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When Tom Hanks played a caustic, unlovable stand-up comic in the movie "Punchline," some fans worried that the actor might hurt his good-guy image and, in the process, kill his career.

Of course, they said the same thing after "The Bonfire of the Vanities," but that's another story.Well, here he goes again in "Philadelphia." This is his most courageous and challenging movie role, and fans and critics are divided on how he will fare.

People are not sure whether the role will ruin his career or win him an Oscar. Hanks, as usual, is oblivious to any controversy surrounding his choice of roles.

"It's not like I'm Kirk Douglas in 1955 and worried about what Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons is going to write about me because I played a gay man," said Hanks, who portrays a top Philadelphia attorney with AIDS who sues his own law firm after he is fired.

Denzel Washington plays his homophobic attorney during the ensuing court battle.

"I took the part because I'm a very selfish actor," Hanks said. "I want to work on good material and tell good stories with good people. This was a very select club to be allowed into.

"I'm probably the least politically motivated guy around and I just saw a good, timely story that, if we did it accurately and correctly, would capture what it's like to live in America in 1993."

The reason for the close scrutiny of Hanks and the film is because "Philadelphia" has been ballyhooed as Hollywood's first major studio movie about AIDS and gays. Never mind that Al Pacino played a gay man in "Dog Day Afternoon" and William Hurt won an Oscar as a homosexual in "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

This is a $25 million movie put out by Tri-Star, and most industry observers believe that if it does poorly at the box office, no studio will touch the subject again.

"I suppose it is a big gamble," Hanks said. "It's a movie about gays that doesn't include a scene where a father is saying, `No son of mine is going to be a homosexual."'

Director Jonathan Demme said Hanks was the perfect choice for the role. With a downbeat subject such as AIDS, the studio wanted a likable actor in the lead. And Hanks is as likable as it gets in Hollywood.

"We had to have an All-American boy in that role," the director said, "and Tom has that extraordinary combination of All-American boy persona and laser intelligence. One of the cornerstones of the movie is that audiences must believe that Tom is a brilliant lawyer."

Hanks, 37, said he worked out with personal trainers and lost 35 pounds for the role. He also did extensive personal research that included numerous conversations with AIDS patients.