What Is the Story Behind the ‘Philadelphia’ Story? : Movies: A lawsuit alleging the film’s idea is based on a real case has aroused curiosity about the origins of the TriStar feature.
To hear TriStar Pictures tell it, the idea for the Academy Award-nominated screenplay for “Philadelphia” was developed in 1991, two years after director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ron Nyswaner first began brainstorming a movie about AIDS.
But the studio’s account, disseminated in publicity materials and countless articles about the current film, apparently leaves out a few details, including independent producer Scott Rudin’s (“The Addams Family” and “The Firm”) connection with the high-profile project, the first major studio film to address the subject of AIDS.
Earlier this month, many people in Hollywood were surprised to learn that Rudin was named--along with TriStar, Demme, Nyswaner and producer Edward Saxon--in a breach-of-contract lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New York by the family of the late Geoffrey Bowers, a New York lawyer who fought an AIDS discrimination battle bearing striking similarities to the story told in “Philadelphia.” The movie stars Tom Hanks, who was also nominated last week for an Oscar, and has grossed $50.5 million so far.
Speaking on behalf of the studio and the other defendants, TriStar has called the Feb. 1 Bowers suit “completely groundless and absolutely without merit.” No formal answer to the lawsuit has yet been filed.
It is a truism in the entertainment industry that just about every successful movie will spawn at least one lawsuit, and most of these cases do not get very far. Whether or not the Bowers suit, to be tried under New York State contract law and federal trade practices law, turns out to be an exception, it has already aroused curiosity about the origins of “Philadelphia.”
Two knowledgeable sources, who insisted on anonymity, have told The Times that Rudin initiated the project and brought in Nyswaner but dropped out when Demme became attached. For some reason, they say, the Oscar-winning director of “The Silence of the Lambs” did not want Rudin on board. Demme almost always collaborates with Saxon, his partner in the Clinica Estetico production company.
A former executive at Orion Pictures, where the project was developed before it was acquired by TriStar, confirmed that the movie originated with Rudin.
Studio President Marc Platt has declined to discuss the case, nor has the studio permitted the other defendants to comment. (Although Rudin has a production deal at Paramount, calls to him were returned by TriStar’s publicity department.)
One participant in the movie, Tom Stoddard, a lawyer with AIDS who used to specialize in HIV discrimination cases, attacked the Bowers family for filing the latest suit. Stoddard served as a consultant on “Philadelphia” and has a cameo role in it.
“I view this lawsuit as nothing more than greed,” Stoddard said. “I don’t think there’s any basis for this lawsuit, but even if there were, it is an immoral and irresponsible act to try to punish the folks who made a movie that can only improve the world that mistreated their son.”
In court documents, the Bowers family traces “Philadelphia” to 1988, when Rudin, perhaps after reading about the case in the news media, first approached them and told them he wanted to make a movie based on the young lawyer’s struggle against his law firm, the largest in the nation. Rudin attended a session of the Geoffrey Bowers hearing before the New York State Division of Human Rights, traveled to Massachusetts to talk with Bowers’ friends and family members, and flew one of Bowers’ attorneys to Los Angeles for further discussion, the family contends.
Bowers himself had died the year before at age 33, shortly after testifying in his employment discrimination case, which took seven years to be resolved. Last December, his estate was awarded $500,000 by the human rights division. (The law firm, Baker & McKenzie, has said it plans to appeal the order.)
Rudin is not listed in the credits for “Philadelphia,” and TriStar contends he was not involved in the movie.
But a source close to Rudin acknowledged to The Times that the producer did meet with Bowers’ survivors and attorneys and had talked to Nyswaner about writing a script based on the Bowers case. Rudin and Nyswaner had collaborated previously on “Mrs. Soffel” (1984) and on a project called “Pink Boy” that was never made.
The Bowers deal fell through, the Rudin supporter said, when Rudin and the family could not agree on terms.
The Bowers family, however, alleges that Rudin struck an oral agreement with them to make a movie of Geoffrey’s story. Subsequently, they say, he transferred these rights to Orion Pictures, where he had two other projects in development with Platt, who was then executive vice president of that studio. TriStar, in turn, acquired the rights in 1991 after Orion declared bankruptcy, according to the suit. By this time Platt had become president of TriStar and continued to oversee the project.
Rudin had told staff members that he planned to turn Geoffrey Bowers’ experiences into a movie. One former employee said Rudin was “very upset” by Demme’s rebuff. “It made Scott crazy to have Demme not like him,” this source said.
Mike Medavoy, Platt’s boss both at Orion and--until last month--at TriStar, said: “I was gone from Orion when that thing was developed. . . . There’s no question it was a fictional story.” Medavoy resigned from Orion in 1990.
The Bowers family’s complaint, however, describes a series of events that allegedly occurred in 1992:
Geoffrey Bowers’ attorneys, Robert Balsam and Daniel Felber, learned from news accounts that TriStar was planning to make a movie, with Demme directing, about a lawyer who was dismissed from his job because he had AIDS. At that time, the movie’s title was “Probable Cause.”
When the attorneys asked Rudin about “Probable Cause,” he referred them to Platt, saying he was no longer involved in the movie. In the course of “several conversations,” Balsam recounted the project’s history to Platt and requested a copy of the screenplay.
“Platt never responded to Mr. Balsam’s statements, ignored his request for a copy of the screenplay and avoided any further discussions with him,” the complaint states.
In publicity materials issued before the movie opened last December, the studio described the origin of “Philadelphia” this way: "(Director Jonathan) Demme and (screenwriter Ron) Nyswaner first discussed the story idea four years ago. They had each learned that someone close to them was suffering from AIDS. . . . It took two years of Demme and Nyswaner sending articles back and forth, trading books and talking to family and friends to work out a compelling story.”
Entertainment lawyers say the Bowers family’s case is likely to hinge on two questions: whether the existence of an implied oral contract can be proved; and whether “Philadelphia” contains elements that go beyond what is in the hearing record and are unique to Geoffrey Bowers’ experiences. Material from the testimony could well be deemed in the public domain--free to be used without a contract.
Unlike California, New York takes a “limited and restrictive” view of implied contract rights with regard to creative material, said New York-based entertainment litigator Charles Ortner. “What New York does is essentially look at the issue of novelty and originality.”
“This will be a very difficult case for the plaintiff to prove,” Ortner predicted. “Ultimately, if they don’t convince the judge or jury that they have an enforceable contract and that their story is unique and original, it’s going to be very difficult to get recovery.”
Felber said in a telephone interview that “Philadelphia” mimics the Bowers case in at least 20 instances. Like Andrew Beckett, the lawyer portrayed by Hanks, Bowers was fired by his tony law firm after he developed Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions on his face. Both the fictional character and Bowers attempted to use makeup to disguise the telltale signs of AIDS. In real life, just as in the movie, Bowers no longer had visible lesions on his face when he testified in his human rights division hearing, and stunned onlookers when he bared his chest to reveal the disfiguring marks. Bowers, like Beckett, said his law firm falsely accused him of poor performance in order to get rid of him.
These similarities, however, could have been gleaned from the hearing record, Felber acknowledged.
But there are other parallels that could have been passed on only by Bowers’ friends and family, according to Felber. The complaint alleges, for example, that Geoffrey’s brother Charles confided to Rudin that Geoffrey had expressed concern about how the discrimination case, one of the first of its kind, would affect the family, especially his mother. “My mother would never be ashamed to see one of her kids refuse to sit in the back of the bus,” the complaint quotes Charles as telling his brother.
In “Philadelphia,” Beckett’s mother, portrayed by Joanne Woodward, allays her son’s worries by using the same analogy.
Despite these similarities, Stoddard maintains that another discrimination suit, this one actually filed by a Philadelphia lawyer, could just as easily have served as the basis for “Philadelphia.” The late Clarence Cain successfully sued Hyatt Legal Services Corp., claiming AIDS discrimination, after he was fired in 1987. Unlike Bowers and the fictional Beckett, however, Cain ran a regional office of a multistate chain of low-cost legal clinics and was sacked after he informed his employer he had the disease. In addition, Cain came from a very poor family--he was the first of 10 children to attend college--and he was black.
“I had extensive conversations over a period of a year and a half with the people producing ‘Philadelphia,’ and we repeatedly talked about the issue generically of AIDS discrimination,” Stoddard said. “I brought to bear knowledge that I had of the Cain case and implicitly the Bowers case, and a host of other employment cases that I know. Tom Hanks’ story is not the direct reflection of (any particular case). It’s just not.”
But even people who are skeptical of TriStar’s claim that “Philadelphia” is entirely a work of fiction are troubled by the question of why the family cannot produce a written agreement--especially because the plaintiffs include Felber and Balsam, law school classmates of Bowers who represented him in the discrimination case. Felber said he and the Bowers family were preoccupied with their AIDS discrimination fight and the prospect of making it known to a wider public. “Everyone is so cynical now in these times,” he said. “Someone comes to you and says, ‘Your message should get out in another forum.’ Are you going to say, ‘I want cash up front?’ I go ballistic when people say, ‘You’re a lawyer, why didn’t you get it in writing?’ ”