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Revisit the Tom Hanks Oscars acceptance speech that Spielberg called ‘incredible’

Reed Saxon/AP

Thirty years ago, Tom Hanks delivered a performance that reverberated through Hollywood. And it wasn’t in a movie.

On March 21, 1994 — at the 66th Academy Awards — Hanks accepted the Best Actor statuette for his role in “Philadelphia,” a drama about a gay lawyer slowly dying of AIDS. His acceptance speech quickly went down in history as one of the most memorable and moving in Oscar history.

As we gear up for the 96th Academy Awards on Sunday, here’s a look back at Hanks’ groundbreaking acceptance speech, 30 years later.

The speech

It starts out like any other speech, with Hanks thanking his wife Rita Wilson, as well as the film’s cast and crew — including co-stars Antonio Banderas and Denzel Washington. Then, the speech turns personal. Hanks refers to his high school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, and a classmate, John Gilkerson — both gay men who Hanks said he “had the good fortune to be associated with, to fall under their inspiration at such a young age.”

“And there lies my dilemma here tonight,” Hanks continues. “I know that my work in this case is magnified by the fact that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels. We know their names. They number a thousand for each one of the red ribbons that we wear here tonight. They finally rest in the warm embrace of the gracious creator of us all.

“A healing embrace that cools their fevers, that clears their skin, and allows their eyes to see the simple, self-evident, common sense truth that is made manifest by the benevolent creator of us all and was written down on paper by wise men, tolerant men, in the city of Philadelphia 200 years ago,” he says, referring to the Declaration of Independence, which states all men are created equal. “God bless you all. God have mercy on us all. And God bless America.”

Hanks was speaking of the lives lost to AIDS. By 1994, it had become the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25-44. The fellow student he’d mentioned, Gilkerson, was an actor and puppeteer, and died of AIDS in 1989.

Though the disease had raged on for more than a decade by the movie’s release, it was still heavily stigmatized at the time, and “Philadelphia” was one of the first major Hollywood films to address HIV/AIDS directly.

Steven Spielberg was in the audience that night, having won Best Director and Best Picture for “Schindler’s List.”

“The speech was incredible,” he said decades later, in an interview with the New York Times, “and in a sense communicated more about what ‘Philadelphia’ was saying — and reached more people — than the movie itself will.”

Hanks called his drama teacher before the Oscars

Before Hanks had even won the award, he called his high school drama teacher, Farnsworth, asking permission to mention him in the speech.

Farnsworth, 69 years old at the time, received a call at his apartment three days before the Oscars, he told People Magazine in 1994: “I don’t know if you’ll remember me,” the caller had said, “but I’m an old student of yours. I’ve got a ticket to the Academy Awards, and if I win, I would like to use your name in regard to the content of ‘Philadelphia.’”

That caller was, of course, Hanks. And Farnsworth’s answer? “I’d be thrilled,” he said.

His casting wouldn’t have worked today, Hanks says

Memorable Oscars speech aside, “Philadelphia” has been criticized for its casting of a straight actor as a gay man. Hanks has said that if the movie were made today, that wouldn’t be the case, and “rightly so.”

“One of the reasons people weren’t afraid of that movie is that I was playing a gay man,” Hanks said in a 2022 interview. “We’re beyond that now, and I don’t think people would accept the inauthenticity of a straight guy playing a gay guy.”

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