“PHILADELPHIA”— Hollywood Checks In


Hollywood Checks In

Amos Lassen

It took a while but Hollywood finally made a big budget movie about AIDS in 1993. You may wonder why I have never reviewed it—the truth is that I thought that I did. It was not until someone asked me about that I went looking for my review and did not find it. So I am checking in just as Hollywood did—late.

Director Jonathan Demme had good intentions when he made this film and some day he chose to make this as an apology for the way he depicted gay stereotypes in his “Silence of the Lambs”. Now looking back at “Philadelphia” as the important film that it is, we realize that it was made for the straight majority in America—the film is more about the demographics of the viewership than its central focus which is AIDS.

Take for example Joe Miller, the lawyer played by Denzel Washington and who takes the case of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a lawyer himself but who had been fired because he had AIDS. Their meetings together are simplistic and superficial. Hanks comes across as optimistic which is ridiculous when we look at real gay men who were suffering from AIDS. Even sillier is Antonio Banderas as his lover. They are squeaky clean—the kind of gays you can be seen on the street with or even take home to meet the family.

Set in Philadelphia (hence the title) is a trying film especially when we see that America is a place where all men are equal…when they are straight. The film is corny but it is also compelling and again we have a look at Demme’s caricature of a gay male. Andrew cheated on his lover (don’t all gay men cheat?) and when he did he got AIDS. Yet he becomes pure and good when he loses his job and then goes to see Joe. He was fired, so they say, for incompetence but he says it was because he had AIDS. Smith acts in the way people once acted when they came into contact with someone suffering from AIDS and does not want to take the case but he does.

Now that we have our own filmmakers making films about their own lives, “Philadelphia” seems quite bland. It is sterile and at times even a bit dishonest. But it was all we had back then. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rewarded the film heavily and it was the topic of conversation. At least it made people think and talk about AIDS.

The movie has no romance and there is almost no depiction of gay life except for a party. Andrew’s family is like the Waltons and the Cleavers and we know that not all families are so loving especially when one is dying. Stoicism just does not go along with death. As Andrew, Hanks recreates the terrible cost of AIDS and is it not interesting that Demme chose an African American to play the lawyer—he covered all of his bases. Nonetheless the actors are excellent and would be wonderful in a perfect world, a world without AIDS.

Some of you may feel that I protest too much but remember we are looking backward almost 20 years and times and the disease has changed. “Philadelphia” served its purpose back then but today it is not really as relevant as it needs to be.


One thought on ““PHILADELPHIA”— Hollywood Checks In

  1. Roy Chaudoir

    You capture the tone and feel of the movie well, Amos. I felt the same way when it first came out, simplistic, stereotypically hindered, but also I was joyous and even remember having tears in my eyes at the end when things work out. It was made for the “general audience” not a predominantly Gay audience. It was a great educator of the time. We had no advocate like this advocate before openly in the media. It made us feel better about our friends who had AIDS and their futures. All that was, of course, denying the overwhelming disaster approaching, but we needed “hope” and there was a tone of hope to the movie. “Philadelphia” was a good, wholesome, acceptable vocabulary word OF SIGNIFICANT NAME RECOGNITION and to have it associated with “GAY” and “TOM HANKS” gave to the gay community a sort of legitimacy by association which we hadn’t had. I don’t think you went on too long about the movie. It was a sort of icebreaker in a time of canoes. Had it been as esoteric and diminutive as SONG OF THE LOON we’d never have gotten where we are today. I bet “Philadelphia” the movie aided fund raising for AIDS greatly, for example. It’s cultural value, historical value, is enormous. Also, we happened to find ourselves more likeable in Hanks than we had been in portrayals of Gays by other artists. He had a knack for being quirky and innocent, loveable and a sympathetic character. Lord knows we needed more compassionate press! Thanks for the great reviews that flow from your quarter!


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