The lyrics from an old Joni Mitchell song played over and over in my head when I heard that film critic Roger Ebert died: "Don't it always seem to go/That you don't know what you've got/'Til it's gone/ They paved paradise/And put up a parking lot."
I had forgotten that I learned to civilly argue and disagree with someone without hating and dismissing them by watching Siskel and Ebert "At The Movies." They would spar like fencing masters, sometimes with a good nature, sometimes with so much intensity as rival newspaper critics that I wondered how in the world they would ever appear together again. I also learned that I could agree with bits and pieces of each of their critiques and form my own opinion. This was a different exercise from learning how to think in college: this was the real life where your opinions often determined how and with whom you moved in the world. And film was something about which I could express an opinion, rather than the constant determination to be "fair and balanced" as a journalist.
More than a decade after AIDS was first identified as a disease, "Philadelphia" marks the first time Hollywood has risked a big-budget film on the subject. No points for timeliness here; made-for-TV docudramas and the independent film "Longtime Companion" have already explored the subject, and "Philadelphia" breaks no new dramatic ground. Instead, it relies on the safe formula of the courtroom drama to add suspense and resolution to a story that, by its nature, should have little suspense and only one possible outcome.
And yet "Philadelphia" is quite a good film, on its own terms. And for moviegoers with an antipathy to AIDS but an enthusiasm for stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, it may help to broaden understanding of the disease. It's a ground-breaker like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), the first major film about an interracial romance; it uses the chemistry of popular stars in a reliable genre to sidestep what looks like controversy..... ... Scenes like that (the opera aria where Washington has a "conversion of the soul") are not only wonderful, but frustrating, because they suggest what the whole movie could have been like if the filmmakers had taken a leap of faith. But then the film might not have been made at all; the reassuring rhythms of the courtroom drama, I imagine, are what made this material palatable to the executives in charge of signing the checks.
"Philadelphia" is a good movie, and sometimes more than that, and the Hanks performance (which, after all, really exists outside the plot) is one of the best of the year. Sooner or later, Hollywood had to address one of the most important subjects of our time, and with "Philadelphia" the ice has been broken.
In a year or two, it will be time for another film to consider the subject more unblinkingly. This is a righteous first step.
This echoes the feelings of a lot of LGBT folks who had wished for more but were pleased that such a mainstream film had been made with such mainstream stars. Hanks won the Oscar for his role and made one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in Academy Award history: "The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each of the red ribbons we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all..."
One could say the same for Roger Ebert, who endured such a vicious attack of cancer that it took away his voice - and inspired him to find a deeper one. And in this, too, I learned a lesson: even when paradise is paved over, the roots and shoots of a spirited life can still come cracking through.
I chose this remembrance of Ebert by KABC entertainment reporter George Pennacchio because he worked with Ebert doing Red Carpet interviews locally in LA, making Ebert something of a "hometown" guy - something folks here in Los Angeles really appreciated.