Just Call Me a Man: Jonathan Demme’s PHILADELPHIA

How Demme's breakthrough AIDS drama sought to bring awareness about the disease to America's Heartland.

My dad had three brothers and a sister. His father was a basketball coach – the winningest in Western Pennsylvania high school history. They were a relatively simple steel town family, who spent numerous nights at the gym before coming home to meals my grandmother whipped up in a cast iron skillet; dollops of Crisco the only grease used to fry everything from chicken to pork chops to home fries (vegetables weren’t a thing in that household). Two of the brothers went to college to play ball, and my father toiled away after on NBA practice squads and in semi-pro obscurity. They were a Pittsburgh sports clan, rooting for the Steelers, Pirates, and Laurel Highlands Mustangs with equal enthusiasm.

Marty was the middle brother – older than the youngest, Jeff, but born behind Diane, Dennis and my dad, Barry. He didn’t excel in sports, and was kind, sensitive and artsy. He never showed any interest in girls because, as it turned out, he was a gay man. Upon growing up, he moved out to San Francisco during the '70s and lived only blocks away from the historic Castro Theater. He wanted to be an actor, and even landed a few bit parts in schlocky exploitation movies like Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster, in which he played an unnamed (and pretty much faceless) background monk. Dennis and my dad would go out to visit, and found that Marty had inserted himself where he belonged – far from the blue-collar borough where he’d been birthed and now sporting a new family of individuals whom he could identify with much easier.

Nobody’s quite sure when Marty contracted HIV, but the disease quickly morphed to AIDS and ended his life in 1986. Withering away in a hospice, his friends attempted to keep my father’s family from visiting Marty on his deathbed. Not because they were selfish, mind you; more because there’d been a rash of incidents where those who believed AIDS was a “gay cancer” sent from God to wipe out the so-called “homosexual abomination” were entering patients’ rooms and disconnecting the medicinal drips that kept them alive just long enough to say goodbye to their loved ones. After some convincing, my family was allowed to pay their respects and, with their final interaction, Marty pled with my grandfather to forgive him for not being the son he wanted. My grandfather simply grimaced and kissed his son on the forehead, replying that no apology was necessary. Marty was his boy, and he loved him no matter what he did with his life.

I don’t have any real memories of my own regarding Marty, as I was barely out of infancy when he passed. These notes from the plague have been passed down to me through brief instances of storytelling over the years. My dad didn’t talk about his brother often. There were pictures of him on the walls alongside the rest of our familial portraits, and I always thought it was weird that he’d get excited whenever this strange Marc Singer movie would air on HBO at 11:30 PM. One day, I called a neighborhood friend a “faggot” in jest, and my dad somehow heard us all the way in the basement. I received one of the most epic tongue lashings of my young life, and didn’t know what the big deal was. To me, the word never meant “gay”; you were just a “faggot” when you were being a “faggot” (to paraphrase Louis CK). Nevertheless, following that afternoon, the word never left my lips, and I wouldn’t comprehend why until years later, whilst sitting in a movie theater.

That’s when I finally understood that my father was haunted, and it was Marty’s ghost that lingered in every room he inhabited.


Many people believe that Jonathan Demme took on Philadelphia immediately after Silence of the Lambs as an overt act of apologia regarding the criticisms his Academy Award-winning serial killer thriller drew because of its representation of Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), the gender-bending murderer who skins women in order to sow himself an encasing feminine visage. Demme rejected these attempts to play armchair analyst, stating to Rolling Stone in 1994:

“I hadn't been paying attention to the absence of positive gay characters all that much, so I came away from the protests enlightened – and it made me happy that I was already working on Philadelphia before Lambs came out.

By the way, maybe you can explain something. Who on earth would get the shit kicked out of them and then turn around and do something nice for the people who kicked the shit out of them? I don't get that.”

It’s an amazingly candid answer that you couldn’t imagine an artist offering up today (Twitter would undoubtedly distort the director’s words to crucify him). In actuality – Philadelphia was born out of sadness for Juan Botas who, in the same chat, Demme labeled his wife Joanne Howard’s “soul mate”. Botas was a documentary filmmaker who died in 1992 due to complications from AIDS, and had become the auteur’s close associate over the years. Demme enlisted Swing Shift shooting scribe Ron Nyswaner to help develop a project that wasn’t aimed at those diagnosed with the disease (because they “lived the truth” and didn’t require a motion picture), but rather folks who “looked down on” patients afflicted with the auto-immune disorder out of sheer ignorance. Earlier drafts were described as much “angrier and politicized” by the filmmaker, shoving AIDS down the throats of uninformed bigots.

With that background in mind, it may seem like a miracle that the Philadelphia which hit theaters in limited release December 22, 1993 (this writer’s 11th birthday) was as gentle and graceful as it is. Yet no amount of fiery indignation could taint the warm, empathetic blood that pumped through Demme’s creative heart. The story of homophobic ambulance chaser, Joe Miller (Denzel Washington), and the wrongful termination suit he files on the behalf of AIDS-afflicted attorney Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is a David v. Goliath courtroom melodrama that puts Demme’s fellow man on trial in the City of Brotherly Love. Like most of the director’s work, there are no clearly defined heroes or villains, as Joe traverses a path of enlightenment that may never come, all while Andrew’s former big firm employers (headed by a haughtily brilliant Jason Robards) sneer from behind a defendant’s table, certain senior partners secretly questioning deep-seated prejudices. A breakthrough for queer cinema in the mainstream, Demme’s picture is masterfully calculated; an element that acts as a double-edged sword while attempting to defend it.

Joe Miller is disgusted by the very notion of homosexuality – the way “two guys do that thing” just cannot be fathomed by his self-admittedly caveman mind. Even when his wife (Lisa Summerour) tries to explain how many people they know are gay (including beautiful, voluptuous Aunt Theresa), he waves her off in a fit of proud narrowness. He’s an “old fashioned” black man, and doesn’t need to update his moral compass just because two dudes want to lay down with one another in the privacy of their own home. So, when prominent attorney Andrew Beckett comes into his cramped, wood paneled personal injury office stating he was fired because one of the biggest firms in the city found out he’s gay and has AIDS, Joe wants nothing to do with it. In fact, the local celebrity (due to a single TV ad for his practice) basically has a full-blown panic attack, ordering his secretary to make an appointment for his family physician to see him as fast as humanly possible. Infection – not just viral, but sexual – invaded the place where he does business every day, and this brash dolt may be versed in the law, but he certainly knows nothing about AIDS.

This cluelessness is what makes Joe a perfect surrogate for the uneducated audience Demme was attempting to reach with Philadelphia, and an easy (but somewhat justified) target for LGBT/AIDS activists like Larry Kramer. Kramer criticized Washington’s character for being somewhat inconsistent in his belief system. But while the playwright and crusader was arguing for a “slimier” version of Miller, Denzel’s portrait perfectly fits into Demme’s filmography – a moral center shaded grey, who sees Andrew as everything he hates, yet grows to understand this one human being. However, that doesn’t mean Joe’s entire ethical code is re-written due to this single instance of involvement in social justice. He may believe that a law has been broken, but if you’re a gay man who tries to hit on him in a pharmacy, he’s still likely to kick “your faggoty little ass”. By the picture’s end, it’s questionable as to whether Joe’s any more comfortable with queer people than he was at the start, as he dances with wide eyes at a party Andrew throws with his lover, Miguel (Antonio Banderas). Andrew sees the fear Joe still feels around his people, scanning the room and knowing there isn’t another straight couple in sight. But Demme never said he wanted to “change” anyone; rather inform them of what’s happening in a world that extends beyond their own.

This lack of superiority has helped define Demme’s body of work, and allowed him to show just as much sympathy for crazed murderers like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs as he does for Andrew Beckett in Philadelphia. He’s not here to judge Joe (or you, for that matter) but instead let us slip into his shoes and see the world through eyes that may very well mirror our own. The use of subjective POV he revolutionized on Lambs returns, albeit in limited quantity when compared to that horror show. Instead, we mostly observe Joe as he witnesses the obstacles Andrew’s sexuality and affliction conjure in terms of human interaction. Just after a white library worker eyes Joe as he studies behind a stack of legal texts in the corner (presumably due to his black skin), the lawyer witnesses his colleague be politely accosted by another librarian, who in not-so-coded language announces that Andrew’s mere presence is making every other patron uncomfortable. At first subconsciously (and then quite literally), Joe sees that discrimination is no different, regardless of the reason said victim is being picked on for. The very assumption of wrongdoing is rooted in extreme ignorance, as both Andrew and Joe are members of societal groups that endure hardships based on prejudice and hate.

Casting Hanks as Beckett is the stroke of genius that solidifies Demme’s empathetic, calculated approach to a disease that was, in the minds of many (if not most) Americans, ravaging a fringe community their lives didn’t intersect with. Hanks has long been compared to Jimmy Stewart; the everyman who could be your likable next door neighbor or the regular Joe you see at a local watering hole every Friday once the closing bell chimes. Having him play an AIDS-afflicted gay man fighting for his rights against a corporate boardroom of boys’ club counselors (who tell homophobic jokes in the racket club sauna) is a perfect persona subversion that made the epidemic relatable for the '90s Mall of America crowd. It helps that Hanks turns in what is easily one of his greatest dramatic turns – emaciated and begging for relief with his sparkling aqua-marine eyes, it’s a balance of movie star charisma and bleak societal archetyping. In flashback, he commands a room; everybody’s favorite fella, and a go-getter Charlie Driggs could admire. But once the virus takes hold, he’s a man coming to grips with his fleeting mortality, wanting to die on his own terms while still realizing he has people (like Banderas’ Miguel – beautifully realized in just a handful of scenes) who will do anything to make him stick around just a little longer. With Hanks, Demme is flexing his muscles as an actors’ director to their fullest potential, letting him become a bullhorn through which his lesson is being conveyed.

The courtroom drama that dominates nearly two thirds of the movie’s runtime is arresting, as Demme’s regular cinematographer, Tak Fujimoto (Something Wild, Silence of the Lambs), allows you to feel the finish of these varnished halls of justice. The City of Philadelphia rightfully becomes a character in Philadelphia, as Fujimoto captures the ruddy alleys of West Philly with the same admiration he shows to Andrew’s Main Line stomping grounds. Still relying on the “rules” Roger Corman gifted to him before shooting his first New World feature (Caged Heat), Demme keeps the camera moving in the courtroom and on these streets, capturing the arguments for defense counsel’s lead (Mary Steenburgen – reuniting with the filmmaker whom she won an Oscar with on Melvin and Howard) and Joe Miller with a variety of quick dollies and leering, jagged angles that editor Craig McKay cuts together with disarming fluidity. This is the closest Demme ever came to aping Otto Preminger, creating Anatomy of a Homophobe with a flurry of loaded language that’s flung from the witness stand and Miller alike, catching everyone in the courtroom and the theater completely off guard. It’s a master class in middlebrow histrionics, never once dipping below captivating as the winter chill flanks these acting heavyweights.

Just as controversy beleaguered Silence of the Lambs, it followed Philadelphia into every major market. Critics of the film complained that Demmes’s movie erased any semblance of gay sexuality from Hanks and Banderas’ characters, refusing them a true love scene. While it’s true we never see the two become physically intimate beyond affectionate pecks, this accusation seems to discount the emotional intimacy the two performers effortlessly generate, as Banderas’ Miguel keeps track of every treatment and resulting side effect Andrew endures. In turn, Andrew pokes and prods Miguel in the way only a lover can, refusing to talk about the reality of his situation and opting to enjoy his last days on Earth in some semblance of peace. It’s a hauntingly effective onscreen bond that doesn’t reduce love to sex, opting to bathe us in domesticity as a demonstration of caring.

A second condemnation leveled at Philadelphia is that Andrew’s family is so supportive of both his sexuality and battle with AIDS. Quoting Kramer again:

“Every single one of them is supportive, thrilled he's gay, and rooting for Tom at the trial. The movie's single most awful moment comes when Tom gushes to these assembled relations – after warning them that bad things might come out about his private life (he once went, horror of horrors, to the baths and a gay porno theater) and learning that, surprise, they are with him 100% -- "Gosh, I love you guys."

In fairness to Kramer, he’s not wrong. It’s the movie’s most “aw shucks” attempt at replicating a “just like me” Americana regarding Andrew’s queerness. Were the movie not so sincere in its rather obvious intent, the scene would almost play like a modern tongue-in-cheek interpretation of Douglas Sirk’s gaudiest melodramas, disassembling traditional American values in the guise of celebrating togetherness. But again, Demme is trying to giftwrap his message inside of a palatable package for crowds in New York, Los Angeles, and Indiana. It’s debatable whether he succeeds, but the playwright’s assertion that an average six-year-old knows “gay people don’t live and look and act like this” is a definite hyperbolic stretch.

Andrew dies at the end of Philadelphia, and Joe still isn’t comfortable around gay people. These are only spoilers if you have zero familiarity regarding how Demme’s films operate. He may often look for the best in people, but is also a staunch realist when it comes time to wrap up his movies. Gathered in Andrew’s posh loft, red ribbons adorn the breasts of all attending his wake. Babies are kissed and hugs are shared as Neil Young’s fragile falsetto flutters around every participant like an ethereal being, bidding adieu to the City of Brotherly Love. The ghost of Andrew Beckett will linger with these folks, long after they return to their lives and resume work at mundane jobs. The ribbons will fade and sit on top of dressers, next to framed pictures of the deceased lawyer. The tapes containing memories of Andrew as a child, playing with his siblings at the New Jersey shore, will be boxed up and housed in the attic, forcefully forgotten until his parents die and the recordings are dug up and gifted to either Miguel or the man’s siblings. Because this is where our ghosts reside – on the walls we pass by every day or in junk drawers, eyeing us and begging not to be forgotten. All houses are haunted by our dead, waiting to remind us that their existence still means something long after their physical form has departed.


It was snowing when my family filed into our Jeep and headed off to the local AMC to catch a four o’clock showing of Philadelphia. My mom seemed slightly more excited than my dad, as she always counted Denzel amongst Kurt Russell and Mel Gibson as the Hollywood men she would leave him for in a heartbeat. Though sports talk usually dominated our dinner table, my father was a rather cognizant cinephile – at least when it came to most mainstream movies, as well as the occasional art house title. He talked up Philadelphia because he loved Silence of the Lambs and “kept hearing how good Hanks is in this new one.” Like most of America, he loved Tom Hanks.

I sat next to my dad and, during most of the movie, he enjoyed it just as he had many others we’d gone to the theater together to see (him buying me a ticket to Under Siege is still one of my best childhood filmgoing memories). He huffed at Denzel’s abrasive, homophobic humor, and crossed his arms whenever Andrew’s superiors attempted to smear his name by labeling his choice to love another man “risky”. My dad always crossed his arms whenever a movie (or anything, really) upset him. His disposition suddenly became that of a stern principal’s, looking to pass judgment on those who transgressed in his presence. When Andrew begins narrating the emotional arc of his favorite opera passage, he stared at the screen with his head cocked to the side, ostensibly wanting the scene to move on so we could get to the meat of the courtroom narrative.

My dad rarely cried. Call it old fashioned stoicism or stubborn masculinity, but he wasn’t one to show a ton of emotion beyond the occasional stern reprimand or jovial “dad humor”. But after Andrew collapsed on the stand, he was a disaster, barely able to keep the wave of emotion that overcame him at bay. As Demme’s movie transitioned to a series of hospital room farewells, the verdict no longer seemed to matter. All that remained was an intense sadness, as his chest slightly heaved and I could hear the snot being choked back into his throat. It wasn’t full on spectacle (my dad was still far too reserved for this type of display); rather a public show of mourning in a dark room with a single, flickering light source.

At this moment, I realized just how powerful cinema could be, for my father wasn’t seeing Andrew Beckett any longer. There, on screen, was his brother Marty, dying in bed and smiling at his family while they gathered to say goodbye. An exorcism was occurring in that mall theater, as tears streamed down my dad’s face, years of pain generated from Marty’s untimely absence flowing in a salty river. I reached out and grabbed his hand and laid my head on his shoulder, as he continued to cry through the closing credits. After the print ran through, he told us that he loved us, and we went to lunch, enjoying a meal at the Chi-Chi’s down the block. Basketball blared from a TV over the bar, and life resumed, just as it did for Andrew Beckett’s clan. But I knew Philadelphia had gifted my dad the opportunity to converse with the past and touch Marty’s cheek one last time – a kiss between brothers before the house lights went up.