Philadelphia Movie Essay

Topics: Homosexuality

This essay sample on Philadelphia Movie Essay provides all necessary basic info on this matter, including the most common “for and against” arguments. Below are the introduction, body and conclusion parts of this essay.

The mass media (i.e. film, television and newspapers) is for the mainstream, perhaps the most important source of information about homosexuality and AIDS. Consequently how these subjects are portrayed in the mass media will heavily influence society’s understanding of these issues. Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), a film produced by TriStar is Hollywood’s first attempt to confront AIDS and homosexuality.

This film deals with how Andrew Beckett, a gay man copes with AIDS, discrimination and the stigmatisation of homosexuality.

During this essay I will analyse how AIDS and homosexuality are constructed in Philadelphia by using two opposing strands of argument which show the mechanisms through which the film’s narrative both reinforces prevailing mainstream cultural values and how it problematises them. I will address five questions that the film prompts: 1) Are the images of the gay men in this film fair and representative of the gay population? 2) Is the innocent victim/guilty victim paradigm addressed adequately and does the film challenge or reinforce this mainstream ideology? 3) Does the film accurately represent AIDS? 4) How is gay sex addressed, implicitly, explicitly or not at all? 5) How is homophobia dealt with in this film? Finally I will summarise my arguments and in conclusion give my personal opinion of the films capabilities and deficiencies.

Philadelphia Movie Essay

In order to make the issues of homosexuality and AIDS in this film accessible to straight people, Andrew Beckett’s/ Tom Hanks’ character has been toned down.

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Andrew Beckett is portrayed as charming, masculine and non- threatening. He is “normal,” white, middle class, a successful lawyer and an all round nice man. In fact Beckett is so unassuming that it is not until he is rushed to hospital to be treated for AIDS (about 20 minutes into the film) that we know he is gay because we meet his same sex “partner,” Miguel Alvarez/Antonio Banderas. The problem with Philadelphia’s cleaned up, positive images of gay men is they are not truly representative or an accurate portrayal. Gay men come in all shapes and sizes, colours and creeds and have individual sexual persuasions. As Alan Sinfield said in his book Gay and After:

1 “The pervasive images of white, upper-middle class, “straight looking” people is at the expense of those more distanced from and threatening to the mainstream, such as the poor, ethnic/racial /sexual minorities, drag queens, and butch lesbians… The deal is acceptance for the straight-acting at the price of dumping embarrassing brothers and sisters.”

Hence this film potentially alienates any gay person that is not white, clean-cut and middle-class and it implies to a largely homophobic audience that anything other than a gay man who is virtually indistinguishable from a straight one is unacceptable.

However in the films favour it must be said that Philadelphia was not made for a gay audience and it was produced at a time when the social climate was aggressively anti-gay due to the onset of AIDS. As this was Hollywood’s first attempt to address AIDS and homosexuality the filmmakers must have felt they needed to present a non-threatening, watered down version of the truth in order to reach and educate a mainstream audience.

Another problem with Philadelphia is that it does not address the guilty victim/innocent victim paradigm adequately enough. During the film a courtroom scene takes place where Andrew Beckett is prosecuting the law firm that sacked him because he was ill with AIDS. In this scene a former employee of Beckett’s law firm is being questioned by a lawyer who asks her how she contracted AIDS. She tells him through a blood transfusion when giving birth. The lawyer then says “So in other words, in your case there was no behaviour on your part which caused you to be infected with the virus, it was something that you were unable to avoid, isn’t that correct?”

The former employee replies, “I guess, I don’t consider myself different from anyone else with this disease. I’m not guilty, I’m not innocent, I’m just trying to survive.” Although the film attempts to address the innocent/guilty paradigm it leaves the message open to interpretation. Viewers could either agree with the lawyer, believing the former employee to be innocent because she contracted the virus through a blood transfusion and not gay sex – thus implying that anyone who contracted AIDS through gay sex is guilty.

Alternatively, the viewer might agree with the former employer who thinks of herself as not innocent or guilty, just a human being person trying to survive an illness. The film should have been more explicit in delivering its intended message that there are no guilty victims just people whom have HIV and are dying of AIDS. In this instance, Philadelphia fails to challenge the mainstream ideologies instituted in the1980’s and 1990’s by many of the straight population and people in the medical establishment who blamed AIDS on gay men and branded it the 2 “gay cancer,” – a divine retribution delivered by God to punish deviants and perverts.

A further deficiency within this film is that it could be accused of making AIDS look heroic and sweet because many aspects of Philadelphia are far too idyllic. As illustrated earlier Andrew Beckett is an ideal man, he is charming, good-looking educated etc. and he miraculously wins his court battle against a huge law firm. Andrew’s family are wonderful, loving and understanding and even his boyfriend, Miguel is ever devoted, even when Andrew has cheated him on in a cinema with an unknown man. The same kind of unrealism is true of the films portrayal of AIDS, as Jefft says in his film review on the Gay.Net website:

3 ” It isn’t like a Tom Hanks movie – you don’t get hugged by Antonio Bandaras and gently expire while Joanne Woodward weeps for you in the corner. It takes forever, and you won’t win an Oscar for putting yourself through it. Instead, you’ll turn into a skeleton slowly, achingly over time, and lose your job, your money, your lovers, your eyesight, your appetite, your bowel control, your memory, your mind. You’ll rage and scream, you’ll alienate all of your friends and family and ruin their love for you and destroy your regard for yourself. I would rather step on a land mine in Vietnam and die with my body parts hanging in a tree.”

A more true-to-life and less ideal representation of the issues surrounding AIDS in this film would have helped to give the mainstream a more real understanding and perhaps helped them to examine their ideological beliefs concerning AIDS and homosexuality.

The most striking problem with this film is its refusal to address gay sex. The relationship between Andrew and Miguel is so chaste it is difficult to tell that they are lovers. In fact Andrew is more intimate with his mother and sisters than with his own boyfriend, he hugs kisses and dances with his family whereas the only affection he shows for Miguel is a quick peck on the cheek and a slow dance which is anything but intimate. This failure to show intimacy is deeply problematic and reinforces the misconception that homosexual sex is something to be ashamed of and hidden. It compounds the ideology that homosexual contact is deviant and perverted and thus too offensive to show on film. Philadelphia should have depicted intimacy between Andrew and Miguel, it could even have shown them using a condom, this may have been more useful to a homophobic audience than having no sex scenes at all and would have delivered the message that there is absolutely nothing wrong with gay sex.

The filmmaker’s management of homophobia is very complicated in this film because Philadelphia clearly denounces civil rights discrimination. This can be seen in the fact that Andrew Beckett wins the court case against his previous employers who sacked him because he has AIDS. Yet, Philadelphia does not totally damn the social bigotry and prejudices that can be seen clearly in Jo Miller/Denzel Washington’s character. In this film Andrew Beckett decides to take his previous law firm to court and attempts to hire Jo Miller a homophobic, black lawyer who is very reluctant to take the case.

However Jo is won over only because he witnesses Andrew being treated badly (as black people have been treated) by an embarrassed librarian who urges a very ill looking Andrew out of public view. To its merit, the film draws a clear parallel between discrimination against blacks and discrimination against people with AIDS because it is Jo’s identification, as a black man, with Andrew that leads him to represent Andrew in court. Throughout the court case Joe Miller who is a raging homophobic is gradually seen to shift his point of view as he works with and gets to know Andrew Beckett.

However, Joe’s transformation is very uncertain because he never really gets to the point of being comfortable with Andrew’s homosexuality or his illness. He only reaches a stage where he can identify with Andrew on the level of a person who has been discriminated against. In fact one scene towards the end of he film still shows just how homophobic he still is. Joe is in the bar and one of his friends is jibbing him that he must be gay because he is representing a gay man. Joe retorts “Hey, let me tell you something, these people make me sick, Philko, but a law has been broken. You remember the law, don’t you?” So in the end this film delivers the message that gays especially those with AIDS should be entitled to equal civil rights but homosexuality is still an abomination that is not to be condoned.

In conclusion, there are some major problems with the film: the images of the gay men are not fair or representative of the gay population, it fails to adequately challenge the mainstream ideology that gay men have AIDS because of their “deviant” behaviour, it idealises and glamorises AIDS, completely denies gay sex and a fails to clearly define it’s position on homophobia. However having said all this I still believe considering the social climate and that it was a first attempt to broach these subjects by Hollywood that it was groundbreaking. Director Jonathan Demme did not make this film for people already educated about AIDS. He made it for an ignorant public that does not know the difference between HIV and AIDS, that thinks it can catch HIV from touching an infected person and that still brands gay men as perverts. It is for people such as these that Philadelphia, with all its shortcomings, helped to increase their general understanding of AIDS and may have forced them to examine their fear of AIDS and dogmatic and intolerant treatment of gay people.

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Philadelphia Movie Essay. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

Philadelphia Movie Essay
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