Oscar Rewind: The Acceptance Speech That Spawned Another Movie
You won’t find many people in Hollywood who say they’re happy that Daniel Day-Lewis declined to do their project, but that happened with “Philadelphia,” the Oscar-winning AIDS drama that 25 years ago led to one of the most memorable acceptance speeches in academy history.
“We were making a really serious drama, and Daniel brings that kind of weight,” the film’s screenwriter, Ron Nyswaner, recalled in a recent phone interview. But the esteemed British actor turned down the role of Andrew Beckett, a stricken gay lawyer who sues his firm for firing him, in the director Jonathan Demme’s drama.
“Then Tom Hanks presented himself,” Nyswaner continued, “and it was Jonathan’s genius to see that Tom would bring that lighter touch and that invitation for the audience to come along for the ride.”
That they did. The movie grossed more than $200 million worldwide, and Hanks, who won best actor at the 1994 Academy Awards (the first of his two Oscars), tearfully thanked his wife, Rita Wilson and his co-workers on “Philadelphia.” Then he shined a spotlight on two private citizens.
“I would not be standing here if it weren’t for two very important men in my life,” he began and continued later, “Mr. Rawley Farnsworth, who was my high school drama teacher, who taught me that ‘act well the part, there all the glory lies,’ and one of my classmates under Mr. Farnsworth, Mr. John Gilkerson. I mention their names because they are two of the finest gay Americans, two wonderful men that I had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age.” He went on to eulogize AIDS victims like Gilkerson, a San Francisco actor and puppeteer who died in 1989: “The streets of heaven are too crowded with angels.”
Nyswaner was in the audience as a nominee for his screenplay (he lost to Jane Campion for “The Piano”) and he recalled, ““His speech was so beautiful, articulate and moving, and as it unspooled, people were gasping. We were all being lifted to our feet by the power of his delivery.”
Steven Spielberg, whose “Schindler’s List” won best picture and director that night, remembered that “the speech was incredible and in a sense communicated more about what ‘Philadelphia’ was saying — and reached more people — than the movie itself will.”
The speech had a different effect on Farnsworth. “OUTED AT THE OSCARS!” screamed the headline on the front page of The New York Post. The real story wasn’t that simple: Hanks had contacted Farnsworth, with whom he hadn’t spoken since shortly after his 1974 graduation from Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., and asked permission to disclose the teacher’s sexuality.
Farnsworth granted it. “I don’t mind going public now,” the 69-year-old retiree told People magazine. “I didn’t think I had anything to lose,” although he added, “If I was still in professional life, I don’t know how I would have reacted.”
The experience changed Farnsworth’s life. “It’s been quite a feather in my cap,” he said at the time. He became a gay-rights advocate, working with an organization for gay, lesbian and transgender teachers and serving as the grand marshal in an Atlanta parade for children with H.I.V.
Farnsworth’s story had another unforeseen consequence: It gave the screenwriter Paul Rudnick the idea for “In & Out,” a 1997 farce about a closeted high-school teacher (Kevin Kline) outed by his former student (Matt Dillon) in an awards-show speech.
Nyswaner said that film’s producer, Scott Rudin, “told me, ‘Oh, I’m making a movie inspired by your movie,’ I thought, ‘Gee, that’s great,’ and he said, ‘Well, actually, it’s inspired by Tom’s speech at the Oscars.’ That was a little ego-deflating.”
Still, as the Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger pointed out in a phone interview, “It’s safe to say it’s the only Oscar speech in history to inspire another movie.”
Twenty-five years later, the casting of a straight actor like Hanks in such a high-profile gay role might draw charges of straightwashing. Such criticism has hit the Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which stars the straight actor Rami Malek, a front-runner for best actor at this year’s Oscars.
Nyswaner, who’s gay, acknowledged that times have changed. “Today, we would really examine the issue — we’re very conscious of it,” he said. Yet he also maintained that “potentially controversial movies need stars to get them made. That’s just a fact.”
In any case, Hanks’s performance in the film — and at the Oscars — had a lasting impact. “It’s the kind of thing that helped normalize gay people and people with AIDS with the broader public,” said Arnold Wayne Jones, author of “The Envelope, Please: The Ultimate Academy Awards Trivia Book.” He added, “These things make a difference.”
They still do. “I have spent the last 25 years being approached by people who have said to me, ‘Thank you — your movie changed my life,’” said Nyswaner, who has been writing for cable dramas in recent years. “Last year on the set of ‘Homeland,’ a production assistant from Egypt walked up to me and said, ‘Hey, I just have to tell you that because of watching your movie when I was 14, I realized who I was.’ So I know ‘Philadelphia’ has positively affected people’s lives.”
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