The arrival of Philadelphia on video begs for some reflection on how AIDS has been treated — or not — by Hollywood. The only big-budget feature to deal exclusively with the subject, Philadelphia has been followed in hype by the recent HBO movie And the Band Played On. Otherwise, the disease has been left to the independents to tackle.
But what — after Oscars have been handed out to Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen, and the news of Hollywood’s first movie about AIDS becomes old — will viewers actually see in Philadelphia? Probably a brilliantly calculated entertainment. Pit a little guy, lawyer Andrew Beckett (Hanks), against the big law firm that sacked him because he’s gay and dying of AIDS. Set the story in the same town as Rocky. Give Beckett a family so functional and loving, many will be slack-jawed in disbelief. Make him acceptably gay: straight in appearance and never shown in bed with his handsome and devoted lover (Antonio Banderas). And to make absolutely sure the story is meaningful, have his attorney be a homophobic black ambulance chaser (Denzel Washington) who can’t even bear to shake Beckett’s hand.
Make no mistake, though: As a piece of moviemaking Philadelphia often works wonderfully well. Love, tolerance, and understanding all triumph in the end; the most likable of Hollywood actors takes a big stretch and proves himself; there are songs by Springsteen and Neil Young, and they’re good ones; and at the center, there’s AIDS, as emotionally volatile a subject as now exists in contemporary life. Yet where is the reality?
Sorry, but AIDS is not PG-13 fare. Philadelphia‘s complete avoidance of sex reflects its pastel sensibility; it’s as if the subject is not an issue. The film’s “forgetfulness” further pushes the denial: Beckett’s Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions disappear for a while, but not because of any remission. After seeing the movie, a friend of mine with AIDS said he’d love to know Hanks’ cosmetic secrets.
Despite efforts by director Jonathan Demme to be sensitive to gays and people with HIV, such as his casting of actors with AIDS, Philadelphia follows the rules of well-oiled Hollywood narrative; it steers clear of complexity and intensity. If any subject should inspire the gripping combination of pity and terror in the viewer, it is AIDS.
But at least Philadelphia moves. The made-for-cable And the Band Played On (based on Randy Shilts’ history of the epidemic’s early days) is so busy being politically correct, it turns into a monumental bore — And the Band Played On and On….. It has Ian McKellen and Lily Tomlin as activists giving speeches about how human gay people really are, as well as a distracting spot-the-star supporting cast (Steve Martin, Anjelica Huston, Phil Collins, Richard Gere) doing their red-ribbon turns. Worse still, the film reeks of the comfortable anonymity of television: The disease always seems more interesting than the person carrying it.
And the Band Played On is choppy and sometimes confusing. What’s missing, amazingly, is any sense of the varied social and private phobias AIDS has caused. And scenes such as a San Francisco Halloween parade suggest that the filmmakers never even met a homosexual.
For viewers wanting more compelling and truer stories, there are the independent features Longtime Companion, which chronicles with both candor and compassion the effects of the disease on a group of friends through the 1980s, and the late Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, a poignant and ebullient testament to the friendship between two young gay men, one of whom has AIDS.
Granted, both Philadelphia and And the Band Played On are essentially in the business of pleasing people, not provoking them. But each wears its heart on its sleeve. One is Brooks Brothers, the other is Armani, tailored to mass consumption. The great Hollywood AIDS movie may be, by its very definition, a sad misnomer. Philadelphia: B-