How good intentions, gay politics, and market forces collided during the making of the movie

By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
Updated December 02, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST
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When Ron Nyswaner first discussed writing a script about AIDS for director Jonathan Demme in 1988, his goal was simply ”to get to page 120. If I’d said I wanted to try to change the world, or stop all discrimination against AIDS, I couldn’t have done it.” Five years and 25 drafts later, some critics of Philadelphia are saying maybe the filmmakers should have tried harder.

Few movies have faced the scrutiny to which Philadelphia‘s every character, plot point, and editing decision is being subjected. As soon as Demme announced he would follow his 1991 Oscar winner, The Silence of the Lambs, with Philadelphia, members of the film industry and gay activist groups began to view the movie as the first public statement of how mainstream Hollywood would confront AIDS and homophobia. Now the filmmakers are bearing the weight of that attention and taking heat from those who feel they didn’t live up to their responsibility. While most of the reviews have been respectful if not impassioned in their praise, others have condemned Philadelphia for not going far enough as either drama or tract. ”The whole movie was a compromise,” says AIDS activist and writer Larry Kramer, who wrote an article that ran in the Los Angeles Times under the title ”Why I Hated Philadelphia” earlier this month. ”That’s what’s so heartbreaking.”

When Nyswaner first called Demme in 1988 and told him he wanted to write for him again — the two had worked together on 1984’s notoriously embattled Goldie Hawn comedy, Swing Shift, which Nyswaner calls ”satisfying to no one” — Demme reeled off three or four ideas. Nyswaner, who is gay, chose AIDS. With the topic chosen, the search for a plot began. ”We looked at the story of some folks who lived in the heartland,” says producer Ed Saxon (Silence of the Lambs), ”and we talked about a road movie about a couple of guys who have to go to Mexico for treatment. It was Ron who had the idea to do something in the civil rights arena.” Eventually, they came up with Philadelphia‘s hero: Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a corporate lawyer who suspects he was fired from his firm for having AIDS.

Nyswaner says that from the beginning, he and Demme wanted ”to tell a story about a gay man who has AIDS and for people to be comfortable with him.” When the filmmakers asked Orion to develop the film, Saxon recalls Orion executive vice president Marc Platt asking, ”How does a heterosexual, possibly homophobic person get into this movie?” Platt remembers thinking, ”Here’s a really interesting, provocative story. But we never saw it as groundbreaking or historical. The challenge was to find a story and characters that would be accessible to the mainstream public.”

In response, Nyswaner came up with Andrew’s homophobic lawyer, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington). ”Joe’s like most of us,” says Nyswaner. ”A person who goes through life harboring fears and hatred. If you’re decent, you struggle with them.”


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  • PG-13
  • Jonathan Demme