Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My Favorite Scene: Philadelphia

Made two years after his Silence of the Lambs won the big five Oscars, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia did what no other film had done before: it openly discussed AIDS with unflinching candor. The film was searing and controversial; an all-around game changer.

While Philadelphia was met with its fair share of critics – right-winged pundits said the film’s message was misguided and pushed too far, film critics said its message wasn’t pushed far enough – I consider Philadelphia to be one of the best films released in a decade full of great ones.  There are many reasons for this: the way an explanation of an opera is lit, the way characters are framed, the way a book is slid across a table, the way Jason Robards inhabits a remorseless monster, and so on. The main reason the film works as well as it does, however, should be credited entirely to Mr. Hanks.

When we first meet Andrew Beckett, he’s happy, hardworking, and well into his battle with AIDS.  The very big, very rich, and very conservative law firm he works for has no idea of his illness. When Beckett is soon fired, he immediately cries foul play.  (The senior partners at his firm say Beckett was let go for nearly ruining the biggest case in the firm’s history, Beckett says he was sabotaged and fired because of his illness.)

Months after being fired, Beckett meets with Joe Miller (Denzel Washington, never better) the kind of lawyer who passes out his business cards to people in hospitals, and has a looping commercial on TV that promises, “no money from you until we get money for you.”

After telling Miller the circumstances of his termination, Miller tells Beckett that he has no case, and insinuates the fact that because Beckett is not only gay, but also has AIDS, he is utterly repulsed by him.

And now comes our scene.
With the drums of Bruce Springsteen’s Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia” on the soundtrack, Hanks, in close up, walks out of the office and steps onto a crowded sidewalk. He closes the office door and stands there, his face initially struck with subtle, momentary frustration. He’s seen ten lawyers in regards to his case. Ten goddamn lawyers. As the camera slowly zooms in, Hanks’ face becomes hopeless, lost. He’s completely gone. He blinks, shakes it off, and looks up at the cold, overcast sky.

And that’s where the scene should end.

In most any other Hollywood film, the scene would’ve cut out by now, but Demme is too smart for that.  Instead, he keeps rolling, resulting in a brief bit of miraculous acting.
Hanks, his forehead wrinkled in anguish, stares out at the ground. “What am I going to do?” he may be thinking. “My God, what the hell am I going to do?” He’s a man unnoticed. Unnoticed by the people walking by, by the bosses who’ve fired him, by the lawyers who’ve rejected him; a man full of life and purpose who, for a fleeting moment, can’t find the strength to identify either.

The scene is, quite frankly, the very best moment of Tom Hanks’ often-great career. In just 30 seconds, Hanks manages to encapsulate everything you need to know about the character he’s playing. His motivations, his regret, his hidden turmoil; it’s all right there. It’s as moving a moment as you’re likely to find on film.

The scene in questions begins at 1:22 in the clip below

16 comments:

  1. What an astonishing scene. You've touched upon something I coincidentally examined in my latest post, in which I looked at 25 scenes or moments in films which had the exact same effect on me as this PHILADELPHIA scene had on you. It is a great film, and that is an astonishing scene.

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  2. Its very minimalistic in all its glory. Good call and this is a movie I need to revisit ASAP thanks for the reminder!

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  3. @Tyler, you. total. shit. head. I have been writing something EXACTLY like your most recent post. You always have the best lists. Glad to hear you love this scene as much as I do. It floors me everytime.

    @Joel, thanks man. I hadn't seen this flick in a good long while. It's always a welcomed revisit.

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  4. I honestly think "Streets of Philadelphia" is the most inspired song ever writtten for motion picture.

    Great article!

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  5. Thanks! Ah, such a great song. I was seriously bummed that his title track for "The Wrestler" didn't even get nominated.

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  6. Haven't seen this film in a while but I remember that Tom Hanks - and to a lesser extent Denzel - totally make the film, and the scene you've posted is testament to that. Excellent post.

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  7. Thanks man, the film is definitely worth revisiting. If only for Hanks and Denzel alone.

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  8. very well argued. My second fav of the film. The scene in the library is for me. "Would it make you more comfortable if I read it in a different room?"

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    1. Thanks so much. That library scene is so effective as well. And the way the librarian handles the situation, my god. "Whatever, sir."

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  9. The only film that can consistently make me cry.

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  10. I like Philadelphia and it is fantastically performed by Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington (feel bad that he wasn't nominate) and very well written, this film is probably my favorite courtroom films. But this film has problems with the editing. I was watching the film and simply I couldn't get into the story. The film is great but not masterful.
    Are you thinking about making a Jonathan Demme profile?

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    1. Fair enough. I really don't understand how Denzel wasn't nominated for this. He's flawless in the film and it was such a risky role for him to take. You're right, I should do a Demme profile, because his filmography is all over the place, which is fun to breakdown.

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  11. OMG i finally found somebody who feeøs exactly same about this scene...for me its best of all other ... actually its the one scene of any movie that i rewatch 1000times...and it affects me deeply....i ususally don´t write comments or reviews but this scene of this movie i ve been rewatching last 10 years...its so powerfull...i start feeling for all those people out there who feel weak and hopeless:(

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    1. I'm so happy to hear that you connect with this scene as well. It's such a profound moment to me. Thanks so much for the comment!

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  12. i re watch this scene 1000 times for the last 10 years....the most powerfull movement
    makes me feel so sorry for all people out there who needs help

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