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Opening the Closet

They sport red ribbons from the costume department and pass the hat at parties, but Hollywood's glitterati know where their bread is buttered, and otherwise avoid the explosive AIDS issue. Even the studio advertising campaign for Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia is discreet and noncommital: You must read between the lines to understand that this is the first major Hollywood movie about the disease that has ravaged Hollywood even more deeply than other places.

And the only reason it got to the screen at all is Demme's clout within the industry after his The Silence of the Lambs won a bundle of Oscars.

That said, let's also note that Demme has done a courageous and admirable job. This intelligent, intermittently profound film might prove to be box-office poison, but that won't be because its makers have sidestepped the cruel realities of AIDS--or the cruel realities of American homophobia. If low-budget, low-profile dramas like Longtime Companion and half a dozen documentaries knocked on the door, Philadelphia will likely be the movie that flings the AIDS closet open.

For straights and gays alike, it's about time.
Comedy specialist Tom Hanks (Big, A League of Their Own) branches out here in the role of Andrew Beckett, a sharp-thinking, wisecracking yuppie lawyer who's being groomed for stardom by the partners of his blue-chip firm until they discover not only that he is homosexual, but that he has AIDS. Cast out as a pariah, Andy brings an unlawful-dismissal suit against his former employers, and Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner get the chance to air all those sensitive AIDS and homosexuality issues in open court.

But long before the case gets to trial in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia tackles most of the dark secrets and discomforts that swirl around AIDS: For better or worse, it's a kind of survey course in homophobia and current sexual politics, wrapped up in a melodrama that can be as witty as it is heartbreaking.

Heterosexual America's representatives, so to speak, are the homophobic, vaguely seedy personal-injury lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), who eventually takes Andy Beckett's case in spite of his own prejudices, and the upright, odious Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards), the powerful head of the firm that fires Beckett--the personification of traditional antigay sentiment. Lawyer-bashing is one of moviedom's most popular games these days, but that's not the point here: Deep-rooted antagonism against homosexuality is the real subject, and Demme never blinks.

Philadelphia reveals the telltale purple lesions on Andy's forehead and chest, as well as the lesions of bigotry in a fearful society. Joe Miller, a family man and Phillies fan given to papering the citizenry with business cards and promoting himself in TV spots, comes to grasp not only his limitations as a lawyer but his role as his brother's keeper: In Philadelphia, there's still a crack in the Liberty Bell; in America, justice doesn't always prevail.

Meanwhile, race remains usefully submerged: We understand that Joe Miller, who is black, takes Andy Beckett's case because Andy's civil rights have been violated in a way African-Americans' civil rights are routinely violated. But it's one of the movie's strengths that this dynamic is never bluntly stated. Instead we are left to contemplate how Joe Miller's fate in America--and ours--may be linked to Andy Beckett's. Robards's immovable Charles Wheeler, a tragic case in his own right, can never change, just as a slaveowner cannot. Thoroughly heterosexual Joe Miller, like the rest of us, is capable of enlightenment.

The movie is full of memorable moments--the odd meeting of minds of two young lawyers amid the stately quiet of a law library; Joe's outrage when a male student tries to pick him up at the drugstore; the ongoing tension between Andy Beckett's vivid, steel-trap mind and the clear deterioration of his health. A pivotal sequence in which Andy, with half a load on, finally unloads his fears and emotions amid a recorded Maria Callas aria, goes on too long, but it's easy to forgive Hanks and Demme this indulgence.

As usual, the director of such "actors' movies" as Melvin and Howard and Lambs has gotten splendid performances not only from his leads but from the supporting players--Joanne Woodward as Andy's heartbroken mother, showing a quiet, brave front; Antonio Banderas as Andy's loyal lover; and Robards's expensively suited Charles Wheeler, who serves as the highly symbolic villain of the piece, to be sure, but whose adventurous intelligence and majesty are noted even by his accuser at the trial.

In the end, though, Philadelphia is a double-barreled tour de force for Hanks and Washington, two fine young actors who invest this ground-breaking AIDS story with style, wit and high drama. In their uneasy, carefully detailed relationship, we glimpse the problems dividing straight and gay America and--if we are lucky--the path to understanding and beyond, to solidarity.

This important, long-overdue film may be only a beginning. But from the acorn does the great oak yet spring--even at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

 
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