Twenty five years since ‘Philadelphia’ was released

This weekend marks 25 years since the film Philadelphia was released into cinemas. The movie starred Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and was lauded as a groundbreaking film, the first time a big Hollywood studio and delivered a major drama dealing with the AIDS crisis.

At first the film was released to just four cinemas across America, but slowly it was shown around the world, until it was one of the favourites to win at the 1994 Academy Awards.

It won Hanks the Best Actor Oscar and the Golden Globe award, and musician Bruce Springsteen also won an Oscar for this theme tune. Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner was nominated for his script, but lost out to Jane Campion’s The Piano.

The film tells the fictional story of lawyer Andrew Beckett (Hanks) who is fired from his job, his bosses declare it’s because of his poor performance, but he takes them to court because he believes it because they discovered that he is gay and HIV positive.

Denzel Washington plays lawyer Joe Miller, a lawyer who at first refuses to take Beckett’s case but later changes his mind when he sees how people react to Beckett’s HIV status. The film also features memorable performances from Jason Robards who plays the head of the law firm, and Mary Steenburgen who represents the firm in court. Veteran actor Joanne Woodward plays Beckett’s mother.

Antonio Banderas plays Andrew Beckett’s partner Miguel. It was one of the actor’s first film appearances where he spoke English – having become an established film star in his native Spain. Many of the scenes that were filmed showing affection between Hanks and Banderas’ characters were cut from the film, but restored on later DVD editions.

Director Jonathan Demme’s previous film Silence of the Lambs had been a box office smash and received critical acclaim. It is one of only three films to win all five big Oscars, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Film. The film was however criticised for his depiction of members of LGBT community.  Here he made a film that put forward a positive portrayal of the LGBTI communities most vulnerable.

The film was criticised for not being daring enough in its depictions of a same-sex relationship. Larry Kramer famously lambasted the movie, and watching it today it can take on the feel of a well acted TV movie of the week, but in 1993 it was forging new ground.

During a Q&A session earlier this year screenwriter Ron Nyswaner revealed that Hanks was not the first actor the role was offered to, the creative team had wanted Daniel Day Lewis to play lawyer Andrew Beckett.

“We wanted Daniel Day-Lewis and Daniel passed,” Nyswaner said, ” “I love him and he’s a genius, but I’m so glad he passed.”

When Hanks took to the stage to accept the Oscar for his acting, he made mention of two gay school teachers who’d inspired him in his youth. That action would provide the inspiration for the film In and Out starring Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck.

Despite its shortcomings, and challenges of the time, the film remains a snapshot of history when HIV was devastating our community and stigma and discrimination was rife, rewatching the film today, it’s heartbreaking to think that the stigma still remains a quarter of a century later.

Graeme Watson


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