Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Bishop of 'Philadelphia'

With a career finally on track, Tom Hanks began to pursue an institutional vision of American History

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Tom Hanks specifically and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

After a string of disappointments, Tom Hanks had to be pleased by A League of the Their Own, which was a surprise box office success, breaking the $100 million box office benchmark for a blockbuster of the time. This was a group triumph – Madonna and Davis were at the zenith of their careers; Rosie O’Donnell would soon have a hit TV show – but allowed him to move on to a more decisively starring vehicle. This was Sleeping in Seattle (1993), a movie, which it bears mentioning, was also co-produced, co-written, and directed by a woman (Nora Ephron). The “team” in this case is a family that consists of the widowed Hanks and his son. This storyline converges toward that of Meg Ryan’s character, who lives on the other side of the country, culminating in a finale strongly reminiscent of the 1957 Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr classic An Affair to Remember. Sleepless in Seattle consolidated Hanks’s status as a leading man, significant when one considers he lacks the chiseled good looks of an Eastwood, Day-Lewis, or Washington. His appeal as such would appear to be that of an everyman: He makes it plausible for a man to imagine that he, too, might land Meg Ryan.
More relevant for our purposes is Hanks’s next movie, Philadelphia (1993), among his best. I’ve already discussed this film from the point of view of Hanks’s co-star, Denzel Washington, and the way it reflects Washington’s career-long engagement with issues of family and faith. Here, though, Philadelphia’s importance is somewhat different: it is a story about one of the more hallowed institutions in American life – its legal system – and what happens when it becomes an instrument of oppression, a refuge for the wicked.
The movie opens with Hanks’s character, Andrew Beckett, as a rising star in a powerful corporate law firm in the Philadelphia. The first scene shows him dispatching with a restraining order brought by Washington’s character, clearly a lower-rent attorney, who is waxing rhapsodic with a judge about how the limestone powder at a construction site is essentially a form of environmental racism. Hanks, however, can also wax with the best of them. He notes that the construction site is responsible for over 750 jobs, and granting the injunction would “lend validation to this contemptible and groundless nuisance suit. It’s an example of the rapacious litigation that today is tearing at the fabric of our society.” His little speech is something of an inside joke that both his opponent and the judge recognize as frothy, and evidenced by their facial expressions, and she chastises both lawyers for their inflated rhetoric before ruling in Beckett’s favor. The sequence is almost a piece of legal kabuki theater in which social conflict is resolved in terms of linguistic posturing.
But more serious issues lurk. We get a foreshadowing of this in the next scene, which begins with both attorneys entering an elevator with an injured man. As the elevators doors close, we see (as they do not) graffiti bearing the famous words long associated with the Civil Rights movement: “No justice, no peace!” We also see Beckett going to a clinic for treatment of AIDS, a condition he is clearly hiding from his employers. When they find out, they frame him for the misplacement of an important document, which then becomes a pretext for firing him. Beckett goes from a Bonfire of the Vanities-styled Master of the Universe to social death within his chosen profession. A most valuable player has been kicked off his team – indeed, has been effectively kicked out of the game altogether.
The rest of Philadelphia is essentially a process whereby Beckett creates a new team in the form of a partnership with his erstwhile rival, as they launch a wrongful termination suit against Beckett’s former employer that rests on their interpretation of the American with Disabilities Act. While the damages they pursue are financial (though his lover, played by Antonio Banderas, has no obvious means of support), one never gets the impression that Beckett, who appears to come from an affluent family, particularly cares about the money, except insofar as it is a means of holding the partners responsible for their malfeasance. To put it another way: he pursues an institutional remedy for an institutional wrong. Allegorically speaking, Beckett is a bit like his namesake, Thomas Becket: a bishop (which is to say interpreter of church law) who ran afoul of his powerful patron, King Henry II of England, and was murdered for his resistance. The assassination here is metaphorical; the canonization is artistic. But both men died true believers in their respective systems.

Next: Forrest Gump as team player