a guy who was robbed and he wants to get back what was taken from him, and I think there’s nobody who can’t relate to that.”
“This is a movie much more about social injustice than it is about death and dying…In part, it’s about the struggle of a group of people to achieve the rights that other groups of people already have and take for granted.”
“Beckett discovers suddenly that he’s a victim. Not a victim of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, but a victim of the intolerance that goes along with that.”
“When Joe first meets Andrew, he says, ‘Hey, I’m not going to deal with that problem,’ but however one is discriminated against, it’s wrong, and that’s something Joe comes around to understanding.”
“This picture doesn’t shake a stick at people who are afraid of AIDS. I think it’s completely understandable for people to recoil at the idea of AIDS if they haven’t known someone or if they don’t have a loved one who is already fighting AIDS…”
“Where ignorance exists, fear exists. I was terrified of AIDS and people with AIDS until my friends and loved ones started getting it…then I had to come to terms with my own fear and fight against my own personal ignorance bred of the lack of information out there.”
“’Philadelphia’ deals with complex moral questions that people have to ask themselves in their daily lives: Do you have a responsibility to tell your employer that you’re sick? If you’re gay, do you have a responsibility to tell your friends? If you don’t like someone because they’re sick or gay, is that your right or isn’t it?”
“If 15 years in the future we see that we did nothing (to fight AIDS and the discrimination leveled against those suffering from the disease) – I mean no movies, paintings, plays – then we will not be able to say that we are artists. “
“In life, most of us are not heroes, most of us are not villains – we’re in the middle ground of being sympathetic towards injustice but not having the courage to stand up and confront bigotry. I think this film is a compelling appeal to people to get up and say, ‘This will not stand.’”