When it was released, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia was hailed as a landmark movie. That was correct, but it was a totem that came to be both blessing and burden. The movie featured a major straight Hollywood star, Tom Hanks, playing gay. It was the first major Hollywood film—three years after the indie movie Longtime Companion and seven years after Parting Glances—to deal with the impact of HIV and AIDS on gay people.
At the time, there was such impatience for political and cultural change, for mainstream representations of LGBT lives and loves on screen, and for recognition of the devastating impact that AIDS had wrought, that Demme—whose death, aged 73, from complications of cancer was announced Wednesday—had a much bigger task to fulfill than to simply entertain.
Demme had already directed The Silence of The Lambs, which featured a much-criticized transgender psychopath. Philadelphia, by contrast, was expected to educate. It was expected to respect. It was expected to bring ‘gay’ and ‘AIDS’ to the mainstream. It was expected to finally show the reality of a gay relationship. This shouldn’t sound radical. In 1993, it certainly was.
Rarely do movies have to carry such ‘first ever’ baggage. Rarely, do they have such expectations placed upon them. Could Philadelphia perform all that was expected of it socially and politically, as well as entertain?
It was also hoped that Philadelphia would be a standard-bearer. Such was the level of gay invisibility in mainstream movies, Philadelphia, it was hoped, would provide at least a moderate corrective and lead to other movies treading a similar thematic path. Philadelphia, it was hoped, represented change.
If you were around at that time, gay, and politically engaged, you went to see Philadelphia at your local cinema with baited breath. LGBT characters and stories were badly treated in mainstream film; independent cinema was where you went to locate more nuanced and diverse stories.
Gay desire was rarely if ever seen on the mainstream cinema screen, still less everyday gay intimacy, and everyday relationships. Truth be told, many thought the film came up short. Philadelphia seemed less about Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas’ relationship than it was about Denzel Washington’s character, another lawyer, surmounting his own homophobia to represent Hanks’s character in the discrimination case he brings against the law firm after they fire him for having AIDS.
The focus in this landmark gay movie seemed oddly straight: was this simply to sugar the pill of a gay movie, a way to lure as mass a straight audience to see it without scaring them off? What Philadelphia seemed to suggest that a gay-themed movie still needed central heterosexual characters to act as path-finders for the hetero-audience.
Longtime Companion, in contrast for example—for all its own faults—presented a gay world without apology and hand-holding. It expected the audience watching it, gay and straight, to simply get with the context. It had straight characters, but they weren’t there for the audience watching; they were friends and allies of the characters, living in or adjacent to the gay world.
Longtime Companion was radical in that, like Parting Glances, The Normal Heart and Angels in America, it presented a gay world of sex and friendship, and of the pain and tragedy and injustice of AIDS in the 1980s affecting gay people.
The timidity of Philadelphia—however satisfying the justice it eventually serves up as a courtroom drama for Hanks’s character—seemed disappointing. It marked a series of landmarks, for sure, but in the way that it approached those landmarks it seemed also meek, and that meekness seemed just as insulting to many gay people as being ignored. Read Larry Kramer's brilliantly furious essay of the time detailing what he saw as the film's many faults, oversights, ignorances, and errors.
Why, in a movie about a gay man dying of AIDS, was that man not seen sharing a kiss or lying in bed with his partner, played by Antonio Banderas? (The latter was actually shot, but deleted.)
The famous scene featuring Hanks and Banderas dancing tenderly cheek-to-cheek is notable for Washington’s character looking at them respectfully as he dances with his own wife: a simple moment that underscored the film’s bigger message that all loving relationships are made equal.
The criticism that greeted Philadelphia was understandable and valid, but watching it now—older and a little more forgiving—everything that seemed remiss about it does seem radical, albeit tentatively so: the challenging of both institutional and personal homophobia, the sketching of a gay relationship underscored by love (however inaedquately and cautiously that relationship is evoked), and Tom Hanks at the heart of this, dying in front of you: Mr. Decency, Mainstream America Guy himself. Just Hanks’s presence in the film as its central character gives the movie a weight, anchor, and reach into hearts and minds no other actor at that moment could.
His subsequent Best Actor Oscars speech, paying tribute to his gay teachers, “two of the finest gay Americans” (providing inspiration for the movie In and Out, starring Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck a few years later) and—his voice cracking with emotion—those who had died of AIDS, was widely lauded. Hanks was the best kind of pop culture ambassador and crusader, forthright but not threatening. If it didn’t seem radical enough for some of its gay viewers, Philadelphia performed the wider social and cultural task expected of it.
Even today it retains its power. Under Hanks’s Oscars speech on YouTube, from fairly recently, is this comment from one viewer: “I'm a gay 16-year-old boy and I saw Philadelphia for the first time earlier this year. The film inspired me to come out publicly at school, and I've been so much happier since. Regardless of the now old age of this film, it changed my life drastically for the better. It holds a very dear place in my heart and I know that holds true for many others like me.”
Twenty-four years is a blip in real-time, but a long time in LGBT pop culture—and yet, surveying the fits and starts since Philadelphia, perhaps not that long at all. After it came many gay-themed movies, but in the mainstream only the tragic love story Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, approached Philadelphia’s level of socio-cultural impact. Scattered years bring scattered standouts—A Single Man, Bound, Beautiful Thing, And The Band Played On, Moonlight—but rare is the culture quake caused by movies like Philadelphia, and that is a huge part of Demme’s impressive legacy. There should have been more "Philadelphias" in Philadelphia’s wake, but Hollywood did not make good on the challenge set by Demme. (The success of Oscar-winning Moonlight this year is a similar challenge.)
Of course, LGBT people and LGBT characters have surfaced in more and more films—Milk is another Oscar-winning standout—and TV shows: the variety of representation has only increased since 1993, and that is to be welcomed.
But, with Demme’s death and considering the significance of Philadelphia, one notes that it is still too rare for a major Hollywood star to play gay in a major, mainstream Hollywood movie. But then it is even rarer for mainstream Hollywood movies to have a central gay theme. It is even rarer to see expressions of same-sex desire in mainstream Hollywood films. And still, where are the mainstream Hollywood A-list actors who are out?
Hollywood, despite the number of LGBT people who work within it, remains a town of unfathomable closets and closetry. It’s not as oppressive as it was in 1993 when Philadelphia sought, for the first time, to shatter not just a silence and omission on screen but a silence and omission off it. For all the criticism one can level at the quietness of the movie--and how underwritten its gay characters are--its well-meaning accomplishment remains. Demme set a new LGBT standard for the Hollywood mainstream. It is Hollywood’s failure, in the intervening years, not to have substantially grown from it.