On December 22, 1993, Philadelphia—one of the first mainstream Hollywood films to tackle the misinformation and biases against individuals with HIV and AIDS—was released in theaters. Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for playing Andrew Beckett, a gay lawyer whose firm terminates him when they discover he has AIDS. Desperate to make his former employees confront their prejudices, Beckett hires lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington)—a one-time adversary—to represent him in a wrongful termination suit, pitting them against one of Philadelphia’s most powerful law firms.
Though the film was a box office smash, not everyone was sold on its message. Gay activist and The Normal Heart playwright Larry Kramer spoke out against the film, saying, “Philadelphia doesn't have anything to do with the AIDS I know, or with the gay world I know. It doesn't bear any truthful resemblance to the life, world, and universe I live in.”
The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme helmed the script written by Ron Nyswaner. In 1994, the film won two of its five Oscar nominations: Hanks won his first Best Actor Oscar for playing Andrew Beckett (he won the same award again the next year for Forrest Gump) and Bruce Springsteen took home the gold for Best Original Song for “Streets of Philadelphia.”
Here are some facts about the film in honor of its 25th anniversary.
1. The studio felt a "moral compunction" to make the film.
In an interview with Queerty, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner—who had worked with Jonathan Demme on 1984's Swing Shift—said the studio “felt there was a moral compunction to make this movie.” He and Demme pitched the script to TriStar’s Mark Platt as a civil rights drama. “This is what Mark Platt said: ‘Ron, Jonathan, there are 10 movies, a total of 10 scripts in development around Hollywood right now [in 1990]. All of them have a heterosexual main character.’ The next thing he said was, ‘that is immoral.’ We were going to make the movie that needs to be made about AIDS with a homosexual main character. So there was no resistance in Hollywood, or at least we went to the right person.”
2. The film is based on several real people.
Nyswaner told The Hollywood Reporter he had a couple of consultants to help him with the script, which he started writing in the late 1980s. “Everybody was thinking and talking about AIDS,” he said. “It wasn’t just one of the things that you occasionally thought of—it was something in the news and in the culture quite a bit.”
Demme told Rolling Stone that his friend, artist Juan Botas, inspired the script. (Demme had produced One Foot on a Banana Peel, the Other Foot in the Grave, an AIDS documentary which Botas had co-directed and was released in 1994—two years after Botas’s death.)
“We looked for a story for a long time, and we decided it would be pointless to make a film for people with AIDS. Or for their loved ones,” Demme said. “They don’t need [a] movie about AIDS. They live the truth. We wanted to reach people who don’t know people with AIDS, who look down on people with AIDS.”
Two similar discrimination cases also inspired the film: Geoffrey Bowers, whose New York law firmed fired him when they found out he had AIDS, and Clarence B. Cain, whose Philadelphia law firm fired him when they discovered his illness. In both cases the men won, but Bowers died in 1987—six years before he’d be awarded $500,000 in damages. Because Demme and Nyswaner loosely based the film on Bowers’s life without compensating him, Bowers’s family sued the filmmakers. In 1996 the case settled in Bowers’s favor.
3. Daniel Day-Lewis turned down the role of Andrew Beckett.
Nyswaner said that Hanks wanted to play Andrew Beckett, but Nyswaner, Demme, and the producers wanted someone more “conventional,” like Daniel Day-Lewis. Much to their dismay, Day-Lewis passed. “We were so pissed off,” Nyswaner said. “How dare he! This is going to be such an important picture! Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme had lunch, and Tom Hanks said, ‘I think I can do this.’”
Day-Lewis was one of the actors Hanks beat out for that year’s Best Actor Oscar (Day-Lewis had been nominated for In the Name of the Father).
4. Denzel Washington's role was written for a comedic actor like Bill Murray or Robin Williams.
In a 2008 interview with The Oregonian, Demme talked about the lessons he learned regarding casting while making Philadelphia. "The part of Joe Miller—Denzel's part—had been written aggressively for a white actor with strong comedic chops; specifically I was hoping for either Robin Williams or Bill Murray to play Joe Miller," Demme said. "And one of our producers was on a plane with Denzel, and he said 'what's that you're reading,' and he gave it to him, and he read it and said, 'I like that Joe Miller part; I'd be interested in playing that.'"
Part of Demme's reasoning for wanting a known comedian was to be able to add some levity to the film. "So I call Denzel up, and he says, 'I like that script, I'd like to play that part,'" Demme recalled. "And I said, 'Well, to tell you the truth, we're gonna have such a struggle to get people to see an AIDS movie, we were hoping to cast it with someone who, right out of the box, the mention of their name signals to people that there's gonna be a lot of humor in this movie.' And Denzel said, 'Well, I happen to be very, very funny.'"
5. Mary Steenburgen had to skip her first day of filming, as she wasn’t emotionally ready.
Days before Mary Steenburgen was set to begin filming scenes as Belinda Conine, one of the defense attorneys disputing Beckett's case, Steenburgen’s friend died from AIDS. “It was super hard for me to go be on the opposite side of someone, on the legal team, who had AIDS,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “In my whole career, I’ve only had one day of work that had to be scrapped, and it was for my first day on Philadelphia because that was such an emotional mess. At the end of the day, I said to Jonathan [Demme], ‘You might have to recast this. I’m distraught about my friend.’ And then he said, ‘No, that makes you [an] even more perfect person, not a less perfect person, to play it. Remember, this is not a film about ‘How do you feel about AIDS?’”
Steenburgen and Demme discussed how the film was really about justice. “Part of protecting that is that everybody is entitled to the best defense possible, which is why I had to be the best lawyer I could for something I personally—and I think even that character probably—disagreed with,” said Steenburgen.
6. Jonathan Demme edited out a bedroom scene between Hanks and Antonio Banderas.
In a controversial deleted scene, Antonio Banderas—who played Beckett’s partner, Miguel—and Hanks are lying in bed together before going to sleep. Demme told Rolling Stone that the scene was meant to show “they’re a lot like you me,” but he cut it because the film was too long, and “the film was edited, finally, to tell its strongest story in the best possible way. And that was the story about the fight for vindication,” Demme said.
However, Nyswaner was disappointed in the cut. “In retrospect, we would have gladly ignored or avoided all that controversy and kept that scene in. If we knew people were going to yell about it for 25 years we would have done it,” he told Queerty.
7. The sailor uniforms became a political statement.
In one scene, Banderas and Hanks host a party, wear sailor uniforms, and slow-dance together. “They’re an elegant couple, they would throw a swellegant, Cole Porter-type party,” Demme told Rolling Stone. “So the idea of the guys in dress naval—they’ll look so handsome, they’ll look so elegant.”
In February 1994, not long after the film was released, President Bill Clinton ushered in "Don’t ask, don’t tell" (DADT), a policy that prohibited gay military members from disclosing their sexuality. “When we showed the [movie] at the White House, shortly after the shot of the guys dancing in uniform, President Clinton left the room—he had to relieve himself,” Demme said. “But I thought that was kind of … interesting timing. It wasn’t enough that the movie was seen at the White House—I hoped that with the 50 or so guests, there would have been 10 minutes devoted to a discussion about AIDS in our country. But instead. President Clinton took the guests on a guided tour of the White House. I was disappointed by that.”
8. More than 50 extras with HIV or AIDS were featured.
Action Wellness, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people in the Philadelphia area deal with chronic illness, helped the filmmakers cast more than 50 extras with HIV and AIDS to appear in the film. Today, 25 years later, Suellen Kehler is the only surviving member of that group.
“I am so happy to be alive, but I have survivor’s guilt,” Kehler said at the Philadelphia Film Center screening of the film and the documentary short The Last Mile. “I ask myself ‘Why me? Why just me?’”
9. Hanks's Oscar speech inspired another movie.
In one of the most famous Oscar speeches of alltime, Hanks thanked his high school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth, and classmate John Gilkerson for being “the two finest gay Americans, two wonderful men, that I had the good fortune to be associated with.” Three days before the big event, Hanks called Farnsworth to get permission to use his name if he won. “I didn’t know exactly what he was going to say,” Farnsworth told People, “but it was just overwhelming.” However, it wasn't Hanks’s speech that outed Farnsworth—it was a San Francisco Chronicle article about the movie that did.
However, Hanks's speech did inspire the 1997 film In & Out in which Matt Dillon’s character outs his high school drama teacher, played by Kevin Kline, during an Oscar speech.
10. The real streets of Philadelphia inspired the movie’s hit song.
Demme told Rolling Stone he hired Neil Young to compose a rock song for the tragic ending and asked Bruce Springsteen to compose a rock song for film’s opening. “If Bruce and Neil are part of this party, it’s going to be something for the unconverted,” Demme said. He called Springsteen and told him “we still need a kick-ass song at the beginning.”
During a 2017 Tribeca Film Festival talk with Hanks, Springsteen explained how he wrote “Streets of Philadelphia.” “Demme had sent me that opening piece of film where the camera moves slowly through Philly,” Springsteen said. “Eventually, I came up with that tiny, little beat and I figured it wasn’t what he wanted, but I sent it to him anyway and asked, ‘What do you think?’”
Akin to Young, the song Springsteen offered wasn’t as rock-oriented as Demme would’ve liked, but it worked. “Springsteen, like Neil Young, trusted the idea of the movie much more than I was trusting it,” Demme said. “Streets of Philadelphia” beat out Young’s “Philadelphia” for Best Song at the Oscars; it also won a Golden Globe and a Grammy Award.
11. a lot of people thanked Hanks for making the film.
“Almost everyone I’ve met has already come to some conclusion about AIDS,” Hanks told Interview Magazine. “They already have in their mind that either dark or light image of what it is. But because I’m the guy that’s in the movie, the first thing that comes out of the people who have talked to me about it is their incredible emotional response. More people have stopped me on the street or come up to me in airplanes or sidled up to me in restaurants to talk about this movie than any other job I’ve done, and almost all of them have said something like, ‘Thank you for doing it.’"