Philadelphia and AIDS: Looking Past the Pedantry
Philadelphia and Its Time
It was 1993, and AIDS was terrifying. In the eleven years since the syndrome got its name, hundreds of thousands had died around the globe. The cause was HIV, a virus spread through bodily fluids, and it disproportionately targeted gay men, injection drug users, the poor, and whoever found themselves on the wrong side of some societal divide. AIDS couldn’t be cured, and it usually couldn’t be kept at bay for very long. It would be another three years before the release of HAART, the antiretroviral cocktail that extended the lives of millions with HIV and delayed the onset of AIDS, often permanently. For the time being, there was a lot more fear, anger and misery than hope for those who had the virus.
For a decade, the masses of the AIDS-afflicted and AIDS-affected across North America had been marching, chanting, storming conferences, offices and government buildings, demanding attention, representation, and care. Out of the movement sprang a profusion of visual art, street theatre, and dramatic and documentary film, often combining brutal honesty with bold-faced camp. Art collectives like Gran Fury and General Idea pasted America’s cities with ferocious, eye-catching posters that turned Robert Indiana’s “LOVE” graphic, a quaint, oddball relic of the sixties, into “AIDS,” or pronounced “Silence = Death” under the pink triangle that marked homosexuals in the holocaust.
In the meantime, for millions of the uninfected, AIDS was first and foremost a thing to be avoided: physically, politically, and in tasteful conversation. In the mind of conservative America, this disease, which destroys the body’s ability to resist infection, came to represent the scourge of urban squalor. Misinformation, paranoia, and prejudice abounded.
Some independent films from within the gay community, like 1986’s Parting Glances, touched on the experience of living with AIDS and garnered some critical attention, but did not break through to the mainstream. Meanwhile, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, begun in 1987, made use of tropes of American domesticity to incorporate AIDS into the popular conception of the national identity.
Then, a year after the quilt’s third appearance in Washington’s National Mall, Hollywood decided it was time.
On December 22nd, 1993, TriStar Pictures released Philadelphia, the story of a gay lawyer, played by Tom Hanks, who is fired when his employers discover he has AIDS, then takes them to court for wrongful dismissal.
The origins of the film are not without controversy. Its director, Jonathan Demme, had faced accusations of homophobia and transphobia for his previous film, Silence of the Lambs, in which a gender-bending serial killer murders women so he can wear their skins. Keen to clear his name, Demme prudently acknowledged the shortage of positive gay characters in films and enthusiastically set to work with screenwriter Ron Nyswaner on the project that became Philadelphia.
Officially, the story was an original conception by Demme and Nyswaner, drawing from a number of real life cases. However, several scenes in the film led the family of a deceased New York lawyer named Geoffrey Bowers to claim that the screenplay constituted a misappropriation of his life story. Bowers had died of AIDS in 1987 in the midst of a courtroom battle similar to the one in the film. The lawsuit between the filmmakers and the Bowers family was settled in 1996.
Philadelphia was a huge deal before it even came out. As one critic for Out Magazine wrote, “for the gay community … Philadelphia was the most eagerly anticipated movie in the history of the medium” (qtd. in Zelinsky 20). Many were thrilled to see a studio putting tens of millions of dollars on the line to tell the story of a gay man suffering from AIDS. When the movie came out, it was widely lauded by the critics, going on to rack up nominations and awards for the film, the screenplay, the acting, and especially its opening song, “Streets of Philadelphia,” written and performed by Bruce Springsteen.
But for some critics and activists, Philadelphia did not live up to the hype. Soon after its release, voices began to come from within the AIDS-conscious world, calling it “a bad film, a missed opportunity [that] misrepresented gay men and the experience of living with AIDS” (Sendziuk, 2010:444). Perhaps the loudest critic was writer and gay activist Larry Kramer, who called it “dishonest… often legally, medically and politically inaccurate” and declared, “I’d rather people not see it at all” (1994). In the years since its release, these voices of condemnation have become the dominant force in academic evaluation of the film. Today, any student who comes to Philadelphia through a class on film, HIV/AIDS, or queer representation will encounter the movie chiefly, if not exclusively, in terms of its failings.
Problems of Representation
The main thrust of the criticism is simple: Philadelphia is about AIDS, but it does not get AIDS right. This evaluation is basically a fair one. The plot of the film sees a desperate Andy (Tom Hanks), rejected by nine different lawyers, turn to the homophobic Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) for representation. This premise blatantly ignores the “world of services, advocacy organizations, and personal relationships” (Schulman, 1998:49-50) that sprang up to fight AIDS within the gay community when straight society failed to help. Moreover, the disease’s representative in the film struck many as a decidedly imperfect one: Hanks’s educated, well-to-do Andrew Beckett, supported by a loving family throughout his legal battle against oppression. As the movie’s only non-peripheral HIV-positive character, Andy seemed a poor reflection of a condition almost always associated with isolation, disenfranchisement and ostracism, and that, “by 1993… had become a disease of the poor, heterosexual women of color, and drug users” (Sendziuk, 2010:445).
Beyond demographics, Hanks’s character is dramatically generic, defined by little more than what Roger Ebert praised as his “vast ability to give and receive love” (1994). Of course, Tom Hanks is perfectly cast here, already well on his way to becoming Hollywood’s human embodiment of the wholesomeness of middle America. Rather than showing us a tangible human being with AIDS, Philadelphia does everything it can to shape Andy into America’s ideal AIDS patient, triumphantly normal in spite of this horrifying disease and in cozy counterpoint to his non-normative sexual orientation. He is totally saturated with love of home and family as he holds a bottle to a baby in his parents’ living room, declaring “I love the law” in his inspiring courtroom monologue. In a ham-fisted attempt to fill the void where a personality ought to be, Demme and Nyswaner have Andy singing along to an opera record, visibly overcome with emotion, as he breaks from preparations for his climactic testimony.
As for Andy’s sexuality: what sexuality? Andy is gay, so we are told. Indeed, he even has a sexy Spanish boyfriend named Miguel, played by Antonio Banderas. But with no kissing, no shared bed to speak of, almost no visible or audible intimacy between them, and very little shared screen time, it’s hard to call this a substantial filmic depiction of a gay couple. If one missed a few lines of dialogue, the two men might seem nothing more than a pair of especially close roommates who at one point dress as sailors and slow dance together. Clearly, on the representational front, Philadelphia leaves much to be desired.
Pedantry and Vacuousness
Of course, these liberties and omissions serve a purpose. Philadelphia is unabashedly didactic. Director Jonathan Demme stated that his intention was to make a movie “for people like me: people who aren’t activists, people who are afraid of AIDS, people who have been raised to look down on gays” (qtd. in Sendziuk, 2010:446). As a teaching exercise, Philadelphia pursues two parallel projects: first, to dole out some of the basics of how HIV/AIDS works: no, you can’t get it from shaking hands, as Joe Miller’s doctor tells him. No, you don’t need to be serially promiscuous to contract HIV, as Andy’s story establishes, etc. Denzel Washington’s character puts it best in his courtroom mantra: “explain it to us like we’re four year-olds.”
Secondly, the film strives to demonstrate the humanity of people with AIDS in a broad sense, mobilizing what Robert J. Corber calls “sentimental politics” (2003:111) to force the audience to sympathize with these blameless sufferers. Demme’s movie aims to make emotional contact with, and teach a lesson to, a large audience, much of which might never before have agreed to give the AIDS crisis the time of day. In so doing, it attempts to take the first step toward normalising a disease that was often regarded as all but unmentionable. This undertaking, far from an exhaustive or even totally accurate study of AIDS, was nonetheless a substantial one in 1993, in the wake of the “Reagan revolution” that so shaped America’s moral and aesthetic “mainstream” while ignoring AIDS almost completely (Capozzola, 2002:98). So Demme made his decision: “I didn’t want to risk knocking our audience back twenty feet with images they’re not prepared to see” (Decurtis, 1994), which apparently included almost any expression of romantic love between men.
Philadelphia is decidedly not a work of the AIDS activist art of the ’80s and ’90s that brimmed with both anger and originality. Instead, as a moralistic melodrama, the film stands in a complex and problematic relation to the truth, at once approaching and escaping it, ultimately arriving at what Richard Cante calls “a particularly disturbing combination of qualities: pedantry plus vacuousness” (1999:253).
The flaws of Philadelphia are many and obvious, but it is not totally without merit. The most beautiful sequence in the movie is the opening montage of Philadelphia street life on an autumn day. This living, documentary-style mosaic introduces the viewer to the city’s diverse aspects, both recognisable and particular: schoolchildren wave as the camera passes them along the street, cyclists glide through a city park, a youth on the corner flashes a peace sign, a homeless man huddles for warmth, all laid over with Bruce Springsteen’s aching original ballad, “Streets of Philadelphia” (Demme, 1993). The song’s lyrics imply a speaker with AIDS, but are never explicit: “Saw my reflection in a window and didn’t know my own face. / Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away / On the Streets of Philadelphia?” The sequence makes a series of statements, not about AIDS, but about urban life generally: that it is beautiful, that it is difficult, that it is worth examining, that we are all united in different forms of suffering, all flowing under the surface of day to day experience. AIDS, Demme here implies, is just another part of it.
Unfortunately, this hypnotic, unembarrassed vision of modern life does not last long. The music fades and Demme shoves us into a courthouse: a still-employed Andy competes with Joe Miller, later to become his own advocate, to win a judge’s favour in a corporate negligence case. Here, off the “streets of Philadelphia,” the real story begins. It is in this world of big city litigation, a world that offers up a tried and true set of narrative and cinematic conventions, that Demme and Nyswaner’s tale plays out. As a courtroom drama, the film becomes everything that its status as Hollywood’s first major treatment of AIDS might seem to preclude: a stylish, plot-driven movie with obvious villains and innocent but attentive bystanders.
The courtroom even gives us a sexy, energetic hero; the protagonist of this story, rather than the flatly idealized and sadly doomed Andy, becomes Joe Miller, who morphs from a closed-off homophobe into a hero of the city’s HIV community while forging a powerful bond with the dying Andy. As this story unfolds, the urban realism of the film’s opening recedes into a filament of grit that thinly attaches the lofty melodrama to the real world of “issues” like AIDS: occasionally, we return to Philadelphia’s mean-looking streets, or encounter one of the film’s recurring, visibly AIDS-afflicted extras. The realism is purely superficial. However, the discordance between the film’s opening and what follows does not negate the poignancy and underlying truthfulness of the film’s first two minutes.
The film that seems to be beginning when we see the “Streets of Philadelphia” sequence is a good one: an honest, uninvasive examination of the role of AIDS in American city life, uncompromising and yet oddly welcoming to a willing viewer. That isn’t the movie we get, but the very idea proposed here offers some redemptive value, as well as a glimpse of what might have been.
Problems of Form
Looking for the root of Philadelphia‘s flaws, an important formal predicament presents itself. As a didactic melodrama, Philadelphia necessarily insists on consistent narrative clarity. Just as the courtroom drama is shaped by the conventional necessities of dramatic perturbations and clear character motivations, AIDS itself becomes a discrete agent of causally coherent destruction. At one point, under cross-examination, Andy recalls an isolated hook-up in a porno theatre, evidently the night he contracted HIV. Here, not only is it implicitly clear where, when, and from whom Andy contracted the virus. It is also morally unambiguous what his fatal mistake was: having anonymous sex in a den of sin, far away in time and space from the warmth and sentimentality that are his natural habitat. His healthy, handsome, and presumably faithful boyfriend, meanwhile, is kept perfectly safe.
As Kelly Keating puts it, Andy “the ‘good homosexual'” who “believes in the traditional family and is involved in a monogamous relationship… contracts the virus only when he violates these ideals (becoming a ‘bad homosexual’)” (2009). To the filmmakers, the theatre scene contains essential background information. But to the informed viewer, it is fundamentally untrue to the intrinsic illogic of AIDS. This clumsy and morally dubious attempt to impose reason onto the naturally reasonless brings to mind the troubling words of one bereaved father, just a few years earlier, whose daughter died after contracting HIV at the dentist: “Her sickness would have been easier to accept if she’d been a slut or a drug user. But she had everything right” (Johnson, 1990).
In its mission to use the conventions of a melodramatic plot to engender sympathy, Philadelphia is at its dullest and most dishonest when it concentrates on this melodrama. But, as the “Streets of Philadelphia” sequence makes clear, neither the failure nor the artifice is absolute. Another scene, also a flashback from the courtroom, reveals the complexity and sensitivity that we see in the film’s best moments. An uncomfortable Andy sits in a sauna with the senior partners as they swap offensive jokes. One calls out, “Hey Walter, how does a faggot fake an orgasm?” Walter has heard the joke before, and immediately offers up the punch-line: “He throws a quart of hot yogurt on your back!” The bellies of the wrinkled, half-naked men shake with laughter.
Obviously, we see here the subliminal cruelty of these prejudiced men. But more interestingly, the scene reveals the tiredness of the ritual of institutional homophobia. The joke is both offensive and totally lacking in vitality, totally redundant, serving only to sink the old men deeper into their own blindness. Rather than laboriously demanding our empathy, the sauna scene actually enacts the intellectual and aesthetic demise of the assumptions that define the old, Reaganite guard. Philadelphia momentarily transcends the machinery of melodrama and comes alive as a piece of good, honest satire. It becomes what it should have been all along: an engaged narrative study of what it is we talk about when we talk about AIDS.
Again, the moment vanishes, and again we return to the courtroom and all that it entails. Philadelphia makes it obvious that the filmmakers want to take their subject seriously, and sometimes they even have something real to say about it. But the feeling never lasts. Time and time again, they snatch mediocrity from the jaws of insight. In the end, one almost forgets the good bits altogether. But the movie somehow convinces us that it deserves better. The question becomes, what do these instances of intelligence, and their rarity, tell us about the role of popular cinema in confronting AIDS?
The Outsider’s Gaze
Understandably, Philadelphia takes it upon itself to tell us a great deal. But when the film is thought-provoking, it is so because it engages the unflinching gaze of an interested outsider, rather than its usual, preaching pedagogy. It is the camera rolling past the living Philadelphia streetscapes, or the silent observer when the old bullies hold court in their white towels. As Hollywood’s first curious glimpse at AIDS, as Joe’s story rather than Andy’s, Philadelphia was always going to look at the disease from the outside. Viewers must make no mistake: this is essentially another movie made by, for, and about those who do not have HIV. Critics on the extreme end of Philadelphia-bashing might argue that this fact alone renders the film inappropriate from its conception. The movie, for its part, does much to fuel their condemnation. But its many flaws do not damn it absolutely, and the possibility remains that this outsider’s perspective was and is one worth exploring.
Demme’s defense is not to be disregarded: that the film had to be popularly palatability while protecting its audience from much of the reality of AIDS in order to have a social impact. While the film’s effect on the public is difficult to measure, there can be no denying that it has been widely remembered, often fondly, or that its content constituted something new and difficult for many of the millions who saw it. To this day, despite the excoriation that the film receives from academic pundits, many look back on it as a groundbreaking and important work of socially conscious cinema. Perhaps the sacrifices of narrative and historical quality made along the way were worthwhile, or perhaps not. Regardless, a re-evaluation of Philadelphia reveals mainstream cinema’s need, and at moments its ability, to honestly examine the AIDS crisis, rather than simply sermonising on it.
What kind of a film should Philadelphia have been? It seems that its greatest fault is one of self-identification. The movie purports to be realistic, then lapses into conventional Hollywood fantasy. It sells itself as the story of a hero with AIDS, then reveals a near total lack of interest in the experience of the AIDS-afflicted subject. Maybe the filmmakers should have gotten together and realised that this was not AIDS: The Motion Picture, not the tale of Andy Beckett, gay American hero. Instead, it was a story about the awkward and incendiary moment when one hitherto unfamiliar with HIV comes into contact with it, and sees the cultural clash that has long carried on around the virus.
An idea comes to mind: that Philadelphia should have been something like a picaresque, in which a troubled person journeys through a troubled world not quite his own. He struggles, he resists, he observes, and he is put to some kind of test. The audience, in the meantime, is asked to come along with him, to laugh at his foibles, and to see some part of the world anew.
As a didactic film about AIDS, Philadelphia is at best forgettable and at worst offensive. However, as a meditation on the American consciousness around the disease, it is, in part, worth remembering. This often bizarre and frustrating dialectic between pedagogy and contemplation brings one to an important plea for those who address AIDS through popular artistic media: Don’t just tell me. Show me.
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