Made two years after his Silence of the Lambs won the big five Oscars, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), did what no other film had done before: it openly discussed AIDS with unflinching honesty. The film was searing and controversial, an all-around game changer.
When we see Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in this scene, he is well into his battle against AIDS, and his attorney, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), is working hard on the final stages of Beckett’s wrongful termination lawsuit. The two of them sit in Beckett’s apartment, going over questioning for the trial, whilst Beckett puts on his favourite background music: opera.
The scene starring Maria Callas’ “La Momma Morta” is a powerful and distressing depiction of Beckett’s acceptance of death and enjoyment of living in the moment. The scene begins with extreme close ups of each of the men’s faces, showing the colossal contrast in their expressions – Beckett’s demonstrating an absolute adoration of the music and Miller’s conveying complete bitterness and withdrawal. The camera tracks Hanks as he stands up and moves towards the centre of the room, taking his IV stand with him, all from a very high/above angle. It captures Beckett moving around the room, firstly in typical warm house lights, though as the song begins to reach a climax, its as if all the lights in the room fade away, before he becomes bathed in an intense red light. He listens, translates the lyrics and explains the song to an opera-hating Miller, who undergoes his last conversion not only in his opinion of homosexuality, but a conversion of heart overall.
There are cuts back to Washington as he follows Hanks’ journey through the music, but mainly it focuses on Hanks with an unsteady but flowing camera technique that gives the scene a surreal, dream-like quality. Along with the glowing, red light, the fireplace continues to flicker, casting dancing light on the actors’ faces, enough for you to realise there are tears appearing in both of their eyes. When the camera focuses on Beckett, you practically forget Andrew has AIDS and simply view him as someone enthralled by beautiful music, until the IV drip comes back into frame. The red light is particularly exceptional in reflecting the passion pouring out through the music whilst also conveying an ominous vibe, as just before, the pair were discussing how Beckett may not live to see the end of the trial.
The scene is so intense it is arguable that it could be an overkill to the film, but the soundtrack provides an emotional elevation for the audience until the very end. It has been a favourite scene of mine for years, and I will never forget how much it made me cry when I saw it for the first time.