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‘Philadelphia’ Screenwriter on Gay Marriage, Legacy of Tom Hanks AIDS Drama

Ron Nyswaner was nominated for a screenwriting Oscar for 1993’s “Philadelphia,” the breakthrough drama starring Tom Hanks that portrayed a gay man living with AIDS. He also wrote the upcoming fall release “Freeheld,” starring Julianne Moore and Ellen Page as domestic partners.

Did Hollywood pave the way for gay marriage?

It is a little self-aggrandizing to say that, because I’ve contributed to popular images of gay people. But I think it’s absolutely true. For the last 20 years, over and over again, I’ve been told stories. Somebody once said, “My parents stopped talking to me, then they saw ‘Philadelphia.’”

How long did it take to write?

About four years. Jonathan Demme and I were looking for the right story, always with the goal — which annoyed some people at the time — to have mainstream success with a movie about a gay man with AIDS. We worked really hard to find that story that would really convince an audience. This was at a time when people were being kicked out of their homes for having AIDS. People were refusing to shake hands with people who were gay because they might have AIDS. It was a very different time, and people were still dying. The drug cocktail was three years after the release of “Philadelphia.”

Was it hard to finance?

No. We had a great executive with Marc Platt at TriStar. When Demme and I pitched the story, Platt said, “We’re going to make this movie because it’s the morally right thing to do.” At the time, there were several screenplays in development about AIDS, and they all had heterosexual characters. Marc said, “I find that repugnant.”

Who suggested Tom Hanks?

Tom Hanks suggested himself. Jonathan is a director very famous for giving actors an opportunity to give great performances. And so people were approaching Jonathan and expressing interest.

Did you ever think about writing a sex scene?

That’s a complete myth, and it’s onerous to me. There is kissing in the movie. It’s beautiful kissing. When Antonio Banderas picks up Hanks’ hands and kisses each of his fingers, it’s one of the sexiest things I could think of. The main character is sick. Should we really have wild sex scenes that we should watch? There was absolutely never any conversation about, “Let’s not have them touch here, because it would scare away audiences.” We didn’t make the movie out of fear.

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