FILM / Appearances can be deceptive: Aids has played its part in Hollywood movies before now, but only in heavy disguise. Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia may pretend to confront the issue but, argues John Lyttle, not much has changed

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Watching Jonathan Demme's Aids drama Philadelphia is like watching a master magician doing tricks from inside a strait-jacket. He can do more impressive things, but he's constrained by circumstance.

This was always going to be the case. This is, after all, Hollywood's first big-budget Aids movie (films such as 1986's Parting Glances and 1990's Longtime Companion were independently made) and, with a budget in the region of dollars 30 m, the studio was unlikely to want to frighten off a mainstream audience, deemed wary of anything homosexual. Why Hollywood should believe this when the American masses happily tuned into the TV movie An Early Frost nine years ago is anyone's guess. As a matter of fact, one might expect Philadelphia to take more chances than An Early Frost.

Yet its intentions are not so radically different. Demme and gay scriptwriter Ron Nyswaner want to promote understanding for its gay lead, Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks), a lawyer fired for 'incompetence'. As Nyswaner told Film 94, 'We wanted audiences to realise that Andy Beckett was a human being.'

Intentions is probably the wrong word. What we see in Philadelphia is results. Demme and Nyswaner obviously had bolder things in mind. Just as obviously their game plan was compromised. For instance, Premiere magazine's location report mentions a scene where Hanks's lover (Antonio Banderas) kisses him. This moment is not in the release print.

A movie that will neatly balance the demands of art, the box office and social awareness is an impossibility. If Hanks and Banderas are less than physical, there is still the spectacle of a family united in loving support for their gay son, brother, uncle, in-law. And at a clan gathering, Hanks, the man with Aids, is seen cradling a baby. No big fuss, yet a message delivered.

Actually, what Philadelphia lacks is not so much the 'proper' polemic representation demanded by the Aids activist Larry Kramer (who thinks the film should have tackled the American government's malicious neglect of Aids patients), as an unfettered gay sensibility. Andy Beckett is a rare role model, on a par with Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. But just as Poitier didn't seem, well, particularly black, Andy Beckett doesn't seem particularly gay. This isn't a plea for instantly identifiable stereotype, but a demand to respect equality while recognising essential differences. Philadelphia has little feeling for gay subculture. Or for the allusive codes gay men trade in, despite the de rigueur costume party, with Hanks and Banderas cute as naval officers, Quentin Crisp in a (silent) cameo and a gaggle of queens singing 'Mr Sandman'. The details are accurate, the tone is lifeless.

Philadelphia's problems stem from its form: realism, narrative, naturalism, whatever. Naturalism problematises gay men (naturalism is automatically no place for the 'unnatural'). Avowedly liberal, it will incorporate gay men, but, inherently conservative, only for its own devices. Gay men must abide by the prevailing mores. The form may develop, yet the positions of gay men remain constricted; victims, grotesques, sissies and suicides - Outsiders all. Some celluloid examples. Tea and Sympathy (1956), the schoolboy who might be a bit, you know, has to be (sexually) rescued by the sports master's understanding wife. Staircase (1969) is willing to show a gay couple, but only in a pathetic parody of heterosexual marriage. In Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent (1962), the married senator who has a one-off fling with another man has to do the noble thing and shoot himself. As John L Clum neatly puts it in his book Acting Gay: 'While this death is presented as personal tragedy, it also is a dramatic necessity, according to the regulations of popular drama.'

Is this why Richard Glatzer's shoestring Grief contains the credo: 'There's a million ways to tell a story. Realism is the dullest' ? Jeremy, the gay character who utters the line, would undoubtedly elect to view anything other than Philadelphia's courtroom thriller tropes. John Grayson's absurdist, ironic Aids musical Patient Zero perhaps. Or Derek Jarman's avant garde opus Blue: a simple blue screen with various voices. Maybe the sci-fi cheapie Bloodstream, which at least allows its oppressed minority the safety valve of violent action. Or even Gothic Aids allegories like The Fly and Coppola's Dracula, deliberately ambiguous pictures that demand the viewer interpret, rather than merely read, what they're seeing - a technique gay men have to specialise in if they are to stake cultural territory in a society that doesn't provide homosexual heroes. (One reason why gay men have identified with powerful, suffering dames like Davis and Crawford is because they had to.)

Indeed, so leery of the out gay idol is the acclaimed true-life Aids mini-series And the Band Played On that it never makes it clear if its central figure, a journalist played by Matthew Modine, is gay or not. He simply lacks any personal dimension: naturalism loves a vacuum.

Still, Glatzer, the gay writer-director who put the manifesto into Jeremy's mouth, has the same contradictions to contend with as Demme the straight, despite working outside the studio system.

The agony of Aids means he wants his message to reach and teach the widest possible audience. So he must choose the most accessible conventions, despite their being an inadequate vechicle for gay sensibility. So Glatzer compromises. He gives us the workplace and office politics in grotty detail, yet casts drag queen Jackie Beat as the boss, a touch of deliberate sabotage. And the workplace he chooses is archly instructive. He has his gay scriptwriters working on a tacky TV show called The Love Judge, a trashy dissection of heterosexual divorce. Which doesn't stop the men from smuggling details of their own lives into the cases. Glatzer uses naturalism only to subvert it.

Rather this than Aids movies' emerging cliche, what might best be described as the 'gay scene'. This is the moment when, the audience being thought sufficiently indoctrinated, all pretensions to naturalism are (temporarily) abandoned and the interior of the gay man's mind revealed: magic, special-effects, the extravagant and impossible.

The late Bill Sherwood's Parting Glances offers clouds of dry ice and a knight in shining armour in the dying rock star Steve Buscemi's sitting-room. Is the knight death come to claim him? Buscemi's conversation reveals a grudging acceptance of the inevitable. Why else conjure up the phantom? Longtime Companion ends with the men who have died during its running-time reappearing to greet and comfort those still living through the nightmare.

And it happens in Philadelphia too. The heterosexual lawyer Denzel Washington comes to talk with Hanks about his court case. Hanks, up to this point commendably brisk, is distracted. He leaves the table and walks to the hi-fi, dragging his IV stand, to raise the volume on Maria Callas's rendition of 'La mamma morta' from Andrea Chenier. Opera, of course. Hanks says to Washington: listen to this, listen to what she's saying. He begins to sing along. The once sensible camera swoops and dives. Extreme close-ups. Over-head shots. The light magically becomes blazing red.

The camera cuts back to Washington. He's the audience's representative and the tables have suddenly turned. He's no longer a protagonist, merely a spectator trying to make sense of the strangeness surrounding him. Just like a gay man getting through life, in fact.

'Philadelphia' opens 25 Feb, Odeon Leicester Sq (071-930 3232)

(Photographs omitted)