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Spotlight On The Best Big-Screen Lawyers

Dee Doyle Dee Doyle
April 16th, 2009 10:00am EDT
ChicagoLawyers have been around basically as long as the law has been present - even back in Ancient Rome and Greece there were men who would stand up and speak for the laws they made. Over the years the role of the lawyer has altered a few times, but it always comes back to truth, justice, and honesty ... or the exact opposite of those ideas.

Lawyers have gained a rather negative persona, either due to them wanting too much money or doing it for their own ego rather than what is right. Film often interprets reality, and so lawyers on screen are usually portrayed as either virtuous, helpful, and heroic - or vicious, greedy, and soulless. Either way, there have been some fantastic actors to portray this role on the screen, and here are just a few of them (warning: spoilers ahead in some of the video clips):



The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee is one of the few book-to-movie adaptions that really manages to work. No one brought the pages more to life than Gregory Peck in his role as Atticus Finch. Finch is the father of main character Scout (Mary Badham) and Jem (Phillip Alford), a principled widower who serves in a small town of Alabama as a great attorney. A black young man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) is accused of raping a white woman, which was likely to be an automatic guilty verdict during the racist Great Depression era. Finch defends his client and proves his innocence, but he has to take the hard lesson that not everyone shares his belief in justice and truth. As a paragon of virtue and honesty, Finch is the kind of lawyer everyone wishes was on their side and the kind of man we all wish we knew. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor that year, and rightly so.





There are few people who do not recognize the line "you can't handle the truth!" that was yelled by Jack Nicholson in this 1992 courtroom drama. With an all-star cast of Nicholson, Tom Cruise, and Demi Moore, plus written by Aaron Sorkin ("The West Wing") and directed by Rob Reiner, this movie seemed a shoe-in for Hollywood history. It was that and more. Cruise plays Daniel Kaffee, an inexperienced U.S. Navy lawyer who has to defend two Marines accused of killing their own teammate. Moore plays a lawyer and Naval investigator named JoAnne Galloway who senses there is much going on under the surface. When Kaffee is given the defense instead of her, she manages to convince him not to settle and to investigate the crime more closely. Were it not for Galloway, Kaffee would have never had the strength to push the case, and were it not for Kaffee, the truth would've never been found out. These two therefore represent a team of fantastic lawyers in a courtroom film that will never be forgotten. And that's the truth!





While "Philadelphia" is generally considered a Tom Hanks film with him playing the main character Andrew Beckett, a lot of credit has to go to his co-star Denzel Washington for the less pleasant role of Joe Miller. Beckett is a senior associate at a law firm in Philadelphia, and he hides his homosexuality from his co-workers as well as the fact he is dying of AIDS. When he gets fired from the firm, Beckett believes it is because they realized he was gay and had AIDS. Joe Miller starts out refusing to take his personal injury case, and he is so homophobic he asks a doctor if he could get AIDS from shaking Beckett's hand. Miller agrees to take his case when he sees that Beckett has to represent himself and how everyone treats him with disgust and disdain. Miller grows to understand and care for his client, and he fights viciously on the stand to defend Beckett's right to privacy and the homophobia rampant in the courtroom. Miller represents the uneducated public during a time when AIDS was scary and still unknown, and Washington pulls off the role with his classic grace.





If the four characters so far represent the best and noble lawyers in film, Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) represents one of the worst. Flynn is manipulative, callous, greedy, and loves the spotlight. He represents the women on death row in Chicago in 1924, not because he believes (or cares) they are innocent, but rather for the fame and glory. And the pleasure of knowing he's lured the press and jury into his web. Charming, handsome, and unscrupulous, Flynn still manages to be a character you love even if you hate him. He's funny, apathetic, and usually very right about the sensationalism of murder and fame. Plus Gere proved that he has a great singing voice and can tap dance like a professional, so it is no surprise he won the Golden Globe that year for Best Actor. It should be noted that Gere might have been on this list twice, so an honorable mention goes to his performance in "Primal Fear" as Martin Vail.





Like Billy Flynn, Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci) is not exactly the ideal sort of lawyer. He failed the bar exam six times before finally passing as a personal injury lawyer, and he finds himself thrust into an important criminal trial as a defense attorney. He is called when his cousin Billy (Ralph Macchio) is accused of murder at a store. Billy and his friend thought they were being stopped for shoplifting and manage to get pinned with the death of the store clerk instead. It is up to Vinny - and his fiancee Mona Lisa Tito (Marisa Tomei) as support - to protect the innocent accused, and to prove that Vinny is capable after all. This hilarious film often parodies and jokes around about lawyers and the courtroom, plus everyone loves a story about the underdog who someone surpasses all expectations.





Honorable Mentions

Matthew McConaughey in "A Time To Kill"
Spencer Tracy and Fredric March in "Inherit the Wind"
Matt Damon in "The Rainmaker"
Keanu Reeves in "The Devil's Advocate"

Who is your favorite movie lawyer? Let us know in the comments!

Dee Doyle
Story by Chelsea 'Dee' Doyle

Starpulse contributing writer


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