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How Hollywood portrays AIDS

From ‘An Early Frost’ to ‘Yesterday’: Filmmakers, pioneers and cowards. By John Hartl

Although The New York Times first reported on AIDS in the summer of 1981, it took Hollywood years to dramatize the crisis. Television and independent movies got there first — television because the pandemic fit into the disease-of-the-week movie format, independents because the subject clearly meant so much to them.

Several of the non-Hollywood filmmakers who addressed the subject died of AIDS shortly after making their films. Vito Russo did not live to see his book, “The Celluloid Closet,” become a movie. Also among the early AIDS casualties were three gay members of the cast of the landmark play and movie, “The Boys in the Band”: Kenneth Nelson, Leonard Frey and Frederick Combs.

When one of Hollywood’s own, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS in 1985, the major studios did not rush to deal with it. They were slow to see the possibilities until “Philadelphia” became a 1993 box-office hit and won Oscars for Tom Hanks and Bruce Springsteen. The movie played multiplexes nearly a decade after Hudson’s death, yet the filmmakers were still afraid to show Hanks and Antonio Banderas doing much more than discreetly dancing together.

The first feature-length AIDS films made their debuts in the year of Hudson’s death. “An Early Frost,” a superbly cast TV movie, starred Aidan Quinn as a depressed attorney who comes out to his parents (Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara) and grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) at the same time he tells them he’s HIV-positive. Arthur Bressan Jr.’s “Buddies,” about a gay man who befriends a stranger who is in the last stages of the disease, couldn’t hide its shoestring budget, but it was effective and surprisingly graphic.

Bressan died of AIDS shortly after the limited theatrical release of “Buddies,” which quickly disappeared. Much more popular was “Early Frost,” which demonstrated with its strong ratings that a large audience would respond to AIDS stories. Ron Cowen and Daniel Lipman, the Emmy-winning writers on “Frost,” later worked on “Queer as Folk.” Only Quinn’s third film, it was a major boost to his career.

The indie classic that launched Steve BuscemiIn 1986, Bill Sherwood wrote and directed “Parting Glances,” a low-budget production that is still widely regarded as the most entertaining and possibly the best AIDS film to date. Spirited and witty, it was essentially a New York relationship comedy about a stressed-out gay couple. One is tied to a sickly ex-lover, the other plans a trip to Africa, and much of the script dealt with their attempts to escape or confront the situation.

Although Sherwood was courted by Disney, he died of AIDS in 1990; he never finished another film. His discovery, Steve Buscemi, who delivered the movie’s most memorable performance as a dying New Wave rocker, went on to become a fixture in Hollywood productions and a fine independent director in his own right.

The visibility of homosexuals increased as AIDS forced some celebrities to come out. TV movies about Liberace, Greg Louganis and Rock Hudson came and went, making little impression. Somewhat more successful was a 1989 TV production, “The Ryan White Story,” starring Lukas Haas as the 13-year-old hemophiliac who contracted AIDS from a transfusion.

Waris Hussein’s ambitious three-hour British film, “Intimate Contact” (1987), also dealt with a hemophiliac boy who is ostracized when he is sickened by “the gay disease.” But the most dynamic scenes involved Daniel Massey as a stricken businessman and Claire Bloom as his wife.

Also in 1987, William Nicholson (author of “Shadowlands”) wrote “Sweet As You Are,” another British TV production, starring Miranda Richardson and Liam Neeson as a couple who are similarly devastated by the news that he’s been infected.

First Oscar winnerThe first AIDS film to take home an Oscar, “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt,” was made up of profiles of people represented in the AIDS Memorial Quilt. It won for best documentary of 1989. The co-director, Robert Epstein, had earlier won an Academy Award for “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984). He would go on to co-direct “The Celluloid Closet,” which deals in part with the marketing of “Philadelphia.”

Bruce Davison earned an Oscar nomination for “Longtime Companion” (1990), for playing a gay man who watches his lover (Mark Lamos) waste away mentally and physically. Campbell Scott and Stephen Caffrey, cast as a couple who become activists as they witness government indifference, brought a necessary emotional continuity to the story.

Heartfelt and exceptionally well-written by playwright Craig Lucas, “Longtime Companion” was directed by Norman Rene, who died of AIDS in 1996. The finale, a fantasy in which the surviving characters meet on a beach with their friends who have died, could have been maudlin. It wasn’t.

One of the most moving documentaries about AIDS, Peter Adair’s “Absolutely Positive” (1991) was made up of interviews with HIV-positive people. Several years earlier, he and Epstein co-directed “The AIDS Show,” based on a play about San Francisco artists with AIDS. Adair died in 1996.

Also from 1991, the TV movie “Our Sons” starred Julie Andrews as the mother of a gay man (Hugh Grant) whose lover (Zeljko Ivanek) has AIDS. Ann-Margret played the other mother. Unfortunately, it succumbed to disease-of-the-week disease.

Cable does it bestMuch, much better were two made-for-HBO productions that took an epic approach: “And the Band Played On” (1993), based on Randy Shilts’ book about doctors trying to isolate the AIDS virus, and “Angels in America” (2003), Mike Nichols’ superb adaptation of the Tony Kushner play. Both movies dealt with Reagan-era indifference and the desperation of early AIDS victims, including celebrities who found themselves outed by the disease. Shilts died of AIDS in 1994.

Few movies have dealt with AIDS in countries where the disease is now out of control. Last year’s Oscar-nominated South African film, “Yesterday,” has been the most visible to date. Darrell James Roodt’s drama told an alarmingly familiar story: a monogamous wife discovers she’s HIV-positive, and her promiscuous husband beats her before realizing he has full-blown AIDS.

Like so many of the best AIDS films, “Yesterday” communicated an urgency that suggests a deep frustration on the part of its creators. Over the course of a couple of decades, that frustration has become the basis for a vital genre.