The Philadelphia Phenomenon

Published in: September-October 2015 issue.


WHEN PHILADELPHIA passed the twentieth anniversary of its release in December 2013, it was surprising to realize that the film is still Hollywood’s most successful gay-themed movie to date in terms of box office receipts. The movie’s worldwide earnings still eclipse those of Brokeback Mountain or The Dallas Buyers Club or any other GLBT film made since that time, making a re-evaluation of Philadelphia worthwhile.

By 1993, theater and television had produced many offerings on gay themes and the AIDS crisis, but Philadelphia was the first big-budget, major studio movie to center on these themes.* As such, it was overburdened with demands. At the time, it was regarded as a “bellwether project” for future AIDS films and was eagerly anticipated both by Hollywood and by the gay community. But if the former waited anxiously for word on the film’s box office potential, the latter worried about how the movie would depict gay people for mass audience consumption. Not surprisingly, many gays were disappointed, but Philadelphia remains a landmark in terms of proving that gay-related films could be profitable and popular in the American mainstream. But how did this movie, so radical for its time, come to be made; and how was it marketed to a mainstream mass audience? Furthermore, how did it manage to attract the latter without alienating the “gay gaze” of its GLBT viewers?

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia
Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia

The film’s straight director, Jonathan Demme, began to develop the project in 1988 with gay screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, and they selected the story that would become Philadelphia in 1990. Demme’s Academy Award as best director for The Silence of the Lambs (1991) helped get Philadelphia in production. He never intended to make the film for a gay audience but saw himself as the ideal viewer. Recalling a 1984 train ride when he overheard a fellow passenger reveal that he had AIDS, Demme admitted he was “terrified” and wanted to escape the confines of the compartment in flight from the infected individual. Philadelphia was meant to tap into this kind of response in other ill-informed people and offer a much more complex perspective on the medical, legal, and personal aspects of the disease.

Although hoping to educate the film’s audiences, Demme was concerned about alienating its straight viewers by frankly depicting the sex lives of gay men, and so he tread lightly here. Indeed, one might not realize that Tom Hanks’ character, Andy Beckett, is gay until his longtime lover appears in his hospital room fifteen minutes into the film. Admitted Demme: “I didn’t want to risk knocking our audience back [twenty]feet with images they’re not prepared to see.”

The straight press gave Philadelphia mixed reviews, objecting to the easy answers and two-dimensional characters. Frank Rich remarked that “the gay characters are uniformly saintly,” while, with the important exception of Denzel Washington, “the straight characters are either deified (the hero’s uniformly supportive family) or demonized (the hero’s monstrously bigoted former legal colleagues).” Despite reservations about the film’s artistic merits and its portrait of reality, many reviewers praised Hanks’ courage in playing the lead and, on this basis alone, encouraged readers to see the film. Less cynically, many mainstream critics regarded Philadelphia as long overdue and hoped that it would help the public to understand the AIDS crisis more realistically and humanely.

Regardless of straight America’s reaction, Demme trusted that he could count on the gay audience. Declaring that ten percent of the population is gay, the director believed that “at least half of them” would come to Philadelphia. A critic in Out magazine observed that “for the gay community … Philadelphia was the most eagerly anticipated movie in the history of the medium.” While the gay press remained generally supportive of the film, there was also a widespread sense of regret, of a lost opportunity, for what could have been a powerful depiction of a gay man’s struggle with a gruesome disease. This disappointment was tempered by the recognition that the picture was clearly not meant for the gay audience. Wrote Ronald Mark Kraft in The Advocate: “Gays and lesbians may very well feel cheated by Philadelphia—it’s AIDS 101 and Gay 101 all neatly tied up with a red ribbon—but this movie wasn’t necessarily made with them in mind. But if, like the Liberty Bell [a shot of which appears in the opening moments of the film], it has a few cracks, it is no less a wonder to behold.”

Out called Philadelphia “maddeningly closeted.” Like the straight press, GLBT publications bemoaned the movie’s lack of realism or boldness and its conservatism in presenting intimate relationships. Many gay viewers objected that Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) and his wife were shown affectionately hugging in bed, while Andy and Miguel (Antonio Banderas) shared no similar scene. Some critics regarded Andy’s ecstatic experience of an aria sung by Maria Callas as a gay cliché. Perhaps most damning was Andy’s contraction of HIV in a gay porn theater. A spokesperson for the Philadelphia AIDS Consortium said of the porn cinema allusion: “The movie seems to say that simply by going there, Andrew put himself and his lover at risk for AIDS.” Two established and out entertainment figures vehemently objected to the film: Scott Thompson and Larry Kramer.

Best known as one of the regulars on the comedy serial The Kids in the Hall, actor Scott Thompson hoped Philadelphia would fail at the box office: “The movie was too polite, too ginger. If Hollywood is using this movie to make America love us, they are making them love a false image. I don’t want that kind of acceptance.” Gay activist and playwright Larry Kramer was even more damning in his attacks, syndicating an essay titled “Why I Hated Philadelphia” in seven newspapers. Wrote Kramer: “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.” However, after the film became a hit with audiences nationwide, Kramer reversed himself: “I never thought I’d say this, but I guess Philadelphia did some good after all.”

Like the straight press and its grudging endorsement of the film, Kramer may have altered his views when he realized that Philadelphia was disseminating information to mainstream viewers. Tom Hanks’ character may have presented a stereotypical face, but it was a human face. In the end, most of the gay community forgave the film for its Disney-like depiction of gay life; it was awarded “outstanding studio film of the year” by the Gay and Lesbian Association for Anti-Defamation. Like Kramer, most in the GLBT community came to believe that visibility was more important than realism.

The film’s narrative is fairly straightforward, leaving little room for symbolic or metaphoric meanings. Considering Demme’s fear of alienating his audience, it’s not surprising that the film avoids even coded messages that might be picked up by gay viewers. He modeled Philadelphia on the courtroom drama and just as in a court of law, presents his case for the defense in a clear, articulate manner. Still, there are a few scenes that might be seen as directed to gay viewers: Andy’s flashback to the porn movie and to the athletic club showers when he realizes his boss is homophobic; Joe being cruised in a drugstore; and Andy’s caregiver Bruno’s gaze in the few moments he has on-screen. I highlight these scenes because the “gay gaze” of the audience is fundamental in reading them, and they become meaningless or comic without the use of a gay viewpoint.

While testifying in the trial sequence, Andy recalls his encounter with Robert in the Stallion Showcase Cinema, and Demme provides a flashback that takes up a few seconds of film. Sounds of moaning emanate from the pornographic film while shadowy images outline the pair as they complete their brief introductions and proceed (we assume) to have sex. These brief images illustrate what film scholar R. Bruce Brasell calls the “hustling gaze”: “In hustling, sex is commodified by its transference into cash which can then be exchanged at a later time. Sex acquires an economic/monetary value as a result of the transaction.” Hustling creates a closed system and results in objectification in which a body is reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold. This anonymous sexual encounter is not only the sole instance of hustling in Philadelphia, it is also the one in which Andy contracts HIV.

Importantly, the hustling scene happens in a public setting. Brasell defines the significance of private and public places in his discussion of gay spectatorship: “The two locations create different performance spaces for gay men, one in which we project outwardly for the public and the other in which we perform privately for each other.” The public (libraries, stores, athletic clubs) and the private (living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms) are the same as in everyday usage, but become performance spaces that place different demands upon the gay male. What may be relatively acceptable behavior for two men in private becomes threatening when it occurs in public. By performing a sexual act in the public cinema, Andy has broken a more serious taboo and is further condemned. Our own spectatorship magnifies this effect, and we find ourselves watching two men having sex. Andy’s moment of hustling makes him guilty on three planes: his objectification of Robert, by which he also objectifies himself; our own complicity in the exchange; and its public setting, which involves a movie theater like the one we’re sitting in, as if we’ve turned around in our seats at the Stallion Cinema to watch the pair consummate their deal.

Demme limited the hustling sequence to a few seconds but chose to dwell upon a cruising scene. Cruising requires more finesse and orients itself toward gay spectatorship. Brasell explains that “in cruising … sex is not commodified because, unlike hustling, cruising is not an economic exchange but a bartering system.” Hustling creates a closed system between two individuals, while cruising allows for a complex interplay involving multiple parties. An example of cruising takes place when Joe meets a young law student who’s shopping for diapers in a drugstore. The attractive, soft-spoken black youth praises Joe’s courage for defending Andy, and Joe (impressed by the flattery) offers him potential employment once he graduates. The young man invites Joe for a drink, but he declines. The younger man then leans over a shelf full of medicines and explains to Joe that he does not usually pick up men in drugstores. Finally realizing that he is being cruised, Joe reacts violently to being taken for gay and threatens to kick the young man’s “faggoty little ass.” The law student remains calm and explains he meant no offense. To Joe’s threat he quietly retorts, “Want to try to kick my ass, Joe?” The youth casually tosses a football in the air as Joe exits the store at a brisk pace. The gay male depicted in this scene remains utterly relaxed and at ease, while the straight male demonstrates reactionary hysteria.

Through this sequence, Demme explains the ritual of cruising to an audience he fears is as naïve as Joe. He exposes one of the rituals of gay culture, not as an indictment but as a means to get the audience to question its prejudices. The law student is the epitome of masculinity, informing Joe that he has just been working out. He has invited Joe for a beer and wears a football jersey while he tosses the ball in the air, completely at ease with the situation and himself. The gay man is not some monster but a pleasant person cruising a man he finds appealing. Joe sees a horrifying creature before him when he realizes he is being cruised, but the audience doesn’t share Joe’s horror, having observed the law student merely trying to open a dialog and disengaging politely upon realizing his mistake.

In perhaps the most disturbing scene for gay viewers, taking place in court, Andy recalls the moment he decided not to tell his employer, Charles Wheeler (Jason Robards) that he was gay. We flash back to the athletic club and the law partners telling jokes as they enjoy the sauna. One of them starts a joke, “How does a faggot fake an orgasm?” Wheeler provides the punch line: “He throws a quart of hot yogurt on your back.” The men break up in laughter as the camera pans to Andy with a false smile frozen on his face. The sequence is important in establishing Andy’s closeted stance within his former firm and in exposing the organization’s bigotry.

Just before Wheeler tells his cruel joke, the camera pans across the pool of the athletic club. A naked man dives into the water while a youth with a white towel around his neck observes the activities of the swimmers. A young man then wanders to the edge of the pool with a towel draped casually over his shoulder, and the camera drops back to reveal the middle-aged partners as they lounge about telling fag jokes. Even within the inner sanctum of homophobia, cruising carries on undisturbed. The naked diver sparks our interest followed by two men clearly cruising the baths. These handsome, fit men mark a sharp contrast to the older, discriminatory lawyers with their pasty complexions and shallow spirits, yet the homoerotic play is soon cut short by the realities of homophobia. The brief sequence provides the gay audience with a bit of erotica, allowing them to cruise for a few moments while nameless, beautiful youths cavort about the pool like visions out of classical Greece.

Andy’s primary caregiver, Bruno (played by performer-playwright David Drake), possesses a soft-spoken, gentle manner and mainly provides empathetic reaction shots in difficult moments when Andy is suffering. And it is Bruno’s point of view that closes Philadelphia. At Andy’s wake, friends and family watch childhood videos of the fallen protagonist. Bruno is the last character we see. He utters no words, but his look conveys everything that we’re feeling toward Andy—love, loss, lust, longing, anger, anguish, affection. Bruno’s look is a combination of hustling, cruising, and caring. He reacts for the straight audience, which may be unsure of how to feel toward Andy in unfamiliar situations.

Tom Hanks was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Andrew Beckett, and Philadelphia won another Oscar for best original song, Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia.” Advocate contributor Bruce Vilanch named the movie one of the four best gay and lesbian motion pictures. However, after making $207 million worldwide and becoming the twelfth highest-grossing film of 1993, the film’s profits remain perhaps its greatest legacy. One might argue that Brokeback Mountain (2005), which earned $178 million worldwide, or The Dallas Buyers Club (2013), which earned $55 million, would not have been made without Philadelphia, and there have been quite a few other films that were perhaps made possible by the success of Demme’s work.*
*       Theatrical works that preceded Philadelphia’s release were As Is (1985), The Normal Heart (1985), Falsettos (1992), Jeffrey (1993), and Angels in America (1993). The most successful TV offerings were An Early Frost (1985), Our Sons (1991), and And the Band Played On (1993).

*       The Birdcage (1996) grossed $185 million, but cross-dressing gay comedies (with the exception of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) earning $11 million) provoke less thoughtful consideration from the audience. Too often they are films about queers as clowns. Hanks’ Philadelphia Oscar acceptance speech inspired In & Out (1997), which grossed $64 million worldwide.


Mark Zelinsky, PhD, is an associate professor of English at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, Connecticut.


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