Movies to Remember on World AIDS Day
December 1st is World AIDS Day, and sites like The Advocate are offering wonderful coverage on the subject. In that same vein, we thought it would be appropriate to remember some of the best films, both theatrical and on television, that have treated this still-ongoing health crisis in a memorable way.
These aren't depressing tomes about death and sorrow for gay men. Indeed, as World AIDS Day reminds us, many of these stories show life moving forward, a journey of heroes who ultimately take control of their lives and community. Each of these films should be applauded, not only for entering risky commercial waters when they were put out, but for actually contributing to the understanding of— and fight against— the scourge of the 20th century.
1. An Early Frost
Released in 1985, An Early Frost was the first TV movie to deal with AIDS. It stars Aidan Quinn as an HIV-positive gay lawyer who has to confront his family about both his sexualy (still a silent subject at that time) and his illness. The incredible Gena Rowlands plays his mother, John Glover offers a standout performance as a dying AIDS patient, and Sylvia Sydney as Quinn's grandmother won the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Miniseries or a TV Movie.
Tom Shales of the Washington Post called An Early Frost "the most important TV movie of the year," as it conveyed the prejudices surrounding HIV/AIDS at the time, as well as the public's limited understanding of how the disease was transmitted. It also got such notice that it truly paved the way for future HIV and AIDS plotlines in television shows and movies.
2. Longtime Companion
This groundbreaking 1990 film is probably the best study of AIDS ever made. A great cast headed by Campbell Scott, Bruce Davison and Mary-Louise Parker chronicle the story of several gay men and one straight female over the course of 8 years as they learn about, and deal with, the start of the AIDS epidemic. The performances are extraordinary, and the finest of all is Bruce Davison. The scene where his character sits by his dying lover, telling him that it's all right to let go and stop fighting to live, is among the most emotionally devastating scenes ever filmed. Davison was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and should have won, having given one the most nakedly honest performances in film history. Mary Louise Parker was also at her dizzy best, especially when she and the hunky Campbell Scott discover a slinky red dress in the dead man's closet. They consider giving it to the undertaker but decide against it because "It needs a hat." Longtime Companion also ends with a life-affirming fantasy sequence in which all the characters meet one last time. It was a brilliant ending to a memorable film.
3. Angels In America
This 2003 HBO Miniseries was a tremendous film adaptation of the epic 9-hour Pulitzer Prize-winning Tony Kushner play. Directed by legendary Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) Angels boasted a fantastic cast of Oscar winners (Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson) and newcomers Patrick Wilson, Justin Kirk and Ben Shenkman. Mary-Louise Parker was also in this production as the poor wife whose Mormon husband (Wilson) turns out to be gay. There is so much thrown into this film, including characters based on the real Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg, that the human story is almost overwhelmed. But Kirk and especially Wilson make their performances so real that true drama outshines all the Kushner dramatics. Jeffrey Wright was also brilliant as the only principal non-white man in the cast. Angels cleaned up at the Emmys and the New York Times astutely stated that "Mike Nichol's television version is a work of art in itself."
4. Parting Glances
This little-seen 1986 release was probably the first important American theatrical film to deal with the AIDS crisis. Today it is considered one of gay cinema's landmark movies. The only actor who went on to any fame is Steve Buscemi, who plays the outrageous Nick, a man dying of AIDS. The film plays over a two-day period, and not only is it groundbreaking for its coverage of the disease, but it shows a gay male couple in a positive light for the first time in American films.
Parting Glances is also a great study of 1980's New York gay life. Buscemi is wonderfully bitchy and touching, and as Janet Maslin wrote in the New York Times, "It is to both his and the film's credit that the anguish of AIDS is presented as part of a larger social fabric, understood in context, and never in a maudlin light." On a somber note, the film's director Bill Sherwood never made another film and died from AIDS in 1990.
5. And the Band Played On
The 1993 TV docu-drama of the famous Randy Shilts book was a ground-breaking study of the AIDS epidemic, with a huge cast of famous stars who worked on the film for little money. Breaking down a 600-page non-fiction book into less than 2 1/2 hours was no easy task, but for the most part the results were outstanding. The fact that HBO made a film of the book itself is also pretty amazing. The end result was an engrossing detective story, though in this instance we know who the killer is from the opening scene. And the Band Played On ends with actual footage of a San Francisco candlelight vigil and march, followed by a montage of famous people with HIV as Elton Johns sings "The Last Song." It may be a bit dated now, but it was still a very powerful film that for many non-gay Americans was their introduction to AIDS.
This 1993 film was one of the first mainstream American movies to portray AIDS and homophobia. The film won Tom Hanks an Oscar and was a huge financial hit. Some would say that Philadelphia is not a great movie, but its heart is in the right place and it was a groundbreaking film. For a popular actor like Tom Hanks (the Jimmy Stewart of our generation) to play a gay man was remarkable. With Antonio Banderas as his sexy lover and Denzel Washington as his eventual lawyer, Philadelphia at least tackles a number of important themes for the first time in a major American film. While the movie deleted a few scenes that showed affection between Hanks and Banderas, including a bed scene, we should be grateful that any major studio would touch this subject matter. Director Jonathan Demme would make better movies (The Silence of the Lambs) and Tom Hanks would give greater performances (Big, Road to Perdition) but the two of them created AIDS film history in this popular, well meaning film.
This 2005 film adaptation of the famed Broadway musical did not find much success with either critics or audiences but it is a surprisingly good film. With most of the original theater cast repeating their roles, this modern day story based on the great opera La Boheme has some fantastic musical numbers. The AIDS plague makes up a good portion of the plot as several of the leading characters are HIV positive. Idina Menzel (she of the great voice with the smash hit Wicked on the horizon) and sexy Taye Diggs (her real-life main squeeze) are wonderful, and Jesse L. Martin is memorable as the professor suffering from AIDS. His love affair with gay drag queen Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia) is the highlight of the movie. Rent is worth seeing, and the DVD release has four deleted scenes plus an alternate ending.
Besides, "Seasons of Love" is still one of the great film musical numbers.
Prayers for Bobby
This wonderful 2009 TV film stars Sigourney Weaver in the true story of a mother who comes to terms with her son being gay after he commits suicide due to homophobia in his own home and community. While not specifically about the AIDS crisis, this film vividly captures the tortured journey of a woman who fights herself and her religion before finally learning to love the son she lost. Weaver gave the performance of her career as Mary Griffith. She makes the changes in her life from homophobic mother to gay rights activist completely convincing. Nominated for both a Best Actress Emmy and a Golden Globe, Weaver delivers a stunning performance. Young Ryan Kelley is equally impressive as the tragically doomed Bobby. Prayers for Bobby is one of the best TV films ever made about homophobia and its tragic consequences.