Saturday, November 21, 2009

Screen Queens: Hollywood Does AIDS

Hi everyone, MattCanada here with another weekly dose of gay cinema. This week we're looking at Philadelphia, the Oscar winning courtroom drama, essentially the defining Hollywood response to the AIDS epidemic.


I first saw this film as a kid. I must have been about seven when I watched it with my parents and it was definitely my, and probably many other people's, introduction to AIDS. For me it continues to shape how I think about the virus, the stigma, and the epidemic. Longtime Companion opened a few years earlier but this was the first mainstream prestige film to deal with AIDS and homophobia. Having two big stars in Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington must have seemed like a big step for Hollywood. All of this is well and good, but rewatching the film for the first time in over a decade, I had serious problems with its filmic construction and especially its politics. While it remains important for being 'the mainstream gay AIDS movie', the film has definitely not aged well.

The Major problem is with the Denzel Washington character, Joe Miller. Joe acts as a guide for the straight audience into the scary world of gay-ness. His arc from homophobic to mildly understanding is shown as a victory, and it is Joe, not Hanks's Andrew, who goes through a pivotal transformation. He is the true hero of the film: not only does he save the gay victim, he grows as a person, thus giving the audience someone to root for. But this leaves Tom Hanks' gay character at a mediated distance where he can be sympathised with (or pitied depending how you see it). This film was made at a different time in both Straight society's relationship to homosexuality and the mainstream gay community's stance towards the oppressions and exclusions of straight hegemony. Today, the politics seem conservative and even condescending, positioning gay men as victims needing to be rescued and protected by the good straights from the bad straights. Contemporaneous films from New Queer Cinema, especially Derek Jarman's Blue, Gregg Araki's The Living End and John Greyson's Patient Zero, are much more relevant now for an understanding of the AIDS epidemic, and the anger and response of the gay community. Philadelphia is a film from another time in mainstream culture and it's unable to transcend its dated approach and politics.

The other problems are minor in comparison. Tom Hanks doesn't give a particularly remarkable performance (in my opinion it was the weakest of that year's Best Actor nominees). It may have been a brave choice of role and a good performance, but it's not on par with other AIDS performances (Steve Buscemi in Parting Glances, the cast of Angels in America, Penélope Cruz and Toni Canto in All About My Mother).


Jonathan Demme's directing also overreaches at points, especially the Opera set piece and the courtroom scenes with canted camera angles. Demme is at his best when he keeps his stylistic flourishes to a minimum. The strength of his classics, namely The Silence of the Lambs and Married to the Mob, is the seeming simplicity of his directing, which allows for pitch perfect performances, flawless narrative progression, and a complex and inventive intermingling and subversion of genre. Philadelphia is too fussy, especially in the moments when we are most required to empathize with the characters.

There are incredible parts of Philadelphia though. The performances of Mary Steenburgen, Antonio Banderas, and Joanne Woodward are all fantastic. Mary in particular, I think, deserved a Supporting nod for transforming a one dimensional role into something memorable.

There are also two sequences in the film which are incredibly moving and show Demme at his musical best: the opening credits sequence with Bruce Springsteen's "The Streets of Philadelphia" and the closing home video section with Neil Young's "Philadelphia" overlayed. Both sequences are so simple, yet the combination of music and expressive imagery are perfect distillations of the humanity of people with HIV and AIDS. For those two sequences alone I think the film deserves to be watched and remembered.


Bruce Springsteen takes those Streets of Philadelphia to an Oscar win

I would love to hear your thoughts on Philadelphia. I'm interested to know if people remember what the discussions surrounding the film were like on its original release? Was Tom Hanks' win one of those inevitable Helen Mirren/The Queen steamrollers or more of a surprise?

33 comments:

joe burns said...

From what I've read, he was a sure thing,but Liam Neeson was rumored to have a shot. Is that true?

Rebecca said...

I remember it being talked about as a step forward in terms of politics, and it did raise my consciousness, but I was 13 years old. I feel like society in general may still be stuck in a 13 year old consciousness as far as acknowledging gay people as human beings, so it seems to fit that this movie would be seen as progressive.

Reading this post makes me want to re-watch 'And the Band Played On', the tv miniseries about the AIDS epidemic in the scientific community, which I remember touching on politics, too - at least in a cursory way.

NATHANIEL R said...

yeah, Hanks was a sure thing. For a good while in the 80s and 90s playing gay meant oscar noms or wins (unless you were gay yourself: see Ian McKellen and Rupert Everett) and they especially liked those over-the-top gay portrayals (see also: greg kinnear in as good as it gets)

Chris Na Taraja said...

I remember people talking about having an out gay actor play the role instead of Tom Hanks....but who was out at that time?

I also remember seeing it. I like Tom, but after that Opera Monologue, I thought, He's never seen an Opera in his life. i just didn't believe him. And he should have made out with Antonio Banderis....HELLO!!

Julian Stark said...

Nathaniel - You thought Kinnear was over the top in As Good as It Gets? Interesting... what do you mean by over-the-top in this instance, because I thought it was pretty subtle... at least in terms of overdoing the role

I mean, his character was for one unseen portion of the storyline definitely straight LOL

Also, for a performance similar to Hanks in this film (but much stronger) I must recommend Mike Figgis' One Night Stand. Robert Downey, Jr. was fantastic. He did overdo it at all, and he was totally believable.

Robert Hamer said...

Philadelphia was definitely one of those films that shows the Academy Awards as a body concerned with congratulating itself instead of rewarding great work.

Another little aside when it comes to this film; Jonathan Demme's previous work - The Silence of the Lambs - was accused of homophobia and stereotyping transexuals as psychos. I always saw this film (and I'm sure that I'm not alone on this) as a way to "clear his name" among the gay community, which is strange because I didn't think Demme had a problem with homosexuals until I saw Philadelphia (it's okay to be gay, but whatever you do, don't kiss or even be mildly affectionate with your boyfriend!).

Glenn said...

I remember seeing this at the time (on VHS, no doubt) and it was around the same time as The Adventures of Priscilla (a 1994 film in Australia if I remember) and not being "aware" of the whole gay thing, both of the films were really interesting to me. I saw Philadelphia a few times in later years when I was desperate for gay-themed things (and being mainstream it was on TV every so often).

I haven't watched it in a good ten years or so and I can't imagine it's held up.

I will say this, however. "Streets of Philadelphia" by God and "Philadelphia" by Neil Young are two of the finest nominations the Best Original Song category has ever given. In fact, I'd say "Streets of Philadelphia" is the best song ever nominated for that award.

Nigel said...

I really can't remember who was second favourite for Best Actor that year. I guess Liam Neeson could have hopped on the juggernaut that was Schindler's List, but Hanks was such an overwhelming favourite that nobody else really got a look in.

I think I've watched the film once since. I'm straight so I only watched it from the perspective of... well, a straight dude. Even then, I could see that this wasn't really a proper portrayal of homosexuality or AIDS, but as I have no real interest in gay cinema or subject matter I can't really offer an alternative.

Michael said...
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Michael said...

Mary Steenburgen is one of my favorite actresses and it pains me to see her in horrible supporting roles (she's not bad but she isn't given anything to do) in Step Brothers, Four Christmases, The Proposal and the upcoming Did You Hear About The Morgans. It's a shame that Hollywood doesn't know what to do with her especially since she looks so fucking fantastic at 56.

But don't worry, I'm not just all talk and no play. I'm writing a play specifically for her and this will happen...I mean, a kid can dream, right?

MRRIPLEY said...

I think 1993 was v weak appart from Fishburne and Hopkins who i thought were both fantastic.

Kinnear ott in 97 I think you will find that was Rupert Everett in My best friends wedding.

Guy said...
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Guy said...

It wasn't quite a Mirren-level steamroll -- he didn't win any critics' awards, and those were the glorious days when SAG and the BFCA didn't exist. (How much more fun were things then?)

But yeah, he was unbeatable for the Oscar -- as Nigel says, there wasn't even really a runner-up. Considering the standard of his competition, that's a real head-scratcher today. (I still struggle to choose between Hopkins, Day-Lewis and Fishburne.)

As for the film, it's bland, well-meaning, risk-free stuff, but I think it's as (if not more) interesting to see how Hollywood was choosing to deal with the issue as the indie sector. And as Glenn says, no one can take that gorgeous soundtrack away from it.

JP said...

Philadelphia has its moments - Joanne Woodward's performance was understated and beautiful.

Yes, Hanks was an inevitable winner, at least among those nominees. Hopkins and Day-Lewis had both won very recently, for more memorable performances, Fishburne was considered a surprise nominee for what was essentially Bassett's movie, and Neeson was more or less along for the Schindler's List ride. Also, this was Hanks's true dramatic breakthrough. In retrospect, if they knew they were going to give him the Oscar the very next year for Gump, maybe they would have rewarded someone else in '93. I doubt it though - it would have been a shock if anyone else won.

JP said...

How about some alternate nominees:

Jeff Bridges - Fearless
Bill Murray - Groundhog Day
Alec Baldwin - Malice
David Thewlis - Naked

I still don't think there was any chance Hanks wasn't winning that year.

NATHANIEL R said...

yeah, it's funny. UNtil Matt wrote this post I hadn't looked at that shortlist of 5 men for a long time. And Hanks is definitely the least impressive. I mean the other 4 were doing incredible and in some cases career-topping work.

CHRIS said...

I remember that night, and the few weeks leading up to it. It was Tom Hanks that was considered the favorite to win the award, but I remember I preferred Liam Neeson for Schindler's List.

My nominees would have been:

Liam Neeson , Schindler's List
Anthony Hopkins, The Remains Of the Day
Lawrence Fishburne, Whats Love Got to Do with It
Jeff Bridges, Fearless
Bill Murray, Groundhog Day or
Denzel Washington, Philadelphia

Whats funny is that years after the awards, its widely thought (including in publications like Premiere, and Entertainment Weekly) that it was the wrong performance from the film that got a Best Actor nomination- which I agree that Denzel Washington played to perfection. It was his film, and he played a straight man who is not all that comfortable and familiar with gays in a realistic way. I read a list actually a few years ago by Entertainment Weekly placing this performance int he top 15 best performances that was not nominated for an Oscar.

DeeDee said...

In several interviews, Antonio Banderas (who had played several gay characters in his Almodovar directed movies) has spoken of trying to persuade the director to let he and Tom Hanks show physical affection (ie oerhaps with just a kiss), but apparently Hollywood wasn't ready. DeeDee

NATHANIEL R said...

chris i thought Denzel was much better in Philadelphia too. Though I wouldn't have nominated either of them.

deedee that's so sad but it's probably true. In the theater I was in (in Utah, natch) even when they held hands (i think it was a hospital scene). There were shouts of disgust from the patrons. True Story.

people are so stupid.

vatz said...

I was 20 when it came out. I waited to watch it on VHS and loathed it for all the reasons you mentioned. What a load of crap. Fortunately, I had seen Longtime Companion. What an amazing film. Makes me cry every time I watch it.

vatz said...

... but I also recognize that this film had to get made. Baby steps.

vatz said...

Robert Downey, Jr can do anything over-the-top and still be believable. The man is a genius acting virtuoso. f

CanadaMatt said...

Honestly neither Denzel or Tom was deserving of a nomination. I could make a serious case for why the other four deserved the Oscar. It would be impossible for me to choose from Fishburn, Day-Lewis, Neeson, and Hopkins in as Nathaniel said uniformly magnificent performances. Steenburgen, Woodward, and Banderas should have been the acting noms for this film.

Also, I completely agree that these are two of the Best Song nominees ever.

Finally, The Silence of the Lambs is probably my favorite film of all time and I really disagree with its reputation as a homophobic film...it is definately a film I have been planning on writing a post about, but I want to make sure I have completely sorted out for myself why I love the film so much and why I dont consider it homophobic. But I do definately agree that Philadelphia was Demme's misguided apology to the gay community.

RobUK said...

Excellent piece about a still fascinating film. I recall sitting in the cinema watching it, being so moved by the final moments; that song still moves me in a visceral way in the pit of my stomach. You could argue that's just the song doing its work, but I think the two hours preceding it gave it the punch.

Still can't abide the opera sequence though. It's the filmic equivalent of an FYC ad.

CanadaMatt said...

The Opera scene is just too over the top, and I think constructed filmically, very badly. I mean the song ending and the light switching from red to normal. I just think for all Demme's strength he is not a master auteur, and his overreaching reches critcal mass in that scene. The whole sequence is about as subtle as a pick axe to the back of the head.

NATHANIEL R said...

I actually think Demme is very much an auteur... but you can be an auteur with different strengths than camera work.

that said, I'm tempted to call Philadelphia his worst film.

Anonymous said...

I was only 23 when it came out and it was really the first mainstream/Hollywood AIDS film at the time. When I saw it, I wa sreally moved by it - thought Tom Hanks was great, but not deserving of the Oscar. I agree that Mary and Joanne were incredible.

I don't agree with comments that Jonathan Demme made the film to "clear his name" re the Silence of the Lambs anti-gay sentiment - would he really devote so much time/effort just to clear his name?

Re that year, Jeff Bridges in Fearless gave the Best Actor performance in a role that I still remember as one of the best acting performances ever. Fearless was amazing and moving.

RJ said...

"I don't agree with comments that Jonathan Demme made the film to "clear his name" re the Silence of the Lambs anti-gay sentiment - would he really devote so much time/effort just to clear his name?"

According to Inside Oscar, Philadelphia was in pre production stages as early as 1988 so it wouldn't work as a response to Silence of the Lambs

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Glenn Dunks said...

That opera scene really is a load of hooey.

CanadaMatt said...

@ RJ: Very iteresting, I did not know it was in post-production that early. Thanks for the information. It always seemed very convenient to follow up a film universally called homophobic with a pro-Gay AIDS movie.

@ Nathaniel: I personally would not consider Demme an auteur in that I could not locate a distinctive authorial voice in his works like I could in ALmodovar, Haward Hawks, or Scorsese. I don't think of that as a negative. Some of my favorite directors like Michael Curtiz or Alsonso Cuaron I would consider great directors/filmmakers but not auteurs. I probably should have left out auteurs and just said that scene stylistically overreached.

Ivan said...

1993
Best Actor nominees...
Kevin Costner/A Perfect World
Daniel Day Lewis/In the Name of the Father
Tom Hanks/Philadelphia*
Liam Neeson/Schindler´s Lsit
Al Pacino/Carlito´s Way

Sad Puppets! said...

given how Philadelphia was considered to be progressive in its moment despite its exploitation of Hanks's character, doesn't the achievement of MILK seem all the more impressive? It's a mainstream release in which the gays have (1) subjectivity, (2) realistic relationships, (3) realistic struggles and (4) no need for a straight "intro" to the world. MILK is unquestionably, unabashedly gay. From Philadelphia to Milk... how far we've come!

(and though I liked Brokeback a lot, that film is not in any way unabashedly gay.)