Groping In the Dark

Between 1984 and 1985, not much had been known about the “gay cancer” – such poverty of information even trumped the verity that the disease had already affected individuals in other countries regardless of sexual orientations. When it was first widely published in 1981, instead of directly confronting it as a pandemic, the Reagan government, the media, and the medical community downplayed it to the core. Exasperated, Larry Kramer, a social provocateur and accomplished author in his own right, independently published editorials both forewarning the government and the gay community of the downbeat effects of uninformed attitude towards the disease. He co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis while on the side engaging confrontational dialogues to start immediate medical research and funding. Failing short of his effort, the next logical step was to turn to the industry where he is identified – the theater.

While Kramer was going around everywhere, Leland Moss’ The AIDS Show became the first theatrical and media art piece about HIV/AIDS. Although it did not manage to get a proper off-Broadway run, it was able to score a PBS documentary in 1986.

Perhaps, the first fully dramatic media representation of HIV/AIDS was through the 1985 play As Is by William Hoffman, with a narrative that would later on be echoed by Jonathan Larson’s RENT (1995), arguably the most popular play on the subject.

Following closely (and finally), was the seminal and autobiographical play The Normal Heart by Kramer. It premiered in April 1985, off-Broadway, with actor Brad Davis originating the role of Ned Weeks. A few months later, Joel Grey would replace Davisafter he himself was diagnosed of HIV – a fact that he had concealed until 1991 in the last effort to continue working to support his family. Davis managed to finish a book and made public announcement about his condition. However, the cause of his death was intentional (and assisted) drug overdose. Davis received wide acclaims playing similarly tortured gay characters in Midnight Express (Parker, 1978, UK) and Querelle (Fassbinder, 1982, Germany/France). He would later on admit to being bisexual, notwithstanding the fact that he had been happily married. His only child was a birth-assigned male and now a transgender woman named Alexandra. His wife Susan continues to this day help combat the disease.

Pioneering Years

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MAKING LOVE, Harry Hamlin, 1982, TM and Copyright (c)20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.

The first Hollywood film to positively depict homosexuality was the 1982 film Making Love (dir. Arthur Hiller). While groundbreaking in its efforts, the film was criticized for being a sanitized gay romance directed towards the majority of its heterosexual audience, and thereby ultimately failing to mention AIDS. However, it would be exonerated in recent years, as the production noted that it started a year before the first known media report about the pandemic came out. Regardless of media buzz towards the film, it failed to recoup its 14 million budget. Both main actors attributed their lack of subsequent acting jobs to their role in the film. When extremely popular Hollywoodactor Rock Hudson died of (and outed by) AIDS in 1985, there were still no films dealing with the disease. Gay visibility was still seen as a marketing poison, much less the lethal infection identified with it, Hollywood continued to skip the pages.

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This kind of hypocrisy infuriated Arthur Bressan Jr, a filmmaker previously attached to making gay pornographic videos and Pride documentaries. Bressan wrote Buddies in 5 days and shot it in 9 in time for its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February. When it had a US premiere in July and a limited release in September, it finally became the first film to deal with AIDS. Its main actor, Geoff Edholm, who played the dying patient, would be diagnosed of the same affliction after a year. Edholm, an accomplished theater actor, decided upon himself that the disease would not limit his art and therefore founded the PWA Theater Workshop, which featured non-professional PLWA actors in various theatrical performances on a rather humorous take on their own experiences. Elsom died in 1989. However, the film, which was only bankrolled by the same video company that produced Bressan’s novelty pieces, failed to attract mileage. Bressan would pass on of the same complications two years after the film’s release.

For years, the NBC-produced television movie “An Early Frost” had been considered “pioneering” on the subject. Even the virility of Vito Russo’s research failed to acknowledge that fact in his book and eventual documentary, “The Celluloid Closet.” It took Larry Flynt’s Film Threat magazine to unearth the truth about the matter, which would be further significantly mentioned in the offshoot and revised version of “The Lavender Screen.”

The Golden Years

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William Charles Patrick Sherwood was a Julliard music dropout. He (probably) wrote 9 screenplays with only one actually produced. The film would be Steve Buscemi’s star-making vehicle. It turned out to be  Sherwood’s first and last, as he would also die of AIDS complications. The film was Parting Glances, which has been considered by some a masterpiece, gay, AIDS, or otherwise. Buscemi believes the film displays his best performance ever. He always makes it possible to attend retrospective screenings regardless of his schedules and whereabouts.

In 1990, Norman Rene’s “Longtime Companion” became the first widely-releasedHollywood film about HIV/AIDS. The film chronicles the lives of a group of friends inNew York before, during, and after the pandemic. The Beach Reunion scene is often regarded one of the most heart-rending moments in recent cinema. Rene would also succumb to AIDS years later. In 1994, Tom Hanks would win his first leading Oscar for portraying a lawyer fighting AIDS discrimination where he is the subject of the case. Before Hanks though, and way before Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto for Dallas Buyers Club (2013), Bruce Davison delivered an Oscar-nominated performance for Longtime Companion, the first ever. It is also of note that the first film to win an Academy Award is the documentary “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” (Epstein, 1989) – a moving portraits of people who are memorialized in the AIDS Quilt.

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