Philadelphia, the first major studio film about AIDS, chronicles an important time in LGBTQ history — and underlines the truth of William Faulkner’s famous line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
“The history of LGBT people is important,” screenwriter Ron Nyswaner says of the film, which has just been rereleased in 25th anniversary Blu-ray and digital editions. “Philadelphia is very specific to its time — when AIDS was a fatal diagnosis, when the homophobia of many people came to the surface. Philadelphia serves a purpose in reminding us of one part of our very long history and reminds us that AIDS is still killing people. It is still very important, I think.”
The film, about a lawyer who sues his firm when he’s fired for having AIDS, made a significant impact when it was released in late 1993. Small independent films like Buddies, Parting Glances, and Longtime Companion had dealt with HIV and AIDS, as had TV movies such as An Early Frost. But TriStar Pictures put the weight of a big studio behind a story about AIDS for the first time.
Philadelphia had a famous director, Jonathan Demme, whose previous feature, The Silence of the Lambs, had swept the top Oscars. It also had a cast of star actors — Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Mary Steenburgen, Jason Robards, Joanne Woodward, Antonio Banderas — and a soundtrack with contributions from rock royalty including Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and the Indigo Girls.
It was a success with critics (mostly) and at the box office, and received five Oscar nominations, with Hanks, portraying protagonist Andrew Beckett, and Springsteen, for his song “Streets of Philadelphia,” winning the golden statuettes. Nyswaner’s original screenplay was Oscar-nominated, losing to Jane Campion’s script for The Piano.
But there were those who thought Philadelphia played it too safe. The main character was gay, but he was a privileged white man with an almost unbelievably supportive family. Worse, in the opinion of some critics and activists, was that it showed little physical affection between Andrew and his partner, Miguel, played by Banderas. The Washington Post’s Desson Howe called the movie a “toothless wonder.”
Nyswaner acknowledges the film was cautious. “A movie can’t be all things to all people, and we didn’t know we were going to make an international hit,” he tells The Advocate. It was a breakthrough, though, and it served to “pass the baton to other filmmakers and storytellers,” he adds. What’s more, he says, “It was still a good film and it had an impact.”
Asked for his most significant memory of filming, Nyswaner comments that it’s the roughly 50 day players and extras who were HIV-positive — and the fact that only one (Sue Kehler) is still living. “That stays with me,” he says. “The movie is very much about loss and grief.”
It was made just a few years before the late-1990s advent of more effective HIV drugs, which have enabled many people with the virus, at least in developed countries, to achieve a normal lifespan. Nyswaner notes that numerous people who died in their 20s, 30s, and 40s would still be here if they had survived to take advantage of these drugs.
But the treatments aren’t available to everyone. A new short film, The Last Mile, reminds viewers that the fight against HIV and AIDS isn’t over. The film spotlights the efforts of Veronica Martins José, who delivers lifesaving HIV and malaria medicines to a rural area of Mozambique. Hanks, Steenburgen, Washington, and Nyswaner also appear in the short to discuss Philadelphia’s importance. A trailer for The Last Mile is included with the Philadelphia rerelease.
Nyswaner has had a prolific career post-Philadelphia. He’s written the LGBTQ-themed (and fact-based) films Soldier’s Girl and Freeheld, among other credits, and worked as a writer and producer on the acclaimed TV series Ray Donovan and Homeland. Now he’s developing projects for Fremantle Media, and Showtime has just bought the first one, Bounty, a series about a Latina bounty hunter, based on Louisa Luna’s novel Two Girls Down. The show will “let a woman be as complicated and powerful as Ray Donovan,” he says.
But Philadelphia will always be special to him. When Tom Hanks signed a copy of the script for Nyswaner, the actor said his life would be divided into “before Philadelphia” and “after Philadelphia” periods. Nyswaner feels that way too. “It is the thing that shaped my life more than almost anything else,” he says.
Watch The Last Mile below and find information on the new edition of Philadelphia, in 4K Ultra HD, here.