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HBO's much-anticipated "Angels in America" miniseries, starring Emma Thompson, takes risks that other networks shun.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 12/1/2003 6:15:47 AM ET 2003-12-01T11:15:47

The six-hour HBO production of “Angels in America,” premiering Dec. 7, has an aura of significance about it, much like the golden corona that surrounds Emma Thompson in her role as The Angel. The trailers for the miniseries feature Thompson descending from the ceiling, kitted out in the snowy wings and raiment of an Edwardian Christmas-card seraph and haloed in light.

THE CRITICAL RESPONSE so far suggests that that sense of portent is not unearned — that the ambitiousness of the project will pay off, in spite of the potential pitfalls.

The difficulty of translating a theater project to film or television is a well-worn cultural cliché by now; conventional wisdom maintains that theatrical productions on film feel, for lack of a better word, stagy, and plays can seem static on-camera, with too much speechifying and not enough action.

“Angels in America” faces another translation obstacle as well: keeping the issues addressed in the play — which is set in the mid-eighties — relevant in the twenty-first century. Since it first went up 10 years ago, much has changed from the world of the play, both in the way people live with HIV/AIDS and in American attitudes towards homosexuality. Other theatrical works forged in the Reagan era (Eric Bogosian’s “SubUrbia” is one example) seem dated and quaint today.

“Dated and quaint” isn’t a likely fate for “Angels in America,” not least because homosexuality is still the subject of ongoing discussion in American culture, from “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” to the disputed legality of gay marriage to the suddenly omnipresent “metrosexual.” The context is different, but the ambivalence (if not outright hostility) of American society towards homosexuality and the issues surrounding it remains.

And “Angels in America” isn’t about homosexuality anyway, not really. It’s about love, family, secrets, the meaning we take from death — universal artistic themes that keep the play firmly up to date.


It’s also a play that lends itself well to the film medium; the original work employs special effects, dream sequences, supernatural beings, and “split-screen” scenes, often simultaneously. A film based on a play can feel flat, as though pointing a camera at a staged production would have had roughly the same emotional impact, but playwright Tony Kushner’s notes on staging emphasize the sense of magic and illusion — the kind of suspension of disbelief that movies both specialize in and rely on.

A lot of movie magic happens in the editing room, but an all-star cast doesn’t hurt, especially in a work as uniquely layered as this one. The cast must inhabit multiple roles; Meryl Streep is a middle-aged Mormon mother, but she’s also a rabbi — a male rabbi — and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (in Kabuki make-up, no less).

The doubling and tripling up of actors and characters, critical to the play’s sense of time and atmosphere, requires a proven skill set, as does the ranting and domineering of the Roy Cohn role; Al Pacino isn’t renowned for subtlety, it’s true, but he never gives less than his all. A few of the parts in particular call for a certain finesse; the story’s humor is wry and dark, and playing those moments too broadly could ruin them, but the company also includes Jeffrey Wright reprising his role as “ex-ex-drag queen” Belize in the New York production, and Obie-winner Justin Kirk as Prior Walter.

And leading these esteemed veterans into battle is director Mike Nichols, who shepherded Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” memorably onto the big screen. Playwright Tony Kushner is handling the teleplay, assuring that the movie will remain faithful to its Tony- and Pulitzer-Prize-winning source.

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With so much artistic firepower, the HBO version of the play seems set to succeed, at least artistically — but it’s also starting to sound like a recommended daily allowance of fiber. It’s Important Art, but it’s so top-heavy with name-brand industry cred and cultural import that you might feel more obligated to see it than genuinely interested. It’s a not infrequent reaction to HBO programming these days, the feeling that, with all the plaudits and prizes heaped on shows like “The Sopranos” or “Six Feet Under,” you “should” like (and watch religiously) everything the channel offers, whether you want to or not.

But HBO has the clout to get difficult projects like “Angels in America” done. Ten years ago, a television show about a Mafia don (or about undertakers, or a soap opera for men set in a prison) would have sounded utterly implausible, particularly on a network defined by boxing, poor man’s After School Specials, and endless re-airings of “Weekend at Bernie’s 2.”

In 2003, HBO is regarded as a de facto home of innovative original programming, including miniseries on controversial subjects (“If These Walls Could Talk”), historical films (“Path to War”) — and well-received theatrical adaptations like “Wit” and “The Laramie Project.” Network television produces programming to rival premium cable’s, but as the recent kerfuffle over the Reagans miniseries indicates, networks often aren’t willing to take the chances with their advertisers or their audience that a premium cable channel can.

What is verboten to broadcast networks — nudity, touchy subjects like abortion and homosexuality, wide blue streaks of profanity — doesn’t turn a lash on an HBO exec. While the risks don’t always pay off (“Arli$$,” your table is ready), at least someone is taking them, and millions of subscribers then have the opportunity to watch the results either work or fall flat.

A studio version of “Angels in America” might never have gotten into theaters outside of New York and Los Angeles; distributors would have rejected it as too long or too arty — or too gay. A broadcast network version probably wouldn’t have happened at all; if executives can’t bring themselves to call Reagan a jerk in primetime, they won’t show a man dying of AIDS either. HBO offers showrunners and filmmakers the opportunity to make movies, and to get them in front of a wider potential audience.

HBO doesn’t need to take upon itself the burden of instructing us on The Weighty Issues — PBS and The Learning Channel probably have the educational programming well in hand. On the other hand, HBO’s “Sopranos” has bestowed a heretofore unknown degree of coolness upon New Jersey, which once would have seemed impossible.

Whether “Angels in America” turns out to be a cultural event or an overbred dud, it got made and millions will watch it on television, and that wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. We can consider that a success in and of itself.Sarah D. Bunting is the co-creator and co-editor-in-chief of Television Without Pity.com. She lives in Manhattan.

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