Tom Hanks's screen family is saying goodnight to him as he lies in his hospital bed. His straight brother starts to hug him, and suddenly finds himself strangled by unexpected sobs. The brother can't speak. It's an amazing moment, spurring audiences everywhere to plangency and lament.
My other reaction was a little more academic, a snippy quibble with Philadelphia's publicity campaign which claims it as the first Hollywood movie about AIDS. While Philadelphia deserves credit for many things, its achievements need to be put in perspective.
First of all, let's deal with the hype. Philadelphia is not Hollywood's first AIDS foray. This suspicious honor belongs to a slew of mischieveous money-makers from the mid '80s onward--what I like to dub the Hollywood Subtext Set. Among these are body horror stories like The Fly, Lifeforce and Fright Night (the initial revulsion reaction), as well as fantasy melodramas like the bizarre Joel Schumacher companion pieces Flatliners and Dying Young.
The Subtext Set is quite different from the movies I find unintentionally allegorical. The Fly and Dying Young intentionally play around with the idea of AIDS, without actually naming the disease. I mean, Julia Roberts nursing cancer-stricken Campbell Scott, fresh off the set from Longtime Companion. Hello?
Pitched against the Subtext Set, Philadelphia comes off looking really good. But let us not ignore network television, which has been pumping out old-fashioned, talky tales ever since Aidan Quinn 'fessed up to puritanical pop Ben Gazzara in 1986's An Early Frost.
AIDS is TV's knee-jerk tearjerker. The epidemic narrative has been to late-'80s TV what the coming-out story line was to the early '80s, culminating in HBO's And the Band Played On. Philadelphia also needs to be measured against these goggle-box gargantuans. In all the Hanks hype, everyone seems to be forgetting that far more people spend an evening with Dan Rather than with a date at the local cineplex. Even if Philadelphia becomes 1994's Jurasssic Park, most Americans will still be more familiar with AIDS from "Oprah" and "One Life To Live."
In Europe, the AIDS-themed TV drama is a major industry; in England alone, Claire Bloom, Miranda Richardson and most recently Helen Mirren have all played the wives of HIV positive hubbies. All of these fictions are designed to make us mourn, but in offering multiple identification figures (the mother, the father, the doctor, the researcher) they rarely succeed in this ambition.
It's quite tempting to let Philadelphia's publicists get away with their giddy self-congratulation, just to see what Hollywood's next move will be. We're told that if Philadelphia does boffo box office, then watch out for more AIDS-themed films. I can't wait: Sharon Stone as a monogamous lesbian mom with tumbling T-cells, struggling to get PWA benefits? Tom Cruise as a burnt-out ACT-UPer who falls for the communications director at Burroughs-Wellcome (played by Will Smith)?
The wish to embrace Philadelphia is understandable. For most Americans, Hollywood is still the locus of all social signification. If it's not enacted by a major movie star, it doesn't exist. In the argument for equal time, Philadelphia takes us all one step further in the right direction.
But abroad, Hollywood is taken a little more irreverently. Lesbians and gay men, too, have good reason to be a little cynical. Queer filmmakers have been chronicling the epidemic since it began. From Parting Glances onward, independent gay-made movies have combined integrity with melancholy, and they've managed very well without Tom Hanks, thank you.
One of the best independent movies is Arthur Bressan's last film, Buddies, made in 1986, by which time 11,000 people had died from AIDS in this country. (For the record, that figure in 1994 is over 204,000.) Buddies is a love story between a dying activist and his initially naive caregiver. Bressan uses a limited budget to advantage; every prop becomes a symbol, minimalism becomes moving. The result is eau de Douglas Sirk.
Philadelphia reminded me of Buddies in its incessant close-ups; unlike Demme's signature use of this cinematic standby, Bressan and other low-budget pioneers have to use close-ups out of necessity. Philadelphia is also the first big-budget or mainstream movie to be at least half as smart as the gay ones that have preceded it.
Ultimately, I liked Demme's dry-start drama for the same reason I like Arthur Bressan's micromelodrama: when you're allowed to cry, you cry honestly.