AIDS, Interrupted

Though there are fearless AIDS documentaries and TV movies being made now, it seems only decades of distance allows Hollywood studios to tackle the topic.



Comrades in arms Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.
Comrades in arms Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club.

A new era in HIV-related filmmaking is upon us, and it’s all about the 1980s. Here or imminent are Dallas Buyers Club (about a real-life straight man who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1986 and started importing experimental drugs), The Normal Heart (the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s seminal play about the early days of AIDS activism), and Test (a hypnotic film set in the panic-drenched San Francisco of 1985). All three look back to an era when the hysteria surrounding AIDS was at its worst, since not nearly as much was known as today about the illness and what exactly to do about preventing or treating it. The resulting dramas deal in the terror and phobias that arose and the various ways to combat them, from ingenuity to rage to a vivid combination of the two.

This is one of the rare cultural moments when AIDS has become script fodder; filmmakers usually avoid it like the plague. When the ’80s were actually happening, movies were slow to recognize the growing epidemic that wasn’t exactly guaranteed to bring in paying customers, though a few brave artists did aim their lenses at the horror and the human glow that made it more bearable. Released in 1986, Parting Glances was a quirky and sincere film, with Steve Buscemi breathtaking as a sick but moxie-laden eccentric. In 1989, Longtime Companion heart-wrenchingly spanned a decade in AIDS as experienced by a circle of New York City friends. There were some future stars in the cast, but four years later, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia attached superstar wattage to the story of a tasteful law associate (Tom Hanks) who is fired after developing AIDS and gets defended by a homophobic lawyer (Denzel Washington). Hanks’s fuzzy character seemed more symbolic than real, but the film broke ground and hearts, while nabbing five Oscar nominations. The Academy loves rewarding straights playing gays—especially if they’re sick or in some other way victimized — so Hanks was a natural to cop the prize. Besides, he was brilliant.

Other AIDS films came in fits and starts through the years, with long periods of no representation at all, but after subplots in I Love You Phillip Morris and Precious, last year’s How to Survive a Plague brought the subject back with fiery results that critics dubbed “electrifying” and “remarkable.” David France’s doc about the powerful impact of activist groups ACT UP and TAG—starting in the ’80s—won bouquets and awards, though the public didn’t exactly line up to see it. Plague raked in only $132,055 domestically, while the film that beat it for the Oscar, Searching for Sugar Man, made 25 times that. But Plague was optioned by ABC for a miniseries, and if that happens, it will make AIDS “cinema” big business indeed.