Wednesday, April 26, 2017

He Took Us to PHILADELPHIA

Jodie Foster won her second Best Actress Oscar for taking on the 1991 role that Michelle Pfeiffer had been booked to play.  THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was a hit with critics and with the public.  Its famous lines and visuals are now part of our pop culture.  It may be the most famous of the films that Jonathan Demme directed but it is, by no means, the only fine film that he directed.  There were other films he directed that entertained and provoked us -- and landed a special place in our hearts.  For me, 1986's SOMETHING WILD was a way cooler and bolder reflection of the 80s than the John Hughes teen movies.  For one thing, back then I always felt like I wanted to call director John Hughes and say, "You do know that black kids also attend high school in the Chicago area, right?"  There was never a black leading teen character or sizeable supporting role for a black teen character.  When he gave us a minority character, he gave us a dorky Asian teen with the name "Long Duk Dong."  To me, that was just like The Little Rascals having a black kid called "Buckwheat."  Jonathan Demme acknowledged class and race, their conflicts, connections and culture wars.  Look at the journey of Michelle Pfeiffer's character in 1988's MARRIED TO THE MOB.  And then there was 1993's PHILADELPHIA.  Tom Hanks broke a cultural barrier as the first male Hollywood star to win an Oscar for playing an openly gay man in an American film.
Yes, William Hurt played a gay man and won the Best Actor Oscar for 1985's KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.  That was an independent foreign film.  For Hollywood, at that time, there was still nervousness about playing openly gay men onscreen.  Top male stars were not taking on those roles.  1982's MAKING LOVE, a tender and bittersweet movie about a married man who comes out to his wife, was not an AIDS drama.  It was basically a love story starring Michael Ontkean and Kate Jackson as the young married couple and Harry Hamlin as the openly gay novelist in L.A. who becomes involved with the doctor husband.  Hamlin went on to TV series success but said that there were no more movie script offers after MAKING LOVE. Nowadays, look at the actors who got Oscar nominations or won the Oscar for playing an openly gay man:  Greg Kinnear in AS GOOD AS IT GETS, Javier Bardem in BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, Sean Penn as MILK, Philip Seymour Hoffman as CAPOTE, Colin Firth as A SINGLE MAN and Christopher Plummer in BEGINNERS.  Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal played two ranch hands who kissed and made love in 2005's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.

As I've written before, it's different now.  Thank Heaven.  Actors commit to playing gay characters in Hollywood films.  We have gay anchors telling us the news on TV.  Almost every reality show has an openly gay male.  Straight and gay actors play gay people on TV.  Openly gay people host popular TV talk shows.  This was not the case when PHILADELPHIA was being shot by Jonathan Demme.  We were in the midst of culture wars and in the dark grip of the AIDS crisis.  And Hollywood gave off the vibe that playing a gay man could handicap a leading man's career.  In PHILADELPHIA, Hanks and Antonio Banderas play a couple.  But we never see them kiss.  Around the same time, TV sitcom star Will Smith had gone after the role of the sophisticated gay black con man in the film version of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION.  He got the role, but would not do the same-sex kiss that's vital to a key scene in the play.  Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin played two handsome men who kissed each other a lot -- shirtless even -- in Fox's MAKING LOVE directed by Arthur Hiller.  After 1982's MAKING LOVE, Ontkean's biggest hit was a TV series job. No major film script offers.  Just like Hamlin.  Without a kissing scene, Hanks was still brave to play this man onscreen.

Tom Hanks was a beloved, Oscar-nominated movie star who made us feel good in hit comedies such as SPLASH, BIG, A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN and SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE. Then, like Jack Lemmon in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES, he showed us some darkness in the life of the white collar All-American guy.  He was a lawyer with AIDS fighting for his rights in PHILADELPHIA.  Denzel Washington played the lawyer for the AIDS-stricken lawyer who takes his case to court.
When the movie opened, I was in my first and only romantic relationship.  We were introduced by a mutual buddy when I worked on a local morning news show in New York City.  On our first date, we knew that there was something soulfully special happening.  We kept dating.  Three months later, I had to get him to the hospital.  He thought he just had a severe case of the flu.  A week before Christmas, he was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS.  He was from a small town down South and had never been tested.  Nor had he really come out to his parents.

Although I was in good health, a few gay co-workers urged me not to mention anything about his diagnosis to my bosses for fear that they might find a way not to need me on the show anymore.  My modest salary helped take care of my partner.  I could not be open about my partner being terminally ill with AIDS for fear of losing my job due to, let's face it, bigotry.

1993's PHILADELPHIA meant a lot to my late partner.  And to me.  To Richard, mainstream audiences going to see PHILADELPHIA meant that they were seeing an example of the rights being denied people with AIDS and how that denial broke the hearts of the people who loved them.  His parents down South paid attention to the film.  He, his parents and I were thrilled when Tom Hanks won the Best Actor Oscar for that performance.  Richard's attitude was "When people see Tom Hanks in PHILADELPHIA, they see us a little more clearly."
In my personal life, Jonathan Demme's PHILADELPHIA was the door that opened so that understanding and compassionate communication could enter the room.  Thank you, Mr. Demme.  Thank you so much.  PHILADELPHIA holds a very special place in my heart.  Your talent and the compassion you had for people will be missed.
Other works by the late Jonathan Demme along with THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SOMETHING WILD, MARRIED TO THE MOB and PHILADELPHIA are STOP MAKING SENSE, SWING SHIFT, MELVIN AND HOWARD, the 2004 remake of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE and BELOVED starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.





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