After nearly four years of development and several name changes, Hollywood is turning a blistering script into its first studio movie about AIDS. Directed by Jonathan Demme, who began filming in October, and budgeted by TriStar at an estimated $30 million, Philadelphia stars Tom Hanks as a young lawyer who is diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma. When he is fired from his prestigious Philadelphia firm, he claims his termination is because of the disease and hires a former adversary (Denzel Washington) to sue his old firm, which is in turn defended by an imposing army of legal eagles led by an icy Mary Steenburgen.
The screenplay, written by Ron Nyswaner (Mrs. Soffel), spares little when it comes to the depiction of such AIDS agonies as chemotherapy, KS lesions, and the wasting syndrome (Hanks has lost at least 30 pounds, some of which he had gained for A League of Their Own, to play the role). Audiences might be just as shocked by the film’s premise: that homophobia is as dangerous as the AIDS virus itself. ”Let’s talk about what this case is really about,” the hero’s lawyer says during the final trial sequence. ”The public’s hatred…our loathing, our fear…of homosexuals.”
Is Philadelphia a conscious effort on Demme’s part to answer gays who protested his Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs for what they felt was its negative depiction of a gay character? ”In my view it wasn’t homophobic,” he says. ”People have misread the characters to a degree. But in one regard, I agree with critics of Silence — there is a terrible void of positive gay characters in American movies.” David M. Smith, the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, Los Angeles, who got a preview reading of the script, says, ”I thought it was incredibly real, incredibly moving. When straight people see this movie they’re going to be privy to what the gay community has been going through for the last 12 years.”