Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said, “It is difficult to say who do you the most harm: enemies with the worst intentions or friends with the best.” And so it is that Philadelphia was born out of director Jonathan Demme’s best intentions, in part an apologia for the supposed gay stereotyping of his prior film The Silence of the Lambs. The passage of time has brought the truth into focus: in the guise of piety, Philadelphia panders to a perceived straight-male majority, that peculiar subset of Americans who act like children and demand to be treated as such. In spite of Demme’s welcome visual and aural humanism (the opening credits sequence, removed from the film that follows, is an essential part of the director’s filmography), Philadelphia is more concerned with the demographic breakdowns of its potential viewership than in addressing its central issue—AIDS—with any serious complexity.
“Explain it to me like I’m a two-year-old” is the sledgehammer-obvious refrain of homophobic ambulance chaser Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), a character contrived by Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner to take on the case of Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), a fellow lawyer ostensibly fired from his firm for having AIDS. The working title of Philadelphia—People Like Us—hints at Demme’s failure to dramatize this situation beyond the superficial: the very specific use of “us” posits a false majority rule, a presumptive and prejudiced declaration that assumes gays and AIDS-sufferers want nothing more than to be absorbed into the pigskin-throwing purview of John Q. Hetero. Hanks is, of course, the perfect conduit for such a reductio ad absurdum, a highly overrated actor whose idea of progress is to play conceptual fags, retards (Forrest Gump), and blue-collars (Cast Away) with an aw-shucks ingratiation (a career path put to profound satirical use in Catch Me If You Can—his one truly great performance) that would be more offensive were it not for the existence of Robin Williams and Kevin Spacey, who hold the patent and copyright on martyr-ready American man-children.
Hanks-as-Beckett’s holier-than-thou optimism seems particularly ridiculous in light of the actual gays and AIDS patients Demme uses as background artists; no surprise that the naked civil servant himself, Quentin Crisp, exudes more personal and political history as a silent extra than Hanks and Antonio Banderas do as the homo couple you can take home to your Christian Coalition grandma. For Demme, a filmmaker whose raison d’être is the celebration of diversity, Philadelphia is an unfortunate misstep, though one tempered by the retrospective knowledge that the director had a string of masterpieces in store (Beloved, The Truth About Charlie, and The Manchurian Candidate) that would more than restore his standing as American cinema’s poet laureate.