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For, Friday, Dec. 28, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Hanks won back-to-back best-actor Oscars in 1994 and 1995, the latter for ‘Forrest Gump’ and the former for this film, which has just been reissued in a new 4K/Blu-ray 25th Anniversary edition. Here’s my review, published in the Deseret News on Jan. 14, 1994.

Tom Hanks is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination next month as an AIDS-stricken lawyer in "Philadelphia." And though the film has moments that are too showy — grandstanding scenes that hammer home the main messages too heavily — it's a compelling yarn that deserves to find an audience.

The one drawback to Hanks' inherently sympathetic character and his terrific, wonderfully drawn performance in the role, however, is that it will likely overshadow an equally excellent but decidedly more subtle turn by Denzel Washington, playing a homophobic attorney whose narrow-mindedness is gradually altered over the course of the film.

If Hanks deserves an Oscar nomination, Washington most certainly does. But if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is true to form, look for Hanks' name to highlight the list of best-actor nominees, while Washington's will likely be left off.

"Philadelphia" opens with Hanks and Washington as opposing counsel in a civil case, which they are settling before a judge. Then, as each lawyer goes his own way, the majority of the first act is devoted to Hanks' story, as we discover that he works for a hugely successful law firm and is an upscale attorney on the rise. He is also an in-the-closet gay man living with his life partner (Antonio Banderas). And he has AIDS.


Denzel Washington, left, Tom Hanks, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, 'Philadelphia'

One day, as the firm's senior partners (with Jason Robards at the head) are offering Hanks a big client, one of them spots a lesion on Hanks' forehead. It becomes apparent to the audience at this point that Hanks' job may be in jeopardy, and as weeks go by, and the AIDS virus begins to take its toll, Hanks works on this important account at home, making excuses for not coming into the office.

On the day of his deadline, the file is misplaced … though it is eventually found … and, as a result, Hanks is summarily dismissed.

Certain that he has been fired because of his illness or his gayness — or both — Hanks decides to go after the firm with a discrimination suit, even as his body is beginning to give out.

After being turned away by several lawyers, Hanks calls on Washington, who doesn't even remember him — and who treats him like a leper. Washington also turns Hanks down, until a public incident causes a change of heart.

The film then splits its time fairly evenly between the stories of both men, with Washington being forced to come to terms with his own prejudices and Hanks coming to terms with his fate.

The final third of the movie settles into a fairly predictable courtroom melodrama, with Mary Steenburgen representing Robards and company. It is here that the film's more blatant — and redundant — melodramatic message moments occur.


While "Philadelphia" is an ambitious effort, touching on — but never exploring very deeply — a number of issues related to gays, AIDS and prejudice, it is, in general, character-driven, examining human beings caught up in crisis.

When it centers on the people in this tragedy and how their lives are affected, the film is quite moving and the message of tolerance comes through quite naturally. When it resorts to pontificating preachiness things bog down rather quickly.

The cast here is first-rate (including Joanne Woodward as Hanks' mother in a touching cameo), and the direction by Jonathan Demme ("Silence of the Lambs," "Melvin and Howard") and script by Ron Nyswaner ("Mrs. Soffel," "Smithereens") are also on the mark most of the way.

This is, of course, Hollywood's first major attempt to deal with AIDS in a serious and dignified manner — and in a big, commercial film — and as such, it is a landmark effort. If the film were a little less conventional it might also have achieved greatness. Still, it's very well made, with its heart in the right place, and as such is well worth a look.

"Philadelphia" is rated PG-13 for profanity, vulgar language, some nudity and adult themes.