Philadelphia is a heartbreakingly mediocre movie. It’s dishonest, it’s often legally, medically, and politically inaccurate, and it breaks my heart that I must say it’s simply not good enough and I’d rather people not see it at all.
For 12 years millions of people, gays, people with AIDS, people with HIV infection, their families and friends, have been waiting desperately for a “major” movie to deal with this plague in a mature fashion. Other tragedies, from the Holocaust to Vietnam to Watergate, have had their films. Why not AIDS? Oh, we knew why not. Because AIDS is happening to certain communities others would just as soon see dead. There’s no audience for this kind of subject, we’ve been told over and over. So for 12 years Hollywood has turned its back on it.
Finally a company called TriStar, which is a division of Columbia Pictures, which is a division of Sony Entertainment, which is a division of Japan, where there are very few AIDS cases, has given us Philadelphia. Not only have they given us Philadelphia, but they, and everyone else in Hollywood, have let us all know that if Philadelphia isn’t a success at the box office there just might not be any other films about AIDS. In other words, just as we have to swallow Clinton’s new gays-in-the-military policy, we have to fight for our welfare by going to this movie and not telling anyone how awful it is. We’re supposed to be grateful it’s been made; we’re supposed to bamboozle everyone into seeing it because it’s good for them.
But Philadelphia doesn’t have anything to do with the AIDS I know. Or the gay world I know. It doesn’t bear any truthful resemblance to the life, world, and universe I live in. And every person I know lives in. And every gay or PWA the film’s director, Jonathan Demme, and its screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, know lives in. To believe any viewer–particularly those I would like to have experience something meaningful watching this movie–would change his or her point of view after seeing it is like thinking Jesse Helms or George Bush or Ronald Reagan would change after watching an episode of Another World.
Philadelphia is put together like a paint-by-numbers kit. Take one noble gay white male hero (Tom Hanks). Put him together with one black shyster lawyer who hates gays (Denzel Washington). Pepper their conflict with the (most improbable) notion that the shyster is the only lawyer in the entire city of Philadelphia who will defend the white man–who’s been fired from his big-deal law firm. (We know it’s for having AIDS.) Make the head honchos in the white law firm (senior partner: Jason Robards) so monstrous and homophobic you wonder how they’ve stayed in business so long. Have a despicable white woman (Mary Steenburgen) and another black lawyer defend the law firm at the trial. By trial’s end make certain the black shyster has experienced a change of heart so he can deliver a rending sermon on discrimination to the jury and the white woman can mutter, “I hate this case.” And our hero, who’s just collapsed on the floor, can win some $30 million on his deathbed.
The very premise of the plot is based on falsehood. It’s now so patently illegal to fire a person with AIDS that the very notion that a first-class Main Line law firm would fire this guy for anything is ludicrous. Who was the legal adviser on this movie? Did no one know of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which makes such a dismissal explicitly against the law and has been in effect since before this script was written? It’s cheaper to pay the guy his salary and tell him not to come into the office.
There’s another credibility problem: Washington never really lets us believe he’s as slimy as the script is telling us he is. And for a shyster, he sure looks good, dressed as he is by Armani or Cerruti or one of those designers who ends in a vowel. And his character does so many flip-flops I wondered if they’d shot two versions, just in case, and intercut them. One scene he’s railing against faggots, the next he’s defending them as if he’s one of them, and then he’s slugging a gay black athlete who tries to pick him up, and then he’s waffling with his wife about the case. Very schizy.
If I were a bigot, I’d walk away from this movie unchanged. It confirms everything I would have thought going in. The writer may have meant Robards and Steenburgen and Washington all to be scumbags, but at least their parts are written: they have things to do and say, there’s fabric and texture to their lives, their words, their actions and reactions. You know them and understand them. They have dialogue to speak. They’re more animated than anybody gay in the movie. Hanks and his lover and his mother are in a silent film. All their dialogue together can’t add up to ten pages. His lover can’t speak more than three words. Joanne Woodward as Mommy could be playing a mute.
The Hanks character is an utter cipher. I couldn’t tell you anything about him–his beliefs, his likes and dislikes, his feelings. I couldn’t even tell you he’s gay. In fact, I did not for one second believe he was gay. Tom doesn’t act in this movie. His makeup does all his acting. I havent seen so many changes rung on various shades and hues of Max Factor since James Cagney in Man of a Thousand Faces. The notion that Hanks is a serious contender for an Oscar for this performance is just Hollywood self-congratulatory hypocrisy, like wearing red ribbons–look how noble and liberal we are!
Although Tom wears a wedding ring, he might as well be married to a woman for all you see of his lover, their life as a couple, their interactions, their affection. Some actor I didn’t recognize from scene to scene but who had dark hair and spoke with a Hispanic accent hovers around Tom now and then, and Tom winks at him now and then in the courtroom, but for all the script tells you they either could be trying to pick each other up or the guy is a volunteer from some Philadelphia AIDS organization who helps him get around. I take that back. The dark-haired guy couldn’t work for an AIDS organization. He doesn’t know anything about AIDS. He talks about a colonoscopy as if it were brain surgery. Who was the medical adviser on this movie?
No one else does any acting either. They grimace. They look sad. They look embarrassed. They look the other way. And almost every grimace, smile, and grunt is underlined with throbs and crescendos. You don’t have to supply any feelings. The music does it for you. I haven’t heard a musical score like this since Bette Davis went blind in Dark Victory.
Two “big” scene scenes are meant to convey we’re in the company of “different” people. The first involves Tom listening to Maria Callas sing an obscure aria about the French Revolution from Andrea Chenier that even I never heard of. Of all the music I’d believe Tom’s character might listen to, Maria’s aria about the French Revolution is not one of them. The Pet Shop Boys at the most. This character, who’s been totally undeveloped by the screenwriter and who has as much personality as a piece of wood, suddenly–in front of Denzel–puts on Maria and, in swooping close-ups a la Fellini, swirls and swoons around a dim room (his apartment? loft? studio? house? as I say it’s dim) like some loony, his eyes rolling in ecstasy. This is not acting, it’s embarrassing. I’d be afraid of someone too if–out of the blue–he behaved like this.
The other scene is a gay party, which I guess is an obligatory scene in a movie about gay people, particularly a movie in which every gay person has been so invisible I began to wonder if maybe all the hearsay that Philadelphia was about a gay person was wrong and two scripts had been switched in the hospital. Quentin Crisp can be briefly glimpsed at this party. What Quentin Crisp, perhaps one of the most outrageous homosexuals in the world, is doing at this party with these people is a question I’ll bet even he can’t answer. There are the requisite guys in drag (that wonderful makeup person again) and a brief shot of one of our greatest AIDS-activist heroes, Michael Callen (who died the day I saw this movie), performing with his singing group, for some reason, “Mr. Sandman” (they must have known that long boring trial scene lay just ahead). Tom and his boyfriend–buddy? alter ego? doppelganger? warden? (oh, I remember: Tom refers to him somewhere as “my companion”)–are dressed like naval officers, and Tom dances with “my companion” as if he’s his mother. (Tom leads. Tell that to your gay Hispanic friends.)
Which brings me to his mother. And his family. His siblings. And their mates. And their children. And their sisters and their cousins and their aunts. No family like this exists in the entire world. Every single one of them is supportive, loving, proud of Tom, just thrilled he’s gay, accepting of “my companion,” rooting for Tom every second at the trial, attending Tom constantly in the hospital (which Philly hospital did the art director have in mind that fits 30 family members in semiprivate?), and not one of them has a spot or wrinkle or blemish on face or body or clothes. This family is clean. (This movie is clean. Even the table in the jury room looks like a Pledge commercial.)
The movie’s most awful line and moment comes after Tom tells these assembled relations–all gathered round a hearth in a house out of Colonial Homes–that he’s going to sue his firm and warns them awful things might come out about his private life (he went once, horror of horrors, to the baths and a gay porn movie theater). And surprise, surprise, they are all with him one hundred percent. “Gosh, I love you guys,” Tom gushes. As Dorothy Parker once wrote, “Constant Reader fwowed up.”
Who’s going to see a movie like this? Why would anyone want to? Why don’t the nervous Nellies who made it understand that it’s lies and distortions like these that make the “middle America” they pander to and are so terrified of offending stay away in droves? Who wants to be lied to? A six-year-old, after five years of going to the malls, watching a million television movies and episodes that handle this subject matter better, and living intimately with all those series on the Fox network, knows gay people don’t live and look and act like this. And are much, much more interesting.
I’m tired of hearing the excuse that the reason Hollywood doesn’t finance movies about gays and AIDS is they won’t make money. (Philadelphia will not make money.) I scream back: If you make a good and honest movie people will come to it, and there’s never been a good and honest movie financed by a major studio with gay or lesbian leading characters in which were dealt with dramatically just as heterosexuals are–i.e. openly and without condescension. To make a movie in which two lovers never touch each other, or kiss, or show any affection, or even talk to each other, is a lie. And “middle America” knows it. “Middle America” knows it’s being lied to if for no other reason than if there’s all this AIDS the fellows must have done something.
I fervently believe the first decent movie in which a male star like Tom Hanks makes love, in a bed, naked, with another male star, like Tom Cruise, who’s in the same bed, and the same shot, and also naked, and in which they kiss, and they embrace, and they talk to each other in an adult fashion, and they’re photographed doing the same things straight lovers are photographed doing in every single movie, TV show, and commercial will make a fortune.
Which brings me to this movie’s biggest lie. There is not one person in the entire world with AIDS or who’s HIV positive who does not believe he or she is the victim of–if not outright intentional genocide, which is what I believe–then at least government inaction and oversight of huge proportions. Not one single person. There is not one of us who’s not forced to face the fact every second of every day that Ronald Reagan and George Bush and now Bill Clinton have done little of consequence to save our lives. For there not to be one reference in this entire movie to this reality is criminal. What makes it even more criminal is that it’s undoubtedly intentional.
What unreal world do the manufacturers of this movie live in? How can it be possible that a gay screenwriter wrote this cornucopia of lies? Can any gay writer be as much of an Uncle Tom as Nyswaner reveals himself to be?
Yes, I’m angry. I waited 12 years for this? This movie does not deserve, on any grounds, to be supported. It deserves to lose its shirt. I don’t want “middle America” to see it. Anyone who wants to see what AIDS is really like and what gay life is really like and how audiences are reacting to it should go see the seven hours of theater known as Angels in America, which is on Broadway, which is selling out every performance, and which doesn’t give a damn what “middle America” thinks about it–which is why at the three performances I’ve already attended I was surrounded by people (straight people!) from middle America.
As I write these thoughts I realize just how angry this film has made me. To watch Demme and Nyswaner on a recent Nightline trying to maintain that, well, gee, it’s not really a movie about AIDS, and yeah, well, gee, we wanted to make a movie middle America would go see is enough to make anyone lose faith in the artist as the teller of truth. Why did they make it then? Don’t forget that Demme also directed The Silence of the Lambs, which many gays consider one of the most virulently and insidiously homophobic films ever made. Would that he’d worried about us as much then as he now worries about “middle America.” Is Philadelphia some sort of attempt to offer an apology? After these two films I wish he’d just go away and leave us alone. He’s about as good for our cause as Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Bill Clinton.
In the end my main rage isn’t against Demme and Nyswaner. They’re only jerks who’ve missed a boat that could have carried some valuable cargo. My unabated fury rages against the third silent, useless president in a row who refuses to take a leadership position in ending this plague, thus allowing everyone else’s complicity in a monstrous cover-up. One crappy AIDS movie in 12 years, made by a bunch of lunkheads for whom it’s more important to get out “a movie that will play in the malls” than a movie that will tell the truth. And the entire world continues to look the other way.