Hollywood Flashback: 'Philadelphia' Tackled the AIDS Taboo 25 Years Ago

Philadelphia (1993) - Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington - Photofest-H 2018
TriStar Pictures/Photofest

Hollywood's previous attempts to portray HIV/AIDS hadn't gone well, but this time was different: "It had to be a movie about the human spirit, a survival movie."

Director Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia had some major forces going both for and against it a quarter-century ago. On the downside, the TriStar production was about a gay man with HIV/AIDS. On the plus side, Tom Hanks starred as that man.

The Hollywood Reporter was impressed by the film that opened Dec. 23, 1993, but said "it will take an exceptionally inspired marketing campaign to bring Philadelphia home everywhere." Hollywood's previous attempts to tackle AIDS hadn't gone well. (The first was NBC's 1985 movie An Early Frost, which had been a critical success and the most-watched broadcast of the night — but lost $600,000 in ad revenue from skittish sponsors. It then lost another $1 million with a second airing.)

"We couldn't make a movie that was just a piece of propaganda about AIDS," says TriStar's then-chairman Mike Medavoy. "It had to be a movie about the human spirit, a survival movie."

Philadelphia's plot centers on a successful, closeted attorney fired from his white-shoe Philadelphia firm when it's revealed he's HIV-positive. The only lawyer he can find to represent him is an ambulance chaser played by Denzel Washington. The timing was perfect: Hanks, then 37, was coming off mega-success with Sleepless in Seattle, and Demme's previous film, The Silence of the Lambs, had grossed $273 million and won five Oscars, including best picture. Plus, Philadelphia featured Bruce Springsteen's massive hit song "Streets of Philadelphia," written for the soundtrack at Demme's request.

"Talent follows material," says producer Ed Saxon. "We had an excellent script about a subject that was urgent to everyone. People wanted to be involved with this film."

The movie did find a home everywhere: The $24 million production raked in $207 million worldwide ($362 million today) and earned four Oscar nominations, with wins for Hanks and Springsteen.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.