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FILM COMMENT : Why I Hated 'Philadelphia' : A playwright and gay activist goes to see Hollywood's first major AIDS movie and comes away bitterly disappointed

January 09, 1994|LARRY KRAMER | Larry Kramer, a former Columbia Pictures executive, is the author of "Reports From the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist" (St. Martin's Press) and two plays about AIDS, "The Normal Heart" and "The Destiny of Me."

"Philadelphia" is a heartbreakingly mediocre film. 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.

For 12 years, millions of people--gays, people with AIDS, people infected with HIV, their families and friends--have been waiting desperately for a "major" movie to deal with this plague in a mature fashion. Other tragedies, from the Holocaust to Vietnam to Watergate, have had their films. Why not AIDS? Oh, we knew why not: Because AIDS is happening to certain communities others would just as soon see dead. There's no audience, we've been told, for this kind of subject; so for the 12 years of this plague, Hollywood has turned its back on it.

Finally a company called TriStar, which is a division of Columbia Pictures, which is a division of Sony Entertainment, which is a division of Japan, where there are very few AIDS cases, has given us "Philadelphia." Not only has it given us "Philadelphia," but it, and everyone else in Hollywood, has let us all know that if "Philadelphia" isn't a success, there just might not be any other films about AIDS. In other words, like Clinton's new gays-in-the-military policy, to fight for our welfare we go to this movie but we're not supposed to tell anyone how awful it is. We're supposed to be grateful it's been made.

But "Philadelphia" doesn't have anything to do with the AIDS I know, or with the gay world I know. It doesn't bear any truthful resemblance to the life, world and universe I live in. To believe any viewer--particularly those I would like to have experience something meaningful watching this movie--would change his or her point of view after seeing it is like thinking Jesse Helms or George Bush would change after watching an episode of "Another World."

"Philadelphia" is put together like a by-the-numbers painting:

Take one noble gay white male hero (Tom Hanks). Put him together with one black ambulance-chasing lawyer who hates gays (Denzel Washington). Pepper their conflict with the (most improbable) notion that the shyster is the only lawyer in the entire city of Philadelphia who will defend the white man, who's been fired from his law firm on obviously trumped-up grounds of poor work performance. (The audience knows it's really because he has AIDS.) Make the head honchos in the white law firm (senior partner: Jason Robards) so monstrous and homophobic you wonder how they've stayed in business so long. Have a despicable white woman (Mary Steenburgen) and another black lawyer defend the law firm. By trial's end, make certain the black shyster has experienced a change of heart so he can deliver a rending closing speech on discrimination and the white woman can mutter, "I hate this case." And our hero, who's just collapsed on the floor, can win some $30 million on his deathbed.

It's so patently illegal to fire a person with AIDS that the very notion that a Main Line law firm would fire this guy is ludicrously unbelievable. Who was the legal adviser on this movie? Did no one know of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which categorically prohibits such a dismissal?

There's another credibility problem: Washington never really makes us believe he's as slimy as the script is telling us he is. His character does so many flip-flops I wondered whether they'd shot two versions and intercut them. One scene he's railing against gays; the next scene, he's defending them; then he's slugging a gay athlete who tries to pick him up; then he's waffling with his wife about the case.

The screenwriter may have meant Robards, Steenburgen and Washington all to be scumbags, but at least their parts are written. They're more animated than anybody gay in the movie. Hanks, his lover and his mother are in a silent film. All their dialogue put together couldn't cover 10 pages.

Hanks' character is an utter cipher. I couldn't tell you anything about him--opinions, beliefs or even whether he's gay. Tom Hanks does not act in this movie. His makeup does his acting. I haven't seen so many changes hinged on shades of Max Factor since James Cagney in "Man of a Thousand Faces."

We see that Hanks wears a wedding ring, but who is his mate? He might as well be married to a woman. Some actor I couldn't recognize from one scene to the next but who had dark hair and spoke with a Spanish accent hovers around Tom now and then, and Tom winks at him in the courtroom, but for all the script tells you, they could be trying to pick each other up or the guy could be a volunteer from an AIDS organization. No--I take that back. The dark-haired guy couldn't work for an AIDS organization: He doesn't know anything about AIDS. He talks about a colonoscopy as if it were brain surgery. Who was the medical adviser on this movie?

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