11 Facts About Philadelphia

Columbia TriStar Home Video
Columbia TriStar Home Video

On December 22, 1993, Philadelphia—one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to tackle the misinformation and biases against individuals with HIV and AIDS—was released in theaters. Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for playing Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer whose firm terminates him when they discover he has AIDS. Desperate to make his former employees confront their prejudices, Beckett hires lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington)—a one-time adversary—to represent him in a wrongful termination suit, pitting them against one of Philadelphia’s most powerful law firms.

Though the film was a box office smash, not everyone was sold on its message. Gay activist and The Normal Heart playwright Larry Kramer spoke out against the film, saying, “Philadelphia doesn't have anything to do with the AIDS I know, or with the gay world I know. It doesn't bear any truthful resemblance to the life, world, and universe I live in.”

The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme helmed the script written by Ron Nyswaner. In 1994, the film won two of its five Oscar nominations: Hanks won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Andrew Beckett (he won the same award again the next year for Forrest Gump) and Bruce Springsteen took home the gold for Best Original Song for “Streets of Philadelphia.”

Here are some facts about the film in honor of its 25th anniversary.

1. The studio felt a "moral compunction" to make the film.

In an interview with Queerty, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner—who had worked with Jonathan Demme on 1984's Swing Shift—said the studio “felt there was a moral compunction to make this movie.” He and Demme pitched the script to TriStar’s Mark Platt as a civil rights drama. “This is what Mark Platt said: ‘Ron, Jonathan, there are 10 movies, a total of 10 scripts in development around Hollywood right now [in 1990]. All of them have a heterosexual main character.’ The next thing he said was, ‘that is immoral.’ We were going to make the movie that needs to be made about AIDS with a homosexual main character. So there was no resistance in Hollywood, or at least we went to the right person.”

2. The film is based on several real people.

Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, and Buzz Kilman in Philadelphia (1993)
Columbia TriStar Home Video

Nyswaner told The Hollywood Reporter he had a couple of consultants to help him with the script, which he started writing in the late 1980s. “Everybody was thinking and talking about AIDS,” he said. “It wasn’t just one of the things that you occasionally thought of—it was something in the news and in the culture quite a bit.”

Demme told Rolling Stone that his friend, artist Juan Botas, inspired the script. (Demme had produced One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave, an AIDS documentary which Botas had co-directed and was released in 1994—two years after Botas’s death.)

“We looked for a story for a long time, and we decided it would be pointless to make a film for people with AIDS. Or for their loved ones,” Demme said. “They don’t need [a] movie about AIDS. They live the truth. We wanted to reach people who don’t know people with AIDS, who look down on people with AIDS.”

Two similar discrimination cases also inspired the film: Geoffrey Bowers, whose New York law firmed fired him when they found out he had AIDS, and Clarence B. Cain, whose Philadelphia law firm fired him when they discovered his illness. In both cases the men won, but Bowers died in 1987—six years before he’d be awarded $500,000 in damages. Because Demme and Nyswaner loosely based the film on Bowers’s life without compensating him, Bowers’s family sued the filmmakers. In 1996 the case settled in Bowers’s favor.

3. Daniel Day-Lewis turned down the role of Andrew Beckett.

Nyswaner said that Hanks wanted to play Andrew Beckett, but Nyswaner, Demme, and the producers wanted someone more “conventional,” like Daniel Day-Lewis. Much to their dismay, Day-Lewis passed. “We were so pissed off,” Nyswaner said. “How dare he! This is going to be such an important picture! Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme had lunch, and Tom Hanks said, ‘I think I can do this.’”

Day-Lewis was one of the actors Hanks beat out for that year’s Best Actor Oscar (Day-Lewis had been nominated for In the Name of the Father).

4. Denzel Washington's role was written for a comedic actor like Bill Murray or Robin Williams.

Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington in Philadelphia (1993)
Columbia TriStar Home Video

In a 2008 interview with The Oregonian, Demme talked about the lessons he learned regarding casting while making Philadelphia. "The part of Joe Miller—Denzel's part—had been written aggressively for a white actor with strong comedic chops; specifically I was hoping for either Robin Williams or Bill Murray to play Joe Miller," Demme said. "And one of our producers was on a plane with Denzel, and he said 'what's that you're reading,' and he gave it to him, and he read it and said, 'I like that Joe Miller part; I'd be interested in playing that.'"

Part of Demme's reasoning for wanting a known comedian was to be able to add some levity to the film. "So I call Denzel up, and he says, 'I like that script, I'd like to play that part,'" Demme recalled. "And I said, 'Well, to tell you the truth, we're gonna have such a struggle to get people to see an AIDS movie, we were hoping to cast it with someone who, right out of the box, the mention of their name signals to people that there's gonna be a lot of humor in this movie.' And Denzel said, 'Well, I happen to be very, very funny.'"

5. Mary Steenburgen had to skip her first day of filming, as she wasn’t emotionally ready.

Tom Hanks and Mary Steenburgen in Philadelphia (1993)
Columbia TriStar Home Video

Days before Mary Steenburgen was set to begin filming scenes as Belinda Conine, one of the defense attorneys disputing Beckett's case, Steenburgen’s friend died from AIDS. “It was super hard for me to go be on the opposite side of someone, on the legal team, who had AIDS,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “In my whole career, I’ve only had one day of work that had to be scrapped, and it was for my first day on Philadelphia because that was such an emotional mess. At the end of the day, I said to Jonathan [Demme], ‘You might have to recast this. I’m distraught about my friend.’ And then he said, ‘No, that makes you [an] even more perfect person, not a less perfect person, to play it. Remember, this is not a film about ‘How do you feel about AIDS?’”

Steenburgen and Demme discussed how the film was really about justice. “Part of protecting that is that everybody is entitled to the best defense possible, which is why I had to be the best lawyer I could for something I personally—and I think even that character probably—disagreed with,” said Steenburgen.

6. Jonathan Demme edited out a bedroom scene between Hanks and Antonio Banderas.

In a controversial deleted scene, Antonio Banderas—who played Beckett’s partner, Miguel—and Hanks are lying in bed together before going to sleep. Demme told Rolling Stone that the scene was meant to show “they’re a lot like you me,” but he cut it because the film was too long, and “the film was edited, finally, to tell its strongest story in the best possible way. And that was the story about the fight for vindication,” Demme said.

However, Nyswaner was disappointed in the cut. “In retrospect, we would have gladly ignored or avoided all that controversy and kept that scene in. If we knew people were going to yell about it for 25 years we would have done it,” he told Queerty.

7. The sailor uniforms became a political statement.

Antonio Banderas and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia (1993)
Columbia TriStar Home Video

In one scene, Banderas and Hanks host a party, wear sailor uniforms, and slow-dance together. “They’re an elegant couple, they would throw a swellegant, Cole Porter-type party,” Demme told Rolling Stone. “So the idea of the guys in dress naval—they’ll look so handsome, they’ll look so elegant.”

In February 1994, not long after the film was released, President Bill Clinton ushered in "Don’t ask, don’t tell" (DADT), a policy that prohibited gay military members from disclosing their sexuality. “When we showed the [movie] at the White House, shortly after the shot of the guys dancing in uniform, President Clinton left the room—he had to relieve himself,” Demme said. “But I thought that was kind of … interesting timing. It wasn’t enough that the movie was seen at the White House—I hoped that with the 50 or so guests, there would have been 10 minutes devoted to a discussion about AIDS in our country. But instead. President Clinton took the guests on a guided tour of the White House. I was disappointed by that.”

8. More than 50 extras with HIV or AIDS were featured.

Action Wellness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people in the Philadelphia area deal with chronic illness, helped the filmmakers cast more than 50 extras with HIV and AIDS to appear in the film. Today, 25 years later, Suellen Kehler is the only surviving member of that group.

“I am so happy to be alive, but I have survivor’s guilt,” Kehler said at the Philadelphia Film Center screening of the film and the documentary short The Last Mile. “I ask myself ‘Why me? Why just me?’”

9. Hanks's Oscar speech inspired another movie.

In one of the most famous Oscar speeches of alltime, Hanks thanked his high school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, and classmate John Gilkerson for being “the two finest gay Americans, two wonderful men, that I had the good fortune to be associated with.” Three days before the big event, Hanks called Farnsworth to get permission to use his name if he won. “I didn’t know exactly what he was going to say,” Farnsworth told People, “but it was just overwhelming.” However, it wasn't Hanks’s speech that outed Farnsworth—it was a San Francisco Chronicle article about the movie that did.

However, Hanks's speech did inspire the 1997 film In & Out in which Matt Dillon’s character outs his high school drama teacher, played by Kevin Kline, during an Oscar speech.

10. The real streets of Philadelphia inspired the movie’s hit song.

Demme told Rolling Stone he hired Neil Young to compose a rock song for the tragic ending and asked Bruce Springsteen to compose a rock song for film’s opening. “If Bruce and Neil are part of this party, it’s going to be something for the unconverted,” Demme said. He called Springsteen and told him “we still need a kick-ass song at the beginning.”

During a 2017 Tribeca Film Festival talk with Hanks, Springsteen explained how he wrote “Streets of Philadelphia.” “Demme had sent me that opening piece of film where the camera moves slowly through Philly,” Springsteen said. “Eventually, I came up with that tiny, little beat and I figured it wasn’t what he wanted, but I sent it to him anyway and asked, ‘What do you think?’”

Akin to Young, the song Springsteen offered wasn’t as rock-oriented as Demme would’ve liked, but it worked. “Springsteen, like Neil Young, trusted the idea of the movie much more than I was trusting it,” Demme said. “Streets of Philadelphia” beat out Young’s “Philadelphia” for Best Song at the Oscars; it also won a Golden Globe and a Grammy Award.

11. a lot of people thanked Hanks for making the film.

“Almost everyone I’ve met has already come to some conclusion about AIDS,” Hanks told Interview Magazine. “They already have in their mind that either dark or light image of what it is. But because I’m the guy that’s in the movie, the first thing that comes out of the people who have talked to me about it is their incredible emotional response. More people have stopped me on the street or come up to me in airplanes or sidled up to me in restaurants to talk about this movie than any other job I’ve done, and almost all of them have said something like, ‘Thank you for doing it.’"

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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