Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role as Andrew Beckett in the film, while the song "Streets of Philadelphia" by Bruce Springsteen won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. Nyswaner was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to Jane Campion for The Piano.
Andrew Beckett is a senior associate at the largest corporate law firm in Philadelphia. He hides his homosexuality and his status as an AIDS patient from the other members of the firm. A partner in the firm notices a lesion on Beckett's forehead. Although Beckett attributes the lesion to a racquetball injury, it indicates Kaposi's sarcoma, an AIDS defining condition.
Shortly thereafter, Beckett stays home from work for several days to try to find a way to hide his lesions. While at home, he finishes the paperwork for a case he has been assigned and then brings it to his office, leaving instructions for his assistants to file the paperwork the following day, which marks the end of the statute of limitations for the case. Later that morning, he receives a call asking for the paperwork, as the paper copy cannot be found and there are no copies on the computer's hard drive. The paperwork is finally discovered in an alternate location and is filed with the court at the last possible moment. The following day, Beckett is dismissed by the firm's partners.
Beckett believes that someone deliberately hid his paperwork to give the firm an excuse to fire him, and that the dismissal is actually as a result of his diagnosis with AIDS. He asks several attorneys to take his case, including personal injury lawyer Joe Miller. The homophobic Miller appears to be worried that he could contract Beckett's illness. After declining to take the case, Miller immediately visits his doctor to find out if he could have contracted the disease. The doctor explains that the routes of HIV infection do not include casual contact.
Unable to find a lawyer willing to represent him, Beckett is compelled to act as his own attorney. While researching a case at a law library, Miller sees Beckett at a nearby table. After a library employee stares down Miller, presumably because Miller is black, a librarian approaches Beckett and announces that he has found a book on AIDS discrimination for him. As others in the library begin to first stare uneasily, the librarian suggests Beckett to go to a private room. Feeling discouraged by the other people's behavior and seeing the parallels in how he, himself has been unfairly treated, Miller approaches Beckett, reviews the material he has gathered, and takes the case.
As the case goes before the court, the partners of the firm take the stand, each claiming that Beckett was incompetent and that he had deliberately tried to hide his condition. The defense repeatedly suggests that Beckett brought AIDS upon himself by having gay sex, and is therefore not a victim. In the course of testimony, it is revealed that the partner who had noticed Beckett's lesion, Walter Kenton, had previously worked with a woman who had contracted AIDS after a blood transfusion and so should have recognized the lesion as relating to AIDS. According to that partner, the woman was an innocent victim, unlike Beckett, and further testified that he did not recognize Beckett's lesions. To prove that the lesions would have been visible, Miller asks Beckett to unbutton his shirt while on the witness stand, revealing that his lesions are indeed visible and recognizable as such.
Beckett eventually collapses during the trial. After Beckett is hospitalized, another partner, Bob Seidman, who noticed Beckett's lesions confesses that he suspected Beckett had AIDS but never told anyone and never gave him the opportunity to explain himself, which he regretted very much. During his hospitalization, the jury votes in Beckett's favor, awarding him back pay, damages for pain and suffering and punitive damages, totaling over $5 million. Miller visits the visibly failing Beckett in the hospital after the verdict and overcomes his fear enough to touch Beckett's face. After Beckett's family leaves the room, he tells his partner Miguel that he is ready to die. At the Miller home, Joe and his wife are awakened by a phone call from Miguel, who tells them that Beckett has died. A reception is held at Beckett's home following the funeral, where many mourners, including Miller, view home movies of Beckett as a happy child.
The events in the film are similar to the events in the lives of attorneys Geoffrey Bowers and Clarence B. Cain.
Bowers was an attorney who in 1987 sued the law firm Baker McKenzie for wrongful dismissal in one of the first AIDS discrimination cases. Cain was an attorney for Hyatt Legal Services who was fired after his employer found out he had AIDS. He sued Hyatt in 1990 and won just before his death.
Bowers' family sued the writers and producers. A year after Bowers' death, producer Scott Rudin interviewed the Bowers family and their lawyers and, according to the family, promised compensation for the use of Bowers' story as a basis for the film. Family members asserted that 54 scenes in the movie are so similar to events in Bowers's life that some of them could only have come from their interviews. However, the defense said that Rudin abandoned the project after hiring a writer and did not share any information the family had provided. The lawsuit was settled after five days of testimony. Although terms of the agreement were not released, the defendants did admit that "the film 'was inspired in part'" by Bowers' story.
The film was the first Hollywood big-budget, big-star film to tackle the issue of AIDS in the U.S. (following the TV movie And the Band Played On) and signaled a shift in Hollywood films toward more realistic depictions of gays and lesbians. According to a Tom Hanks interview for the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, scenes showing more affection between him and Banderas were cut, including one with him and Banderas in bed together. The DVD edition, produced by Automat Pictures, includes this scene.
The screenplay was also republished in a novelization by writer Christopher Davis in 1994.
Philadelphia was originally released on December 22, 1993, in a limited opening of only 4 theaters, and had a weekend gross of $143,433 with an average of $35,858 per theater. The film expanded its release on January 14, 1994 to 1,245 theaters and opened at #1, grossing $13,817,010 over the 4-day Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, averaging $11,098 per theater. The film stayed at #1 the following weekend, earning another $8,830,605.
In its 14th weekend, the weekend after the Oscars, the film expanded to 888 theaters, and saw its gross increase by 70 percent, making $1,941,168 and jumping from #15 the previous weekend (when it made $1,141,408 from 673 theaters), to returning to the top 10 ranking at #8 that weekend.
Philadelphia eventually grossed $77,446,440 in North America and $129,232,000 overseas for a total of $206,678,440 worldwide against a budget of only $26 million, making it a huge box office success, and becoming the 12th highest grossing film in the US of 1993.
Philadelphia earned mostly positive reviews from critics, with Hanks and Washington receiving wide praise for their performances, and garnering a 78% approval rating at online movie critic site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 47 reviews, with an average rating of 6.6/10. In a contemporary review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars and said that it is "quite a good film, on its own terms. And for moviegoers with an antipathy to AIDS but an enthusiasm for stars like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, it may help to broaden understanding of the disease. It's a ground-breaker like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), the first major film about an interracial romance; it uses the chemistry of popular stars in a reliable genre to sidestep what looks like controversy."
Christopher Matthews from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote “Jonathan Demme’s long-awaited Philadelphia is so expertly acted, well-meaning and gutsy that you find yourself constantly pulling for it to be the definitive AIDS movie.” James Berardinelli from ReelViews wrote “The story is timely and powerful, and the performances of Hanks and Washington assure that the characters will not immediately vanish into obscurity.” Rita Kempley from The Washington Post wrote “It’s less like a film by Demme than the best of Frank Capra. It is not just canny, corny and blatantly patriotic, but compassionate, compelling and emotionally devastating.”
This film's protagonist, Andrew Beckett, is listed at #49 among the heroes on the AFI's list of the Top 100 Heroes and Villains.
The film was ranked #20 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers.
A soundtrack album was released in 1993 containing the main music featured in the film.
The album was re-released in 2008 in France only as a joint CD and DVD pack with the film itself, however the track listing remained the same. The catalogue number is 88697 322052 under both the Sony BMG Music Entertainment and Sony Classical labels with identical catalogue numbers. The director purposefully asked Bruce Springsteen to make the main song for this film in an effort to try to get more people who don’t know much about AIDS to be more comfortable with viewing the film, and to raise awareness overall. However, Springsteen's first contribution, "Tunnel of Love", was rejected by Demme.