Philadelphia and the impact it had on gay cinema

Gay cinema had something of a moment in the 2010’s with Moonlight taking home Best Picture at the 2017Academy Awards, with Call Me By Your Name also drawing awards season silverware and praise the following year. But it’s difficult to imagine any of those movies existing or connecting in the way they did without a trailblazing film; Philadelphia.

Jonathan Demme’s follow-up to his own Oscar smash, Silence Of The Lambs, Philadelphia was the first major studio film to tackle HIV/AIDS and discrimination against homosexuals.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, casting Tom Hanks at the centre of your movie is a way to get people in seats and to guide them through a film with harrowing subject matter. Hanks took home his first of two back-to-back Oscars for his portrayal of Andrew Beckett, an employee of the largest corporate law firm in Philadelphia. Beckett takes the firm to trial after they sack him unfairly, employing Denzel Washington’s personal injury lawyer character Joe Miller to defend him in court.

While the courtroom scenes are an examination of prejudices gay people faced in America at the time and serve as the film’s big crowd-pleasing moments, the film excels in its quieter moments, and this is where Demme’s trademark humanism shines through.

A scene where Hanks and Washington hang out and listen to opera is as beautiful and serene as cinema gets, evoking the likes of Fellini or Nichols where emotion is the predominant feeling in a given scene.

Prior to his success with Silence Of The Lambs, Demme made a name for himself with his quirky, off-beat comedy dramas such as Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and Married To The Mob, where the focus on characters was paramount and the action always came second.

Here, Demme’s focus on the micro over the macro helps make what would be a typical Hollywood weepie into something with weight, class and gravitas. A sombre, but poignant reminder of the effect HIV/AIDS had on the arts community is present in Philadelphia.

53 people with HIV/AIDS were cast in the film – less than a year after the films release, 43 of them were dead. A scene early on in the film has a doctor explain that you cannot get the disease through casual contact, serving as a subtle reminder to audiences that the stigma around the disease is very much real, and fear and distrust is one of the barriers to the disease being defeated.

The screenplay does a lot of the proverbial heavy lifting in getting the message across, with Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay lending the film the sense of vulnerability and honesty it needs to help the themes of the film connect.

Denzel Washington’s performance is up there with his best, as he plays the role of the well-meaning ally who occasionally puts his foot in his mouth to perfection. Washington’s character uses slurs throughout the movie, but it doesn’t come from a place of bigotry or hatred; it’s how societal norms have conditioned him to react, and he grows as the film progresses.

Adjusted for inflation, Philadelphia made $365 million dollars at the box office, helping pave the way for what followed.

Following the film’s release, television shows and films depicting the lives of the LGBTQ+ community became much more plentiful, such as shows like Queer As Folk and the shows of Ryan Murphy becoming cultural touchstones of the early 2000s.

It is difficult to imagine the likes of Moonlight, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Love, Simon or Call Me By Your Name connecting with audiences or even getting a wide release at all without the success of Philadelphia in 1993.

At the end of Philadelphia, as well as other Jonathan Demme movies, the phrase “A luta continua” appears, which is a rallying cry used during the Mozambique war for independence. “A luta continua” means “the struggle continues” and it certainly does. But progress is being made – bit by bit.

Image credit via Flickr.com

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Mike Finnerty

Galwayman studying Journalism in UL.
Film school dropout, perhaps the only person in Ireland who still gets excited for DVD releases.

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