Thirteen years into the epidemic, Hollywood's first mainstream response to AIDS premiered: Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia. In an attempt to neutralize the inherent difficulties posed by the subject matter (a sexually transmitted and deadly disease) and the characters (male homosexuals), the director consistently described the film as an analysis of prejudice, while Tristar Pictures, which released it, confusedly promoted it as a film that was not really about AIDS or about somebody who had AIDS.

What the film appears to be about is Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks), the rising star of Philadelphia's most prestigious law firm. Unbeknownst to his co-workers, Andrew is gay and has AIDS. When the truth is suspected, he is fired on trumped up charges of incompetence and decides to sue his former bosses for AIDS-based discrimination.

Nine lawyers refuse the case as does Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), an avowed homophobic and AIDS-phobic ambulance chaser. He later changes his stance and takes the case as a matter of simple justice although he remains steadfast in his prejudice against gays. With the support of his partner, Miguel (Antonio Banderas), Andrew takes on the system. He wins the case and dies the following day.


As a study of prejudice, Philadelphia gets mixed reviews. It deftly connects racism and homophobia and racism and AIDS discrimination, tackling the debate over "equal rights" and "special treatment." However, it relies upon stereotypes in its depiction of gay characters and presents the relationship between Andrew and Miguel as almost platonic. The complex and intimate relationship afforded Joe Miller and his wife is denied their gay male counterparts.

As a film not really about AIDS, Philadelphia is not really a very good film. Although it opens in media res of the epidemic, its presentation of Andrew's legal dilemma is both outdated and incredulous. Ten years before the release of the film, AIDS-based discrimination was a new field of law, and are there no gay lawyers in the City of Brotherly Love willing to take on such a case?

Even more disturbing are the misleading and mysterious medical facts presented in the film such as the message that heterosexuals do not have to worry about contracting AIDS because it is a gay disease and that a single, unsafe sexual encounter can more readily infect someone when that encounter happens to be anonymous and homosexual.

Finally, there are no "many faces of AIDS" in Philadelphia. The trial produces a straight, white woman who contracted HIV through a blood transfusion, not the most frequent mode of transmission for women, and who developed Kaposi's Sarcoma, not the most typical opportunistic infection for women.

However, Philadelphia was a considerable commercial and critical success, and more importantly, it brought the theme of AIDS to the attention of a wider general public than had any previous film.


The screenplay was written by Ron Nyswaner. Tom Hanks won his first Oscar in the "Best Actor" category for this film, and Bruce Springsteen, who wrote and recorded the title song, won an Oscar in the "Best Song" category.

Primary Source

Columbia Tristar Home Video