Great art it's not, but 'Philadelphia' is still a start

January 30, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

In Hollywood, they don't just wear red ribbons anymore. After all these years, they finally made a movie about AIDS.

Like many Hollywood productions, it has a twist ending.

Which is simply this: The movie is a hit.

It was No. 1 at the box office last weekend. "Philadelphia," a movie about a gay man with AIDS, supplanted "Mrs. Doubtfire," a movie about a straight man wearing a dress. I'd like to see Freud take a shot at that one.

Here's how Variety would see it -- "AIDS Boffo Box Office."

This is what we call a major upset. This is the Bills beating the Cowboys. This is so unexpected that nobody can explain it.

It isn't like the movie is any good. It's not. The critics correctly panned "Philadelphia" as a hokey, play-by-the-numbers melodrama in which the villains might as well wear black hats and where the ending is foretold even before we get through the Springsteen song that opens the movie.

Gay activists hate it. And with good reason. For a movie about sexual orientation, it has about as much sex as "Mary Poppins." The gay lovers look more like best friends. Any kisses are reserved for cheeks only.

As a representation of gay life, we get one party in which somebody sings "Mr. Sandman." Tom Hanks, as the gay hero, loves opera and, especially, Maria Callas. Of course.

Those who think homosexuality is a sin can't much like it, either. In the movie's view, if you've got AIDS, you must be saint-like. Hanks suffers without complaint. He is never angry, even on his deathbed. (Oops, did I give anything away here? Sorry. Hanks dies as surely as Debra Winger's characters always die. You're welcome to cry along.)

The bad guys, conversely, are cigar-smoking, self-satisfied flesh-eaters who sit around all day figuring how they can crush anyone whose behavior offends them. The villains in James Bond movies are more believable. Yes, even Odd Job.

But all the criticisms are, in the end, completely beside the point.

The point is that you've got this melodrama -- which at its worst moments is still far better than, say, "The Pelican Brief" -- in which ordinary folk get to root for someone dying of AIDS and seem glad for the opportunity.

It's also important that the Hanks character didn't contract the virus that leads to AIDS through a transfusion (as Arthur Ashe did) or from unprotected heterosexual sex (as Magic Johnson did), but, as the majority of people do, from unprotected homosexual sex.

And still, Hanks gets to be the hero.

You probably know the plot outline by now. Hanks plays a hotshot lawyer in a tony law firm who gets AIDS and is fired when the bosses find out. Denzel Washington plays Joe Miller, a homophobic, quick-buck lawyer who defends Hanks in a wrongful-firing suit.

Miller is supposed to represent the audience. Like us, he learns through contact with the Hanks character that you can't get AIDS by shaking hands and that, yeah, gays are people, too.

He has this signature line in the movie when cross-examining someone: Explain it to me like I'm a 4-year-old. And that's what the movie does. This is dot to dot. It takes Washington's character on a journey with signposts at every turn. What I'm saying is it's not exactly "Ulysses." It's not "The Merchant of Venice," either. And that's the problem with the movie, where nuance is an unmined concept.

But it's also a start. Larry Kramer, the gay activist, wrote an angry piece a few weeks ago, saying that he wants to see a movie about real people, with Tom Hanks and, say, Tom Cruise naked in bed together.

Director Jonathan Demme, who made "Silence of the Lambs," didn't back down from cannibalism but got squeamish when the subject was gay sex.

That's because we're not there yet. We may never get there. It's hard for me to foresee a time when mainstream American is prepared to confront gay sex in a meaningful way. For most Americans, including most straight Americans who would consider themselves tolerant, gay sex has a huge yuck factor. As in, yuck, I don't want to watch that.

"Philadelphia" is hardly a documentary. It is popular entertainment.

But in this entertainment, AIDS is a disease, like any other fatal disease.

In this entertainment, homophobia is a prejudice, like any other prejudice.

And the movie-going public is buying it.

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