In the movie Philadelphia, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a lawyer with a prestigious law firm. In the opening scene, he successfully defends a client against what he calls a “nuisance suit,” as “an example of rapacious litigation.” And so, if you did not know anything about this movie beforehand, you would correctly suspect that before the show is over, he will be bringing suit against someone himself. And when he does, the lawyer whom he accused of bringing a frivolous lawsuit against his client, ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), ends up being his attorney. In particular, the partners of the law firm he worked for say that they fired Beckett for incompetence, but Beckett claims they fired him because he had AIDS, which he concealed from the partners in addition to concealing the fact that he was gay. Beckett explains during the trial that he decided not to tell the partners he was gay when he heard them telling crude jokes about homosexuals. Those who produced this movie made sure that the jokes were not funny, lest we get confused and start sympathizing with the partners. Actually, the movie never makes it clear exactly what happened regarding Beckett’s firing. Beckett believes that someone figured out he had AIDS and sabotaged his work in order to justify dismissing him for incompetence, but we never find out for sure.
This movie is contemporaneously set in the early 1990s. It was a transitional period. During the 1980s, when AIDS was first identified, there was no treatment. I remember seeing a lot of people whose bodies were ravaged by that disease. The sight of them filled one with pity and dread (we see examples of such at the clinic where Beckett goes to have his blood monitored). The dread was especially acute, because at the time, no one knew how contagious it was or what the vectors of transmission were. Was it airborne? Could it be transmitted by mosquitoes? We knew that blood and semen could transmit the disease, but we also wondered about saliva and sweat. By the 1990s, however, research had pretty much established that AIDS was caused by HIV and that blood transfusions, dirty needles used by drug addicts, and unprotected sex, especially between two men, were the primary methods of transmission. Today, we seldom hear the word AIDS. Instead, we speak mostly of HIV, because treatment has advanced to the point that we no longer see those pitiful victims that looked like the walking dead.
And so, the aversion to touching or being around AIDS victims, a perfectly rational fear in the early 1980s, came to be regarded as manifestations of ignorance and bigotry by the 1990s. If someone was known to have AIDS, it became almost obligatory to hug him, as a way of demonstrating that one was enlightened on the subject. And so, throughout this movie, we see Beckett being hugged on numerous occasions, more than you would normally see in a movie. And we see other people trying to put distance between themselves and Beckett, whom we are supposed to regard as wrongheaded, if not morally bankrupt.
Before taking Beckett’s case, Miller asks a doctor about AIDS. When the doctor assures him that HIV cannot be spread by casual contact, Miller is skeptical, pointing out that we are still learning new things about the disease every day. Actually, this is a good point, though the movie allows it to die with this scene. If even today someone did not want to hug someone with AIDS, just in case doctors turn out to be wrong, I would not blame him. But the movie would.
In fact, the movie is completely one-sided in this matter. Beckett is almost righteous in his disregard for people’s fears. There is a scene in a library where a librarian, realizing he has AIDS, suggests that he move to a private room to continue his research, but Beckett refuses. People in the immediate vicinity begin moving away. In another scene, when he tells his family about his plans to sue, he is holding a baby, feeding it with a bottle. The mother offers to take the baby back, and we suspect she is nervous but too polite to insist. Beckett seems oblivious to the possibility that she might be worried and continues to feed the baby.
Even if the people in the library and the mother of the baby are being foolish in their fears, that does not mean that Beckett is in the right to refuse to accommodate them. For example, my mother was a little superstitious, and she used to think it was bad luck to put money on the table. As a result, I never put money on the table in her presence, even if she was visiting me in my apartment and it was my table. Despite the fact that she was the one who was foolish and I was the one who was rational, it would have been rude of me to plop some money down on the table. By the same token, no matter how irrational people’s fears of contracting AIDS through casual contact may be, Beckett should have been sensitive to those fears and allowed people the distance they needed to feel comfortable. But this movie does not recognize any such obligation on Beckett’s part.
The issue of the case was whether the law firm illegally fired Beckett because he had AIDS or was fired because of incompetence, which would have been legal. Therefore, the question of how he contracted the disease was irrelevant. Nevertheless, we are not surprised that the question arises as to Beckett’s behavior, whether he contracted AIDS through reckless actions on his part. A woman who had once worked for the partner who first noticed Beckett’s lesion is brought on the stand to testify on the part of the plaintiff (Beckett). She had had AIDS too, but she told her employers. The point is that the partner would have realized what the lesion meant from his experience with her, in which case knowledge that Beckett had the disease by at least one of the partners would be established, a necessary condition of proving that that was the real reason for Beckett’s firing.
Under cross examination, it turns out that she contracted the disease when she was given a transfusion after giving birth. In other words, she got AIDS through no fault of her own. That the occasion was when she had a baby even associates the event with motherhood. You couldn’t want a more saintly innocent victim than that. So, we know what is coming: the old blame-the-victim strategy. Sure enough, when Beckett gets on the stand, he is asked about whether he had ever been to the Stallion Showcase Cinema, a gay pornographic movie theater where men in the audience sometimes have sex with each other. Beckett admits to having been to the theater three times in 1984 or 1985, and that he had sex with a man in the theater one time. He also admits that he knew about AIDS at the time and that his actions could have endangered Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas), the man he was living with at the time and still is. The point of the defense is that Beckett is not an innocent victim, but someone who contracted the disease in rather seedy circumstances in full knowledge of the danger to himself and his lover.
Of course, the attitude of the movie is that it is wrong to blame the victim, but let us note that the movie also lacks the courage of its convictions. It establishes that Beckett was and still is in a monogamous relationship, as it were, and that he just had a moral lapse one night. In other words, the movie did not have the courage to make Beckett a man given to promiscuity, a “degenerate” who had had anonymous sex on innumerable occasions in movie theaters and restrooms for over a decade. That would really have tested us. Instead, the movie is saying that it is wrong to blame the victim, especially when the victim, while not being totally innocent like the woman who had a transfusion, is almost innocent.
After much testimony from various witnesses, the case is turned over to the jury for deliberations, if you can call it that. All we hear is one man, presumably the foreman, telling the other jurors that the case for the defense does not make sense. That’s it. No one has a dissenting view. In fact, no one else says anything, except to mumble agreement. The closest thing we get to a dissent is when the jurors are being asked one by one how they stand on the issue, and juror number ten says, “I disagree.” This is not supposed to be a jury movie, of course, like Twelve Angry Men (1957), where an Ed Begley character could express bigotry toward homosexuals or where a Lee J. Cobb character could reveal that his prejudice stemmed from the fact that his son was gay, before finally coming around to the proper verdict. But surely they could have done better than what we got in this movie. Alternatively, if time simply did not permit, it would have better to leave out the jury-deliberation scene altogether. Needless to say, the jury finds in favor of the plaintiff, as if any other verdict in this movie was remotely possible.
Midway through the trial, Miller comes over to Beckett’s place to go over the testimony Beckett will be giving on Monday. Instead, Beckett wants to talk about the opera music that he has playing. Like most people, including me, Miller does not much care for opera. Beckett explains what the opera is about and what emotions are being expressed through the singing. The intensity of his performance is bizarre. I don’t know. Maybe if you are dying from a dreadful disease, you can get a little more worked up about things than the one normally would, but it all seems to be a bit much. While his overwrought description of the aria was going on, I could not help but think of the movie Pretty Woman (1990). In that movie, Julia Roberts plays a streetwalker who ends up being the girlfriend of a corporate raider played by Richard Gere. He takes her to see an opera, presumably the first one she has ever been to, and we see her crying during a particularly moving scene. In other words, in both movies, a major character practices a form of sex that many regard as deviant and likely to spread disease. And in both movies, these characters are deeply moved by an opera, as if to say they have such great souls that they can appreciate art in its highest form with a passion that we philistines can scarcely imagine. It just wouldn’t have been the same if Beckett had been listening to N.W.A., explaining to his lawyer with great emotion, “And here is the part where he gets his sawed off shotgun and they have to haul off all the bodies.”