Philadelphia (1993)
November 28, 2014 3:45 PM - Subscribe

When a man with AIDS is fired by his law firm because of his condition, he hires a homophobic small time lawyer as the only willing advocate for a wrongful dismissal suit.

Jonathan Demme is all about close observation of faces. Actors get tight close-ups for prolonged periods of time (when, for instance, they're over-hearing a conversation) and this gives them time (and the canvas) to be more subtle; Demme's emphasis on providing a stage for "actorly scope" makes him an actor's director. See the famous jail interview scene between Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs – a great example of how he's not afraid to just hold the camera on two actors' faces.

Demme's other films include: Melvin and Howard (1980), Stop Making Sense (1984, Talking Heads documentary), Married to the Mob (1988), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), among others.

The character arc for Denzel Washington's character is quite noticeable – at the beginning, he even (quite humorously) waves a giant turkey leg around in an unintentional caricature of machismo, as he expounds upon how the idea of two men having sex squicks him out (the scene in the kitchen with is wife). (His wife points out that he knows someone who is gay, in his own family...) However the character is played with aplomb and you never lose sympathy with him as he struggles with his own homophobia.

Tom Hanks, of course, breaks out in this performance and he proves he is not a lightweight. The extended opera scene monologue, witnessed by Washington's character, is his tour de force during this film.

Final scenes use real footage of Tom Hanks' childhood from personal home videos, while an overlay of Neil Young's track plays.

In this film, music plays a key role in humanizing those with AIDS, and gay men, generally setting the tone, and drawing upon pre-existing historical meaning to deepen the story-telling of the film. Significantly, the film is book-ended by two pillars of modern American music: a mainstream rock n roll star, Bruce Springsteen, contributed a song for the opening of the film, and well-known country/rock/crossover musician Neil Young contributed a song that is used at the end. A fascinating post about the opera La Traviata explains how the story of 19th century consumption resonates with the modern-day AIDS epidemic. From the online essay, Modern Stagings of La Traviata:
"Two years after Muni's production came a film that gained wide popular acclaim, Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. Here again, the sufferings of gay men scourged by AIDS was given a passionate outcry through opera and the voice of Maria Callas (though not in this case singing Verdi).

"In this respect, then, Muni's staging of La Traviata through the lens of the AIDS crisis, even if an imperfect analogy, proved timely – a production that was lent a powerful urgency by relating Verdi's drama to a specific, deeply felt issue of the day."
Interestingly, Demme and the writer, Ron Nyswaner, chose not to make the villains of the film completely black-and-white (though the homophobia experienced by Hanks' character is not diluted). For instance, Jason Robards' character is horrified at his former employees' collapse in the courtroom and it is he who shouts in panic (and guilt), "Would somebody get this man a doctor?!" Similarly, Mary Steenburgen, who plays the lawyer, is great casting here as the lawyer you love to hate, however, she mutters under her breath, "I hate this case...", indicating that her personal feelings are in conflict with her job.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Tom Hanks
Best Music, Original Song: Bruce Springsteen, "Streets of Philadlephia"

  • "During the 1980s, Demme had a brief romantic relationship with rock singer Belinda Carlisle, who appeared in his movie Swing Shift." (Wikipedia)
  • Denzel Washington was declared the "sexiest man alive" by People magazine in 1996, appearing on its cover, one of the few black men to receive this title from the magazine.
  • Washington and Demme worked together again on the film The Manchurian Candidate (2004, a remake).
  • Bruce Springsteen's decision to write a song for the film was controversial at the time, and considered brave. It was a different time in America.
  • Mayor Ed Rendell (wiki) did his cameo in one take!
  • Film shot in and around Philadelphia, PA, including on campus (in the library) at the University of Pennsylvania. Alumni will readily recognize which one.
  • Pointer: Trivia at IMDb. Here's just one piece of trivia from that resource: "Tom Hanks had to lose almost thirty pounds to appear appropriately gaunt for his courtroom scenes. Denzel Washington, on the other hand, was asked to gain a few pounds for his role. Washington, to the chagrin of Hanks, who practically starved himself for the role, would often eat chocolate bars in front of him."
  • You may recognize John Bedford Lloyd, who plays Hanks' brother; he has been in many films and was in The Hoax (FanFare).
  • Ann Dowd appears in the very beginning of the film – you may recall she has recently been in HBO's True Detective (FanFare) and Showtime's Masters of Sex (FanFare), among other things.
  • A very young Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) plays a key role in the plot.
Director: Jonathan Demme (IMDb, Wikipedia)
Writer: Ron Nyswaner
Awards page at IMDb.

Neil Young, "Philadelphia"
Bruce Springsteen, "Streets of Philadelphia"
Modern Stagings of La Traviata, Part I
Bright Lights Film Journal, The American Epidemic: AIDS in (Recent) Cinema and History
Philadelphia notables were cast as extras in the film: Extra Measure: 'Philadelphia' Filled With More Than A Few Familiar Faces
'Philadelphia': Oscar Gives Way to Elegy, Clifford Rothman, NYT
Two decades ago, Tom Hanks and 'Philadelphia' prompted changing attitudes toward HIV-AIDS (Newsworks, The Pulse, podcast and article from December 2013.) Highly recommended reading/listening.

"Now, explain it to me like I'm a four-year-old..."
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (13 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
[This is the first FanFare post I've done where I haven't cared what Roger Ebert thinks of it - I know what *I* think of it, and I think it is a seminal film, grossly underrated and due for reassessment (as is Demme).]
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 3:51 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Tyler Coates at Decider also covered this for their 'Hanksgiving' this week: Was It Good For The Gays: Philadelphia.
One can be cynical that it was a movie starring a major Hollywood star that accomplished what thousands of patients and their supporters attempted to accomplish, but one can also make the case that the unapologetic activism of those directly affected by the epidemic did not lose and, in fact, accomplished bringing their activist efforts into the mainstream.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 4:00 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Washington, to the chagrin of Hanks, who practically starved himself for the role, would often eat chocolate bars in front of him.

I would pay full ticket price to see Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks have snacks with each other for an hour and a half.
posted by Etrigan at 4:06 PM on November 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

I love this movie. It really killed me at the time. I happened to grow up in a situation where there were a lot of gay couples and back then most kept it in the down low, even people who'd been together for decades. It made me want to hug them all and say "your friends know and we don't care. We love you".
posted by fshgrl at 4:19 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I always expected this movie to be corny and smaltzy but I surprised how real and powerful it was
posted by The Whelk at 4:55 PM on November 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd be curious to watch this now.

When it came out I was more narrow and harsh in my politics and thought it was total crap. I remember being enraged that there wasn't a real kiss in it (while it supposedly was controversial for having a kiss in it where you can't really see the action). Having literally grown up watching my mom's friends dying of AIDS, working the AIDS quilt and being a queer activist, I saw this not as an activist film, but as Hollywood cashing in on an at-that-time untapped sales market. I was angry that they didn't hire any out gay cast or crew (something that has changed dramatically since then - see Transparent as a modern alternative approach) and yawned at Hanks' supposed bravery for being willing to pretend he had AIDS. (Antonio Banderas on the other hand struck me as the real deal: he'd been playing wacked out queerdos in Almodovar movies for years. He has gone the opposite course: from radical to tedious and mundane).

Now I could probably reflect more on the acting or script. At the time I couldn't get past what felt like pathetic politics.
posted by latkes at 11:40 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Actually, I'd love it if some film critic/theorist would do a long-read about Banderas: It's hard to think of anyone with a parallel trajectory, who leveraged roles in radical queer film into totally mainstream fame. I guess John Waters is sort of similar: he's gotten softer as society learned to accommodate him - sort of meeting in the middle with the broadway version of Hairspray. But I don't know anything about Banderas personally: why was he willing to play queers early on? Was it just that Europe was more open minded?
posted by latkes at 11:45 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Hope my grumpiness about this movie doesn't come off as a criticism of the post! Another well-researched, thoughtful FanFare post from JCIFA!)
posted by latkes at 11:48 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow. I had a really different reaction: this movie wasn't about being radical or showing two men kissing, it was about reaching as wide an audience as possible in order to humanize gay men and the AIDS issue. I really think you had to have lived when this movie was released to know just how "radical" it was.

Far from being a cynical way for Hollywood to cash in on an untapped marked, it came along at a time when homophobia was still high and discrimination against gays and lesbians, and the fear of discrimination in the workplace, was also high. The cultural consciousness has shifted dramatically since then, and it's hard to remember that, I think.

Also: picking two actors as likable as Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks sent a strong message as well and was a clever piece of casting.

This movie absolutely made a big difference in the ongoing cultural awareness in the U.S. about AIDS, discrimination, and attendant legal issues in America. It would be required in any film course on gay themes in America, or AIDS depicted in films, or similar courses.

It is also tightly constructed - the script is incredible here. Everything sets something up, and pays off later. And there is room for poetry. Frankly I cannot think of a better film.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:58 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also: this is from the "highly recommended" link in my post:
"Philadelphia wasn't just made in Philadelphia; the film was also made with the people of Philadelphia. About 50 extras in the film had HIV, some with visible signs of the disease. Producers made it a point to employ people with AIDS because of the difficulties they often faced getting jobs.

"The local service agency ActionAIDS helped recruit people to be extras. Its office on 12th and Arch Streets also turned into a clinic for one scene, with Hanks' character walking in to see his doctor and staying for an IV treatment.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:02 PM on November 30, 2014

I really think you had to have lived when this movie was released to know just how "radical" it was.

I was there! And for a high school kid I was pretty involved as an activist and also knew people dying of AIDS, which is why I found the movie so problematic. I felt like it didn't "get" the reality of AIDS. Even then, the disease was not primarily impacting rich gay white men. I think having watched earlier movies that grew out of the queer community, Longtime Companion being the main example, I felt shortchanged by what at the time I felt was a Hollywood sanitization of queer culture and the ravages of AIDS.

But as I say, I imagine I'd experience this movie differently now that I have a somewhat improved ability to understand gray areas and ambiguity and also have the greater contextual understanding provided by time.

It is nice to hear they did employ extras with HIV.
posted by latkes at 5:38 PM on November 30, 2014

this movie wasn't about being radical or showing two men kissing, it was about reaching as wide an audience as possible in order to humanize gay men and the AIDS issue.

But just historically speaking, showing two men kissing was radical, and the act of showing that, and making straight American witness that, is what gave us gay rights. Literally any action of any gay or lesbian rights group was considered alienating to straight, mainstream society. But what makes it OK to show gay people kissing on TV now is that real gay people kissed in public even when they were accused of being pornographic for doing so. Similarly, ACT UP, which had what were then considered very extreme methods, is the reason we got any action on HIV - since our federal government wasn't even saying the word AIDS out loud for 6 years into the epidemic. Being loud and radical is what saved lives for many years.

This is a long, old debate, but my reaction to Philadelphia comes from being one of the people who was accused of being too radical when there was literally no way on earth we could have a mainstream Hollywood movie about gay people.
posted by latkes at 6:17 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

So thinking about this made me decide to revisit the AIDS crisis and I started watching How to Survive a Plague last night. I'll post here about it after I finish it. Would love to hear others' reactions if anyone else is interested in watching - it's on Netflix.
posted by latkes at 7:43 AM on December 1, 2014

« Older The Legend of Korra: Beyond th...   |  Breaking Bad: Box Cutter... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments