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The Legacy of Demme's "Philadelphia" Feels Different 20 Years Later

(©TriStar Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection)

How a movie dealing with HIV impacted a boy then — and a man now

When Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” premiered in 1993, I was nine years old. Those of us who lived in and around the film’s namesake city were particularly interested in it; our then-mayor even had a cameo.

Rather quickly, though, 9-year-old me knew that something wasn’t quite right. This wasn’t the type of movie I’d be allowed to see — or even talk about. It certainly wasn’t the kind of movie my mom would take me to. 

See, Demme’s film dealt with what we still sometimes call “adult themes.” That is, it depicts life realistically — too realistically for kids and much too realistically for most Americans.

Read Jonathan Demme's obituary on Legacy

So I didn't know much about the details of "Philadelphia," but thanks to schoolyard taunts and offhand comments from adults, there was one thing I did understand: This was that gay movie.

It was several years after TriStar Pictures released the film that I finally saw it for myself. As a closeted, gay, adolescent boy, I was gravitating toward books and films that I knew dealt with “adult themes,” like those with openly gay characters — but I did so quietly.  Even in the late 1990s, being gay was controversial. I still remember Jerry Falwell guffawing his way through a sermon and grabbing headlines by calling Ellen DeGeneres “Ellen Degenerate.”

(I also remember looking up the word "degenerate" to learn what I supposedly was.)

With all that malignant homophobia still in America’s mainstream, a film like “Philadelphia” was the perfect cover I could use to seek out information about gay life. After all, it had won a couple of Oscars. Its director, Demme, was acclaimed for making several instant classics of modern cinema. I was simply appreciating high culture.

The movie terrified me.

Along with its clear beauty, its courage and its devastating chronicle of humanity, "Philadelphia" put the fear of AIDS in my mind. It showed me the salacious moment of viral transmission; the casually cruel homophobia of all those who held positions of power; the physical decline of Tom Hanks’ character Andrew Beckett and his eventual, wretched death.

When I saw these things through the lens of a young, fearful, gay teenager, they seemed like a warning. This will happen to you.

I came out at 15. My parents were generally supportive; they just were worried about AIDS. They had seen the movie, too.

No, no, I assured them, it can be prevented. Besides, I’m judicious about my behavior. You know me, Mom and Dad  I’m a good student, a good boy, and I’ll be a good man.

See, as a teenager and even later as a young man, I had a misguided idea of what HIV status said about a person. To my adolescent self, "Philadelphia" was a dire warning of an Old Testament-style judgment levied upon those who behaved poorly. And because of my fear, I completely overlooked the most important parts of Demme's movie.

* * *

It was a little over ten years later that, while living in Philadelphia, I was diagnosed with HIV.

Living with HIV in 2017 is vastly different than in 1993. For those with adequate access to healthcare and HIV medication – which, to be sure, is a privilege not enjoyed by all – the virus is usually manageable.

My life is typical. I take one pill once a day. And since I’ve been responding so well to treatment for so long, I only visit the doctor once every six months to ensure that the virus is still, essentially, dormant.

It always is.

Still, there’s always a nagging bit of fear and anxiety. And whenever I wonder if my medication has stopped working, the first person I see in my mind is Andrew Beckett.

After my diagnosis, I had avoided even mentioning “Philadelphia,” let alone watching it again. My only understanding of the film was from my adolescent perspective, when I'd last seen it. I understood it as a movie about death — a disquieting subject for anyone, let alone a newly diagnosed HIV+ person.

Early on, each time I came out to someone about my HIV+ status, I would feel the need to preemptively explain what the virus was and that “it’s not a death sentence.”

I was arguing with the specter of Andrew Beckett.

Eventually, a couple of years ago, I happened by the movie on television. I finally watched it again with adult eyes and years of experience living with HIV.

It took me aback. Jonathan Demme's film seemed to have dramatically changed. It wasn’t at all about death now.

And Andrew Beckett wasn’t some sinner wallowing in the consequence of God’s wrath. He was one of God’s children, a wonderful man, who happened to get sick at a time when medical science, and frankly society in general, hadn’t yet caught up.

Yes, the film's story was groundbreaking at the time it came out. Showing the reality of life for many HIV+ people in the late 1980s and early 1990s was audacious — and necessary. It got people talking, thinking, and, most importantly of all, empathizing.

But as I’ve grown older — and as I’ve lived with the same virus that killed Andrew Beckett in “Philadelphia” for years now – the movie’s bewitching power, while still certainly there, is no long rooted in fear.

Instead, it has become a haunting film about love and strength.

It affirms my life and, in fact, the preciousness of all life.

Being a Philadelphian, I routinely walk by scenes from “Philadelphia” in my everyday life. One day not long ago, as I walked down the street toward a recycling bin, I passed by the building that the movie portrayed as Andrew Beckett’s apartment.

When I noticed it, my first thought wasn’t of death or shame, weakness or fear. I simply wondered if I’d ever find a boyfriend like Andrew Beckett did. 

Nothing in the film has changed since it was released in 1994. It’s me that’s changed. The film’s truth remains the same; it just took me over twenty years to realize what, exactly, that truth was.

Thank you, Jonathan Demme, for this opus to life and beauty. While “Philadelphia” was just one of many works of art you created, it stands out – at least for me, and I suspect for other people like me — in its own transcendent category. Thanks to your work, and your life, the world is a better place.


Josh Kruger is a writer who lives in Philadelphia.