AIDS and the Cinema

A guide to films for World AIDS Day. By Gary M. Kramer

World AIDS Day prompts me to think about the several important American films that have depicted the AIDS crisis over the years. And while some of the best films about AIDS are more then 15 years old, they capture the spirit of survival, remember those lost and memorialize one of our darkest moments in contemporary gay life.

Parting Glances is the late Bill Sherwood’s outstanding 1986 film about a day in the life of two lovers and their friends. One of the first films to deal with AIDS, the film’s subplot features Nick (Steve Buscemi in his screen debut) as a man dying from AIDS. Almost 25 years later, Sherwood’s winning, low-budget film still sensitively (and realistically) depicts the impact of the disease on our community.

In contrast, The Living End Gregg Araki’s 1992 feature about two HIV-positive guys who hit the road on a wild crime spree – is buoyed by an exciting, anarchic spirit and unapologetic ACT-UP style attitude. The director also notably depicted a memorable character with AIDS in his astonishing 2004 film, Mysterious Skin, which involved an obsession with alien abductions starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

TV addressed AIDS on several history-making occasions, first with the award-winning film, An Early Frost in 1985. Aidan Quinn played a character who discovers he’s got AIDS, but out actor John Glover (no stranger to Philadelphia Theatre Company) steals the film as a dying patient Quinn’s character befriends.

Longtime Companion, released in 1989, features one of the most moving scenes in AIDS film history. Bruce Davison, in an Oscar-nominated performance, helps his dying lover finally “let go.” Set with backdrops of New York City and Fire Island, the all-star cast with Dermot Mulroney, Campbell Scott and Mary-Louise Parker (directed by Norman Rene) offers a glimpse into the early days of AIDS with impeccable performances that hold up as among the most genuine portrayal of the disease’s impact in modern cinema:

Longtime Companion was written by gay playwright Craig Lucas, who also used AIDS as a plot point in his directorial debut in 2005 with a film version of his play The Dying Gaul. Here, a screenwriter Robert (Peter Sarsgaard) loses his lover to the disease. As he seduces – or is seduced by – Jeffrey (Campbell Scott), a Hollywood agent, Jeffrey’s wife (Patricia Clarkson) poses on the internet as Robert’s late lover to manipulate things.

Several other theatrical productions about AIDS have been made into films – with mixed results. Jeffrey, Paul Rudnick’s smug, sitcom-like 1995 comedy is about a gay man (Steven Weber) who navigates the New York dating scene only to find out that the man of his dreams is HIV-positive.

Love! Valour! Compassion! (which co-stars John Glover in a double role) features eight gay men – one of whom is HIV-positive – discussing life, love, sex and death over three long weekends in upstate New York. The film, made in 1997, can be a bit stagy, but is still a fun, sometimes poignant romp.

Angels in America, which was made for HBO in 2003, is based on Tony Kushner’s Tony Award-winning play. The story revolves around a gay man deserting his lover with AIDS. The impressive and provocative work features several well-known actors, including Emma Thompson and Meryl Streep, who both depict multiple characters in this lengthy film that delves into waking and unconscious states of 20th century culture.

Two of gay novelist Michael Cunningham’s books have been adapted for the screen. In 2002’s The Hours, Ed Harris – in an Oscar-nominated role – plays a man struggling with the effects of AIDS.  Two years later, A Home at the End of the World tells a story about the love and friendship between two men and a woman. In it, the trio confronts the realities of AIDS, and its impact on the their unconventional lives.

Several independent American films have also portrayed the disease; they’re often quite good and generally overlooked. Nine Lives, directed by Dean Howell in 2004 (not to be confused with Rodrigo García’s 2005 film of the same name), is a superb indie featuring a daisy chain of erotic and sexual encounters between men that proves how dangerous sex – when HIV status is unknown – can be.

The Weekend, made in 1999, is a sharp and smart adaptation of Peter Cameron’s novel about the gathering of friends and family members a year after the death of a vibrant young man (D.B. Sweeney) who died of AIDS. The film features memorable performances by Gena Rowlands and Brooke Shields.

Playing By Heart from 1998 is also an ensemble drama about the various members of an extended family. In it, Jay Mohr plays a young man dying from AIDS, and his bedside conversations with his mother (Ellen Burstyn) are both candid and oddly comic. The film also features Angelina Jolie.

It’s My Party (1996) is a noble effort, by openly gay director Randall Kleiser of Grease fame, to deal with the thorny issue of (assisted) suicide as Nick (Eric Roberts), an HIV-positive character, invites his friends to a “farewell party.” This star-studded production (with a cameo by Margaret Cho) has its heart in the right place, but this film falls short compared to the similarly themed Canadian film The Event from 2003.

AIDS in the African American community has also yielded several distinctive films. Of course, last year’s Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire may be the most well-known, but Queen Latifah gave a memorable turn in the 2007 made-for-HBO film Life Support as an AIDS activist. Likewise, Bill Duke’s 2007 thriller Cover (shot in Philadelphia) confronts men on the “down low.”

Another AIDS film shot in The City of Brotherly Love is Jonathan Demme’s 1993 film Philadelphia. While the film may have been criticized for downplaying the relationship between Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas as lovers, there is no denying the affecting, Oscar-winning performance by Hanks as a dying man seeking justice.

Finally, one of the most poignant short films in recent memory about AIDS is Ira Sachs’ 2010 Last Address, which is available online. This eight-and-a-half-minute film is a silent meditation of residences in New York City where those who died of AIDS once lived. In honor of World AIDS Day, G Philly would like to share this moving film:

Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer and film critic. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews (Southern Tier Editions, 2006).