Remembering the Streets of Philadelphia

Tom Hanks Philadelphia

On November 5, Outfest is honoring two-time Academy Award–winning actor, director, and producer Tom Hanks with its Trailblazer Award in recognition of his groundbreaking, Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia, the first major studio film to sympathetically portray characters with HIV/AIDS, 22 years ago. A couple of days later, Ron Nyswaner (who also wrote the screenplay for Freeheld) will also be honored with an award for his screenplay for the film at the Los Angeles LGBT Center's Vanguard Awards. Hanks' landmark role is just as memorable to many because of his Oscar acceptance speech, in which he eloquently honored two gay men who were influential in his life—sending an essential message during a time of crisis. With this recognition in mind, we look back at how much has changed in the two decades since the movie changed the hearts and minds of millions. 

There's a scene in Jonathan Demme’s film Philadelphia where Tom Hanks attends a costume party dressed in military regalia.

In the 1993 film, Hanks plays Wall Street lawyer Andrew Beckett, who, having been recently been diagnosed with AIDS, was fired by his law firm. Beckett recruits Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to help him sue his law firm in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit.

Beckett and his lover Miguel Alvarez (Antonio Banderas) attend a gala party in military uniforms, a small moment of respite for Beckett from an otherwise exhausting experience, as he endures demoralising cross-examinations from the opposing counselor about his sexuality, sex life, and worsening health status.

While the costume party may be an innocuous moment in another otherwise politically charged drama on the stigma waged against gay men, Demme had Beckett and Alvarez wear the military uniforms for another purpose. Philadelphia was all about dismantling the harmful and dangerous stereotypes that were waged against the gay community, especially those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Beckett and Miguel wear the military uniforms to reference the absence of visible out gay and lesbians in the military. In 1993, gays and lesbians were expressly forbidden from serving in the armed forces until Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t policy” was introduced the following years (with its own complications about remaining in the closet). By having Beckett wear the uniform, being gay and someone diagnosed with AIDS, openly gay screenwriter Ron Nyswaner attempted to expose the gross mistreatment of members of the queer community across all aspects of American society — from the military to the medical establishment to the government.  

The message of Philadelphia was to ask viewers that we rectify the appalling ill treatment leveraged against gay men, one that painted the queer community in deep abjection and shame in the American imagination. Given that Philadelphia was filmed and released in 1992 and 1993, respectively — a few years before the wide availability of anti-retroviral medication, which shifted AIDS from a “death sentence” to a chronic but treatable condition — Demme’s desire was to offer a humane and, above all, relatable portrait of a man, who happened to be living with AIDS, trying to take back his dignity.

While in the preceding years “New Queer Cinema” (NQC) had paved the way for representing gay men with AIDS on the silver screen, the impact of these films was comparatively small, as their countercultural and anti-establishment associations relegated them often to an underground, art film audience. Nevertheless, NQC films were often imbued with powerful allegories, offering confrontational and aggressive representations of gay men with HIV/AIDS (see The Living End by Gregg Araki as a case in point). Unfortunately, NQC did not garner mainstream attention during its early emergence. It is only recently that these films have been recognized for their brilliance in the years since their release.

But Jonathan Demme was eager to represent the unspeakable in American society, a subject he had only recently explored in his film The Silence of the Lambs (1991). While The Silence of the Lambs includes some problematic issues of queer representation — including that of its transgender villain — its portrayal of the autonomous, self-sufficient, and most likely gay heroine Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) was widely praised. It remains an iconic performance in film of a woman dictating her own narrative in a world dominated with men – both murderous and authoritarian. After winning a slew of Academy Awards for Lambs, Demme decided to shift his attention to the oppressive and harmful stigma that was waged across America against gay men because of the devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic.

The courtroom drama was the template of choice — a popular and powerful strategy long used within American cinema to influence and represent the debates of any socio-political time. In the 1960s, there was To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) where the status and citizenship of an African-American man was fiercely debated and reckoned with in a Southern courtroom. Later, in the 1980s, we had The Accused (1988), where Jodie Foster’s character brings forward a gang-rape case that few are willing to believe. The film showed how violence against women was just as often perpetuated just as much in the back of bar rooms as in courtrooms in America.

Demme was well aware of the antecedents Philadelphia would follow in America’s courtroom cinema history, especially since he decided to mediate this through a trial, too. Audiences, like jurors, would be asked to view the story impartially and without prejudice until both sides of the case were offered. There was no coincidence that Demme chose a black actor, Denzel Washington, to represent Beckett in court — a direct inversion of To Kill A Mockingbird, where a white man represents a black man — in an attempt to locate this story in line with the many problematic and destructive prejudices that have long plagued America’s history against minorities.

Like his previous film Silence of the Lambs, Demme choses to use intense — if sometimes too close and confrontational — close-ups of his characters in court. While in Lambs they were used for their more combative and aggressive potential, in Philadelphia, Demme adopted these close-ups to show the sinister and hollow façade of the lawyers working on the opposing team. We see their slick suits and peroxide smiles conceal their more harmful and conniving intentions, as these seasoned lawyers try to paint Beckett as a sick, bitter, and self-destructive man whose sexual proclivities lead to his diagnosis and that greed is motivating his law suit, not justice. Demme, contrastingly, also uses close-ups to show a sickly and emaciated Hanks, increasingly wearied and depleted as he vainly fights to restore his humanity in the unforgiving and cruel courtroom — one representative of a microcosm of American society.

Demme’s decision to place Tom Hanks, the beloved comedic actor, in the lead role of Andrew Beckett remains an important and admirable move. By using such a recognizable actor as Hanks, Philadelphia would have the mainstream appeal that other gay-themed films of the same period would not (including many New Queer Cinema movies). The film would align itself with many of the other probing, investigative, socially-aware films of the time, many of which placed a recognizable Hollywood actor in the lead role. Take Schindler’s List (1993) with Liam Neeson, which explored an unspoken secret history of the Holocaust, or The Crying Game (1992) with Michael Lea, which focused on issues of gender and sexuality against the backdrop of the I.R.A.

Hanks’s performance is what ultimately makes Philadelphia such a potent, deeply affecting, and compelling narrative, one that still continues to resonate decades after its release. Working as a story about a man trying to have his dignity and livelihood re-instated after it was cruelly taken away, Philadelphia asks its audiences to respond with impartiality — like court jurors — before we judge those living with AIDS.

What Philadelphia showed was this: Tom Hanks gave a face to being gay. Tom Hanks gave a face to living with AIDS. Tom Hanks gave a face to being both gay and living with AIDS.

Thanks to Hanks, the AIDS experience was given time, importance, and most importantly, representation on the big screen. This was an enormous feat since, only a decade earlier, the President Ronald Reagan had refused to even utter the word “AIDS” while in office. What Hanks’ performance as Andrew Beckett demonstrated was that Hollywood was trying to grapple with and visualize the AIDS crisis, and did so with one of its brightest, most courageous stars who wanted to embody this representation. As Beckett, Hanks showed us that every individual, stripped of their dignity and humanity, deserved our urgent attention.

Philadelphia provided American audiences in the early 1990s with a very real and identifiable portrait of the pain, isolation, and dark shame AIDS reaped on its sufferers. Given that people living with AIDS were mediated in the popular imagine by ads of the “Grim Reaper” — skeletal, diseased, contagious — Philadelphia offered itself as a much-needed cinematic antidote to this negative association.

Philadelphia remains a landmark film of remarkable courage and authenticity, thanks not only to Hanks’s watershed performance of a man living with AIDS, but also to the many AIDS survivors Demme included in the making of his film. While many of these men died in the year or so after the film’s release, their presence demonstrated the need to recognize people with AIDS as people — deserving of our attention, sympathy, and, above all, respect.

Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer. His writing has appeared in Out, The New Republic, and The Washington Post. Nathan tweets @nathansmithr

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