DEAD MAN WALKING

Of Monsters, Murder and Divine Mercy

“Sister, I won’t ask for forgiveness; my sins are all I have,” sings Bruce Springsteen in this movie’s title song while the end credits roll over the screen – giving voice once more to Matthew Poncelet and the men portrayed in Sister Helen Prejean‘s nonfiction account on which this movie is based; that angry “white trash,” those men who are “God’s mistake,” as one victim’s father says, inconsolable over the loss of his daughter; those men locked up in high security prisons for unspeakable crimes which many of them claim they didn”t commit. And Matt Poncelet (Sean Penn) is just such a guy; locked in bravado and denial, he proclaims his innocence and would rather take a lie detector test on the day of his execution “so my momma knows I didn’t do this” than own up to his responsibility.

With Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), we first learn about the crime which landed Poncelet on death row – the rape-murder of a couple on lovers’ lane – from the account she receives when she starts writing to him and eventually agrees to visit him in prison. It is, as she will soon learn, a story that anti-death penalty advocates are all too familiar with; a story of unequal access to lawyers and of two defendants, each blaming all guilt for their crime exclusively on the other, regardless what truly happened. And as long as she is assured that even if Poncelet would have a new trial he wouldn’t go free (as an accomplice, under Louisiana state law he would receive a lifetime prison sentence), Sister Helen is willing to help him find a lawyer and, when the date for his execution is set, try to obtain a reprieve.

But it does not end there, as she soon finds out; and one of this movie’s greatest strengths is the way in which it portrays all sides of the moral issues involved in the death penalty. There are the victims’ families, a stunning 70% of which break up after the murder of a child, and who are forever stuck with the unloving last words spoken to their loved ones and the memory of all the little homely details reminding them of their loss. There are the prison guards and nurses, trying to see executions as “part of their job” – with varying success. There are the politicians, barking slogans on TV; promising to “get tough on sentencing, get tough on lenient parole boards, get tough on judges who pass light sentences.” There are the convicts’ families, marginalized as a result of their brothers’ and sons’ acts, particularly if they refuse to condemn them publicly. (“Now I’m famous,” Poncelet’s mother comments bitterly on the dubious celebrity status she has attained as a result of a TV show about Matt. “A regular Ma Barker!”) And there is the death penalty itself, shown in all its chilling, graphic, clinical detail, here in its allegedly most humane form: lethal injections, which tranquilize the muscles while the poison reaches the convict’s lungs and heart – “his face goes to sleep while his inside organs are going through Armageddon,” Poncelet’s attorney says at his pardon board hearing. “It was important to us to show all sides of the issue,” explains director Tim Robbins on the DVD’s commentary track, “not to be satisfied with soundbites, and to present the reality … Ultimately, the question is not who deserves to die, but who has the right to kill.”

At the heart of the story are two radically different individuals: Sister Helen, who has grown up in an affluent, loving family; and Matthew Poncelet, the convicted killer. And their portrayal is this movie’s other great strength: without either of them, this film would not have been half as compelling. Both Sarandon and Penn deliver Academy Award-worthy performances. (Sarandon did win her long overdue Oscar, Penn lost to Nicolas Cage for Leaving Las Vegas – this would have been an occasion where I would have favored a split award.) Gradually, very gradually we see them get to know each other; and as they do, the visual layers separating them in the prison visiting room are peeled away. Yet, even after he has learned to accept Sister Helen as a human being (not without attempting to come on to her as if she were not a nun – director Tim Robbins’s way of dispelling the notion that they might fall in love, as is so often the case in the more clichéd versions of this type of story), Poncelet insists that his participation was limited to holding one of the victims down, but that it was his accomplice who raped and killed them both. And even days before his execution, he is still looking for “loopholes” in the bible, as Sister Helen admonishes him, seeing redemption as a free ticket into heaven instead of a means of owning up to his responsibility. (“I like that,” he comments when she quotes Jesus’s “the truth shall make you free.” “So I pass that lie detector test, I’m home free.”) Only in his final hour, he slowly, gradually gives up the protective layers of his bravado and lays bare his raw nerve and innermost anguish. And while he speaks, finally, in a complete flashback, we, the viewers, see what really happened that dark and lonely night in the woods, and what all the previous partial flashbacks have not revealed.

“It is easy to kill a monster, but hard to kill a human being,” Poncelet’s attorney explains on one occasion; and Tim Robbins echoes that sentiment on the commentary track. Yet, this movie is not about romanticizing a brutal killer, any more than it is about demonizing his victims. It is, first and foremost, an attempt to bring a complete perspective to one of contemporary America’s most pressing problems, and to find a way past sorrow and hate and move towards the future. And even if you’re still for the death penalty after having watched it – don’t claim ignorance as to what is involved.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: PolyGram (1995)
  • Director: Tim Robbins
  • Executive Producers: Tim Bevan & Eric Fellner
  • Producers: Tim Robbins / John Kilik / Rudd Simmons
  • Screenplay: Tim Robbins
  • Based on a nonfiction account by: Sister Helen Prejean C.S.J.
  • Music: David Robbins
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Roger Deakins
Cast
  • Susan Sarandon: Sister Helen Prejean
  • Sean Penn: Matthew Poncelet
  • Robert Prosky: Hilton Barber
  • Margo Martindale: Sister Colleen
  • Raymond J. Barry: Earl Delacroix
  • Peter Sarsgaard: Walter Delacroix
  • R. Lee Ermey: Clyde Percy
  • Celia Weston: Mary Beth Percy
  • Missy Yager: Hope Percy
  • Jenny Krochmal: Emily Percy
  • Roberta Maxwell: Lucille Poncelet
  • Jack Black: Craig Poncelet
  • Jon Abrahams: Sonny Poncelet
  • Arthur Bridgers: Troy Poncelet
  • Lois Smith: Helen’s Mother
  • Steve Carlisle: Helen’s Brother
  • Helen Hester: Helen’s Sister
  • Michael Cullen: Carl Vitello
  • Scott Wilson: Chaplain Farley
  • Barton Heyman: Captain Beliveau
  • Steve Boles: Sergeant Neal Trapp
  • Nesbitt Blaisdell: Warden Hartman
  • Ray Aranha: Luis Montoya
  • Larry Pine: Guy Gilardi
  • Kevin Cooney: Governor Benedict
  • Gil Robbins: Bishop Norwich
  • Adele Robbins: Nurse
  • Mary Robbins: Aide to Governor Benedict
  • Miles Robbins: Boy in Church
  • Jack Henry Robbins: Opossum Kid
  • Helen Prejean: Woman at Vigil (uncredited)

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1996)
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
Screen Actors Guild of America Awards (1996)
  • Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role: Susan Sarandon
National Society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • 2nd Place, Best Actor: Sean Penn
American Political Film Society Awards (1996)
  • Exposé Award
Humanitas Prize (USA) (1996)
  • Feature Film Category: Tim Robbins
Independent Spirit Awards (1996)
  • Best Male Lead: Sean Penn
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards ( 1997)
  • Favorite Actress, Drama: Susan Sarandon
Online Film & Television Association (1997)
  • OFTA Film Hall of Fame: Motion Picture
Chlotrudis Society for Independent Film Awards (1996)
  • Best Movie
  • Best Actor: Sean Penn
  • Best Actress: Susan Sarandon
Berlin International Film Festival (1996)
  • Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Competition): Tim Robbins
  • Prize of the Guild of German Art House Cinemas: Tim Robbins
  • Reader Jury of the “Berliner Morgenpost” Daily Newspaper: Tim Robbins
  • Silver Berlin Bear (Best Actor): Sean Penn
David di Donatello Awards (Italy) (1996)
  • Migliore Attrice Straniera (Best Foreign Actress) – “Dead Man Walking”

 

Links

PHILADELPHIA

A Good Start

“This is the essence of discrimination: Formulating opinions about others not based on their individual merits, but rather on their membership in a group with assumed characteristics.” (School Board of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273 (1987) (Brennan, J.), on remand, 692 F. Supp. 1286 (M.D. Fla. 1988)).

This rule, reaffirmed by the landmark Supreme Court decision which, over the dissent of Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia, first recognized the infection with a contagious disease (tuberculosis) as an actionable handicap under federal law, forms the initial bond between star litigator Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) and ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), the unlikely team at the center of this movie. Because through these words, black attorney Miller begins to realize that his colleague Beckett faces a handicap which, in essence, is not so different from that confronted by many of his fellow African Americans. And because this is an incredibly effectively scripted Hollywood movie, we, the audience, easily get the point as well; even if we’re white, and even if we’re not gay and/or suffering from AIDS like Beckett.

Of course, the insidiousness of the AIDS virus places those afflicted with it in a class of their own, and while the movie spares its viewers the pictures of some of the virus’s most graphic effects, it does go to considerable length to show the physical decline associated with it – not only in the person of Beckett himself, for whose role Hanks literally almost starved himself. Some of the patients surrounding him in the movie’s earlier emergency room scenes really were AIDS patients, whom Hanks had approached when preparing for the movie, and who had subsequently agreed to participate; and as Hanks emphasized during an appearance in Bravo TV’s Inside the Actors’ Studio, not all of them are still alive. – Denzel Washington’s appropriately named Joe Miller, middle class everyman in everything but the color of his skin (one of the movie’s obvious bows to political correctness), displays an attitude uncomfortably familiar to many of us; shunning gays in general and the HIV-infected Beckett in particular, out of a mixture of ignorance about AIDS, prejudice against those suffering from it, and prejudice against gays. Both Hanks and Washington give strikingly emotional, profound performances that rank among the best in their respective careers – Hanks deservedly won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for his portrayal of Beckett, but Washington unfairly wasn’t even nominated for either. Yet, neither of them would have been able to shine as much as they do without their exceptional supporting cast; to name just two, Jason Robards, commanding as ever as Beckett’s homophobic former boss (and role model!), and Antonio Banderas as his devoted lover.

By the time of Philadelphia‘s release, some of the early myths about AIDS had begun to disappear, and the yearly growing numbers of newly infected patients had brought it out of its erstwhile obscurity as “the gay plague.” But indepth knowledge was still far from widespread, and therefore the movie – which was inspired in part by the real-life case of New York attorney Geoffrey Bowers – not only brought awareness to the disease in general, but also made a couple of important points, from educating the public about the disease’s method of transmission to emphasizing that it is by no means limited to gays and can even be contracted in something as life-affirming as a blood transfusion. (Indeed, several European countries were rocked by transfusion-related AIDS scandals right around the time of the movie’s release). One of Philadelphia‘s most quietly powerful scenes is the testimony of a female witness who was infected by just such a transfusion, and who emphasizes that having AIDS is not a matter of sin or morality: “I don’t consider myself any different from anyone else with this disease. I’m not guilty, I’m not innocent, I’m just trying to survive,” she responds when asked to confirm that in her case “there was no behavior on [her] part” involved and contracting AIDS was something she was “unable to avoid.” – Moreover, four years before Ellen DeGeneres rocked the showboat with a kiss during an episode of her sitcom, and Kevin Kline and Magnum macho Tom Selleck locked lips in In and Out (the screenplay of which was inspired by Hanks’s Oscar acceptance speech for Philadelphia), it was by no means a given that a movie would get away with letting Hanks and Banderas exchange acts of tenderness from caresses and kisses on the hand to a slow dance at a gay party.

Given Philadelphia‘s fundamental message and the memorable performances of its protagonists, it is a pity that the movie doesn’t entirely avoid Hollywood pitfalls, such as its soggy ending with grease literally dripping off the screen and the undeniable taste of a sugar-coated afterthought, transmitting the message that even dying of AIDS is really not so terrible, at least for the surviving family who can still unite around the television set and wallow in their memories of their lost loved one. And while I do buy Joe Miller’s transformation from a (somewhat stereotypical) homophobic male to a reluctant supporter of gay rights, I don’t really see why Beckett suddenly assumes a cliché gay look the second he has been fired; not to mention that I suspect not everybody in his situation would have enjoyed such overwhelming support from his family.

But ultimately, it is the movie’s overarching message that counts. “Ain’t no angel gonna greet me; it’s just you and I my friend … and my clothes don’t fit me no more: I walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin,” sings Bruce Springsteen, the movie’s other Oscar winner, in “Philadelphia”‘s title song. And Justice Brennan wrote in the Supreme Court’s Arline decision that in amending federal law, Congress was motivated by “discrimination stemming not only from simple prejudice, but also from archaic attitudes and laws.” This movie goes a long way in dispelling such attitudes. It alone isn’t enough – but it is, as Andrew Beckett jokes about the 1000 lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean, at least a good start.

 

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Columbia TriStar (1993)
  • Director: Jonathan Demme
  • Executive Producers: Ron Bozman / Gary Goetzman / Kenneth Utt
  • Producers: Jonathan Demme & Edward Saxon
  • Screenplay: Ron Nyswaner
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Tak Fujimoto
Cast
  • Tom Hanks: Andrew Beckett
  • Denzel Washington: Joe Miller
  • Jason Robards: Charles Wheeler
  • Antonio Banderas: Miguel Alvarez
  • Lisa Summerour: Lisa Miller
  • Karen Finley: Dr. Gillman
  • Joanne Woodward: Sarah Beckett
  • Anna Deavere Smith: Anthea Burton
  • Mary Steenburgen: Belinda Conine
  • Robert Ridgely: Walter Kenton
  • Charles Napier: Judge Garnett

 

Major Awards and Honors

Academy Awards (1994)
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Hanks
  • Best Music, Song: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”.
American Film Institute (AFI)
  • Top 50 Heroes – No. 49 (Andrew Beckett)
  • Top 100 Movie Songs – No. 68 (“Streets of Philadelphia”)
Golden Globes (1994)
  • Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama: Tom Hanks
  • Best Original Song – Motion Picture: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
MTV Movie Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Best Male Performance: Tom Hanks
ASCAP Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Howard Shore
  • Most Performed Songs from Motion Pictures: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
Grammy Awards (USA) (1995)
  • Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture or for Television: Bruce Springsteen, for the song “Streets of Philadelphia”
GLAAD Media Awards (USA) (1994)
  • Outstanding Film – Wide Release: Jonathan Demme, Edward Saxon
Goldene Leinwand (Golden Screen) (Germany) (1994)
  • Winner of the Golden Screen
Berlin International Film Festival (1994)
  • Silver Berlin Bear – Best Actor: Tom Hanks

 

Links