Reprint from Attitude magazine 



The first Oscar winning account of AIDS and gay relationships

Street of Philadelphia – Bruce Springsteen

It would be rough to identify a more significant landmark in the history of gay cinema than Philadelphia.  The story of a gay lawyer fired shortly after his employers discover he has AIDS, its success at the Box Office swept away the resistance of Hollywood studios to explore the AIDS-experience on screen.

When Tom Hanks triumphantly won Best Actor at the Oscars he quashed the prevailing view that playing gay could destroy an actor’s career.

Hanks stars as Andy Beckett alongside Denzel Washington as Joe Miller, the small-time lawyer Beckett is forced to hire to sue his employers when everyone else turns him down.  Together the two actors make Philadelphia a powerful, passionate and profoundly moving film.  Written by gay activist Ron Nyswaner, it is also stridently political.  Who can’t remember feeling stirred by the scene in which Andy’s partner Miquel (played by a never hotter Antonio Banderas) is told he can be evicted from hospital as he isn’t a member of Andy’s immediate family.

But Philadelphia isn’t a perfect film, Re-watching it in 2014 (the time this article was written), it sometimes struck me as schematic and unsubtle – an ‘issue’ film that’s a bit of a slog to get through.  Andy’s boss is portrayed as little more than a cartoon villain and Joe’s initially unbridled homophobia can be a barrier to empathy for contemporary gay viewers, most of whom no longer have to stomach this kind of outrage on a daily basis.  I, for one, felt a sense of relief on reaching the library scene in which Joe first engages with Andy after witnessing his dignity in the face of prejudice – cleverly suggesting a parallel between Andy’s situation as a gay man with AIDS and the African-American experience.

In an inspired twist, as Andy’s case of unfair dismissal reaches court.  Joe draws on his own feelings of homophobia to get inside the head of Andy’s boss – in a cross-examination that helps lead to a triumphant outcome, Philadelphia’s most powerful scene takes place outside the courtroom though, when Andy and Joe attend a fancy dress, gazing across the dance floor at each other as they move to the same show beat in the arms of their very different partners.

Of course, the impact of scenes like this has lessened in the 20 years since the film’s release but it’s important to remember that Philadelphia would have represented the first time most viewers had ever witnessed any kind of gay intimacy on the screens of their multiplexes – let alone in a big-budget Hollywood film.  When the lawyer defending Andy’s boss argues that Andy’s “reckless behaviour” led to him contracting AIDS she’s much echoing the views of the public.

Despite Andy’s triumph in court, the film inevidently has a tragic ending, one that didn’t offer much hope to gay men in the early 90s – or do much to overturn the cinematic convention of meting out tragic fates to gay characters.  But at the time, a few years before combination therapy became available in the US and the UK, the truth was that there wasn’t much hope for peace with AIDS.

What the film offered instead was something that was of equal importance.  It offered a gay community still living through the darkest horrors of the AIDS crisis an opportunity to come together in a shared expression of sadness and grief.

Editorial:  The Los Angeles Times in 1994 printed an article by Terry Pristin, which indicated that a law suit had been taken out by the family of the late Geoffrey Bowers, a New York lawyer who fought an AIDS discrimination battle bearing striking similarities to the story told in “Philadelphia.  It is very unclear as to whether the story was developed independently or was based on Mr Bowers personal story.

La Mamma Morta – from Philadelphia

Maria Callas – La mamma morta


Fact File:

  • Released in the UK on 25th February 1994
  • Directed by Jonathan Demme
  • Total international Box Office – $206m.
  • The theme tune, by Bruce Springsteen, won the Oscar for Best Original Song
  • The film’s most intimate gay love scene was cut, but you can watch it on Youtube.
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