The new movie "Philadelphia" proves that homosexuality and AIDS are becoming acceptable topics for polite conversation. It is proof that a major Hollywood studio is willing to produce a PG-13 movie that has a gay man with AIDS as its lead character.
For this, the film and its star, Tom Hanks, have been the recipients of a flurry of praise. And though in many ways worthy of that praise, "Philadelphia" also sheds light on how troubling homosexuality still is to many people and how reluctant we are to face the realities of AIDS.
In the movie, which opens in Baltimore on Friday, Mr. Hanks' character is a successful attorney who is gay. Although a partner in a law firm, he is fired when his colleagues discover he has AIDS. Surrounded by a supportive family and lover, he pursues a wrongful-termination suit in court while slowly dying of the disease.
Much has been made of Mr. Hanks' daring in accepting this role. In fact, he is being compared to other renowned actors who in the past have dared to play homosexuals. (Wrote the Boston Globe: "It might even vault Hanks into the ranks of Al Pacino and William Hurt, two other stars who played gay men with no apparent damage to their careers or image. On the contrary, Hurt won an Oscar . . . in "Kiss of the Spider Woman" and he even kissed a guy on camera while wearing chiffon.")
Perhaps the comments should come as no surprise.
"Homosexuality for many people represents a profound taboo. It's the last forbidden territory, therefore it's dangerous ground for any movie studio or any major actor," says Mark Crispin Miller, media critic and professor at the Johns Hopkins University. The fact that Mr. Hanks' decision has stirred discussion shows how far outside the norm some hold homosexuality -- in a script or otherwise.
The idea of well-established actors accepting a part unlike any other they have played before is, of course, not new. To stretch themselves professionally, to highlight their acting abilities, many major actors, after gaining a solid base of acceptance and recognition among their fans, attempt "off-casting" -- or choosing roles vastly different from those they traditionally play, roles that are considered "risky."
For accepting the part of a vampire, a far cry from his usual all-American romantic leads, Tom Cruise has received a similar spurt of attention. In 1991, Anthony Hopkins made the leap from highly respected actor to movie star with his performance as a cannibal. And now, Mr. Hanks, a comic actor of renown, has chosen to portray a homosexual in a dramatic film.
"What we are seeing with Hanks is off- casting, off-casting that allows him to shine as an actor and makes him a bigger star. I don't want to deny that it is a worthy and socially redeeming choice," says Jerome Christensen, director of the Hopkins film and media studies program.
But, he adds, "In some sense, because Hanks' choice of role is off-casting, it reinforces gayness as a form of deviance. There's never going to be a breakthrough in movies until we see a gay star off-casting as a heterosexual lover."
Nonetheless, the attention paid to Mr. Hanks' newest role provokes the question: Why is taking the role of a 30-something man, ordinary in every way except his sexual preference -- deemed so unusual? And daring? Is it because some members of the movie-going population will think Tom Hanks is gay?
Perhaps. Homosexuality, it seems, is a subject so disturbing that audiences are unable to see it as just another dramatic role. But presumably few movie-goers suspected Anthony Hopkins of eating people while off the set.
"Tom Hanks can pull it off because he is primarily a comic actor and not one whose roles have been defined by an ostentatious manliness," says Mr. Miller. "Clark Gable was also a good comic actor, but he would never have done this."
Indeed, the sexuality of the actor cast in the role contributes to how the movie plays in theaters and outlets for films, says film director John Waters. "The unwritten rule is, it's OK [to play a homosexual] as long as you have a wife," he says. For example, "The airlines wouldn't show 'Hairspray' on trips because Divine played a woman. If Robin Williams had played it, it would have been OK."
The reverse of major movie stars playing homosexual roles -- major movie stars who are openly gay in real life -- occurs equally infrequently. Rock Hudson, whose sexual orientation remained hidden until he was dying of AIDS, showed how frightening Hollywood finds the issue.
"Hollywood traditionally has been paranoid about people being gay. There are all kinds of stories about gay actors being given fake girlfriends because Hollywood has the desire to present whatever it believes will be a hit with as many people as possible with the least amount of offense," says Jonathan Goldberg, an English literature professor at Hopkins who writes about film.
Much of the reality of AIDS remains hidden as well, at least on the silver screen.
Although "Philadelphia" breaks new ground, Hollywood could not resist adding a touch of glamour. As anyone who cares for people with AIDS or as many of those who have AIDS will attest, Mr. Hanks' character is not wholly realistic.
The majority of AIDS patients do not wear suits to work, or even go to work. If unfairly fired from a job, few can afford health insurance, let alone a lawyer.
Increasingly, people with AIDS are IV drug users, women or people of color. And many are alone, without family or lover to stand by them as they die.
Holly Selby is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.