Mainstream Hollywood wakes up to the existence of AIDS in Philadelphia. the new Jonathan Demme film. starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. Nigel Floyd flew to Los Angeles to meet cast and crew.
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6 The List 25 February—IO March I994
‘I thought I knew everything about AIDS as a tragic scenario, but‘l found I had more in common with these men than I had expected. Talking to these guys, I felt like a mercenary, in all honesty.’
aking the first mainstream Hollywood movie about AIDS was always going to be fraught with danger. Despite independently-made Iilms such as Parting Ola/ices and Longtime Cnni/mnimz. which appealed mainly to gay audiences and therefore tended to preach to the converted. nobody had yet tried to make the contentious subject of AIDS palatable to an often aggressively heterosexual general audience. From the time of its initial conception in 1988. through to its US release late last year. Philmlel/ihia had been worried over by its makers. commented on by media pundits. and scrutinised by gay activists. Director Jonathan Demme. scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner and bankable stars Tom Hanks and Denzel \V’ashington were determined to make the ﬁlm as accessible as possible. but sceptics felt they might alienate potential audiences if they were too explicit in their depiction of gay lifestyles. Gay rights campaigners. meanwhile. feared the film might hedge its homosexual bets and not go far enough.
Initially intended as a creative response to Demme‘s discovery that his friend. Juan Botas. had contracted AIDS. Philadelphia as it turned out. is not simply a intolerance. but also an impeccably liberal examination of its roots. ‘When I started this movie.‘ Demme says. ‘I was enraged by people who were prejudiced against those with AIDS. but working with the themes of prejudice, and trying to examine my own personal journey. my own reactions to people with AIDS. I found it hard to write them off. I really came to feel that I understood that fear. because l had been there myself. You‘re brainwashed. everybody is.‘
In the Iilm. Tom Hanks plays hot—shot lawyer Andrew Beckett who. shortly after being made a partner in an establishment law firm. is tired — ostensiny because of an incident involving a lost file. but really because his employers have discovered that he has AIDS. Unable to find anyone to take on his case of wrongful dismissal. Beckett ends up being represented by streetwise. ambulance-chasing black lawyer Joe Miller (Den/cl Washington). a family man and homophobe who only agrees to take the case after he begins to see it in terms of infringed civil liberties rather titan gay rights.
Best known for his comedy roles. Ilanks here takes on a dramatic role that presents a far greater challenge titan anything he has done previously. In this sense. he had more to lose than anyone, but he makes light of his heavy role: ‘IZverybody says this must have been a risky choice. this is a very brave thing to do. weren’t you scared to go out on a limb and do this thing‘.’ Not at all. This is not 1962. I‘m not Rock Hudson pretending to be married to his secretary. Nobody‘s career is going to be ruined by some gossip columnist’s item. I know who I am. and the only thing I have going either for me or against me is that I’m in a $25 million Hollywood picture that is ofﬁcially the first movie to deal with the issue of AIDS. So I‘m just glad to have had the opportunity to work with Jonathan and Denzel. and to play Andy Beckett. regardless of who or what he is.’