Beckett believes that someone deliberately hid his paperwork to give the firm an excuse to fire him, and that the firing is actually as a result of his diagnosis with AIDS. He asks several attorneys to take his case, including personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (Washington), whom he had been involved with in a previous case. Miller is an admitted homophobe and knows little about Beckett's disease. After declining to take the case, Miller immediately visits his doctor to find out if he could have contracted the disease through shaking Beckett's hand. The doctor explains the methods of AIDS infection. 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 librarian announces that he has found a book on AIDS discrimination for Beckett, others in the library begin to first stare and then move away, and the librarian suggests Beckett retire to a private room. Disgusted by their behavior, Miller approaches Beckett, reviews the material he has gathered, and tells him that he will take the case. Upon receiving a summons by Miller, the head of the firm (Robards) worries about the damage the lawsuit could do to his business and reputation, although one associate(Vawter) unsuccessfully tries to convince them to settle out of court with Beckett.
As the case goes before the court, the partners of the firm take the stand, each committing perjury by claiming that Beckett was incompetent and that he had deliberately tried to hide his condition. The defense repeatedly suggests that Beckett had invited his illness through his homosexual acts and was therefore not a victim. In the course of testimony, it is revealed that the partner who had noticed Beckett's lesion 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 were indeed visible and recognizable as such.
During cross-examination, Beckett is confronted with his inactions of concealing his illness, his supposed incompetence, and the origin of his contracting AIDS; the latter of which has gone unexplained to everyone, including Miguel, until this point. He admits that he was originally planning to tell his partners that he was gay, but he soon changed his mind after hearing them make off-colour homophobic jokes in the sauna of a health club. When asked about the truth of how he got infected, he confirms that he engaged in anonymous sex with another man at a pornographic movie theatre. However, he and Miller gain an advantage when the one member of the firm who suggested settling out of court confesses he knew Beckett had AIDS but never said anything, and how he regrets his inaction.
Beckett eventually collapses in court shortly after finishing cross-examination. During his hospitalization, the jury votes in his favor, awarding him back pay, damages for pain and suffering, and punitive damages. 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 Miguel that he is ready to die. A short scene immediately afterwards shows Miller getting the word that Beckett has passed away. The movie ends with a reception at Beckett's home following the funeral, where many mourners, including the Millers, view home movies of Beckett as a healthy child.
It was also nominated for Best Makeup (Carl Fullerton and Alan D'Angerio), Best Music, Song (Neil Young for "Philadelphia") and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Ron Nyswaner).
This film's protagonist, Andrew Beckett, is listed at number 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.
The family of Geoffrey Bowers sued the writers and producers of the movie, claiming that they deserved compensation. One year after Bower's death, producer Scott Rudin had interviewed the Bowers family and their lawyers and, according to the Bowers family, promised them compensation. Family members claim that 54 scenes in the movie were very similar to events in Bower's life, and that some of the information in the movie could only have come from their interviews. The defense said that Rudin had abandoned the project after hiring a writer and did not share any information that had been provided by the Bowers family. 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.