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Release Date(s)1993 (May 14, 2013)
Studio(s)TriStar Pictures (Twilight Time)
If you’ve ever taken any sort of film history class, one of the first things you’ll hear from your instructor is the importance of watching films within the context of their time. Attitudes change over time and what was once groundbreaking can now seem outdated or quaint. That holds true whether you’re watching a silent film or something as relatively recent as Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia.
Philadelphia was by no means the first movie to deal with the subject of AIDS. The disease had been in the news for the better part of a decade by the time of the film’s release in late 1993. Independents like Parting Glances and Longtime Companion and the TV-movie An Early Frost got there first and, arguably, handled it better. But Philadelphia was a major step forward in the still-ongoing acceptance of homosexuality by mainstream America.
Today, Philadelphia has been somewhat overshadowed by the films and TV shows it helped make possible and not entirely without reason. At its core lies a fairly routine courtroom drama that occasionally stretches credulity. But Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance remains as affecting as ever. Denzel Washington is equally excellent, matching Hanks beat for beat. Hanks and Washington are two of the finest actors we have and it’s a real treat seeing them together.
The movie did generate some criticism over its more Capra-esque elements. Hanks’ ultra-supportive family may strike some as too good to be true. But in 1993, it was more important for Hollywood to show a gay man surrounded by a loving family who accept him whole-heartedly. A more justifiable complaint surrounds the practically platonic physical relationship between Hanks and partner Antonio Banderas. While Demme may have erred a bit too much on the side of caution when he cut the more intimate scenes from the film, it’s hard to definitively say it was the wrong choice. After all, the movie in many ways isn’t even really about Tom Hanks’ character. It’s about Denzel Washington’s homophobic character learning a little bit of tolerance and respect from his interactions with Hanks.
Twilight Time’s Limited Edition Blu-ray of Philadelphia boasts a vivid, nicely detailed image. I was a bit surprised by how dark and grimy the movie looked at first but the picture warms up nicely as it goes along. The 5.1 DTS-HD audio doesn’t have a lot to do except when music kicks in but it’s a solid, effective track.
The extras are a bit more problematic. The disc includes an excellent audio commentary by Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, Howard Shore’s score on an isolated audio track, a vintage “making-of” featurette, some deleted scenes and additional footage of the courthouse protest scene. That’s all well and good but Sony’s Anniversary Edition DVD from 2004 had a lot more: an hour-long documentary on the making of the film, a lengthy doc about real-life AIDS victims, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” music video. The movie itself looks great and the extras that are here are fine but considering the expense, unless you’re one of those people who believes that standard-definition images will hurt your eyes, there just isn’t enough here to justify an upgrade from the DVD.
Philadelphia is certainly a significant film filled with top-notch actors working at the peak of their abilities. If today it seems a little heavy-handed in its approach to homophobia, that’s a good barometer of how far we’ve come in a fairly short time. And the movie continues to have enough resonance to demonstrate that we still have a long way to go.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke