This year could go down as one of the best in terms of LGBTQ representation in film, with close to 40 movies released that featured major queer characters or storylines (e.g., Love, Simon and The Favourite). But 2018 also began to emerge as the year that stories of HIV and AIDS — especially at the height of the epidemic — were depicted more than any year in recent history.
When the epidemic began to ravage LGBTQ people, indie films like Parting Glances, Buddies, Tongues Untied, and Longtime Companion were some of the first to depict stories of resilience amid the devastation. Then, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia, starring then boy-next-door Tom Hanks, brought AIDS into the mainstream. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of Philadelphia, and coincidentally or not, it’s also the year that several feature films and one landmark TV show tackled HIV narratives after what felt like a relative dearth of content around the subject throughout the past decade. Here's a look at those stories.
There’s no denying that the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, starring Mr. Robot’s Rami Malek as the charismatic, queer Queen frontman, is a mega-hit — grossing nearly $500 million worldwide as of this week. Several LGBTQ viewers have taken umbrage with what they see as the treatment and demonization of Mercury’s (and his business manager Paul Prenter's) queerness and with his HIV diagnosis being chronologically manipulated for dramatic effect so that he receives it and informs the other members of Queen prior to their magnificent Live Aid performance in 1985.
For better or worse, Bohemian Rhapsody includes an HIV narrative has put the epidemic on the radars of millions of viewers.
It’s no accident that in the big-screen adaptation of writer Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? — which chronicles her crimes forging literary letters by prominent writers — Lee and her co-conspirator Jack Hock meet and form an unlikely friendship in Julius' bar, Manhattan’s famed gay watering hole. Their partnership, and the crimes they deliciously commit scamming collectors with phony missives from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Fanny Brice, can’t be extricated from the grimy, HIV-decimated New York of 1990.
While the film focuses on the friendship between the unlikely pair, the spectre of the era and HIV runs through it, and eventually it comes to pass that Jack has AIDS. Richard E. Grant, the marvelous British actor who plays Jack opposite Melissa McCarthy’s Lee told The Advocate earlier this year that he based the character in part on his friend, Chariots of Fire actor Ian Charleson, who was gay and died of AIDS at the height of the epidemic.
Director Yen Tan’s emotional family portrait, 1985, shot in elegiac black and white, tells the story of a young gay man, Adrian (Cory Michael Smith), who goes home for the holidays to inform his religious parents (Virginia Madsen and Michael Chiklis) of his HIV-positive diagnosis. Jamie Chung costars as Adrian’s spurned ex-girlfriend who ultimately offers friendship and support as he copes with the terror and unknown surrounding an HIV diagnosis in 1985.
While the biopic Mapplethorpe, about the acclaimed photographer and button-pusher Robert Mapplethorpe, won’t be released in theaters until March of 2019, it made the film festival rounds this year. Matt Smith (The Crown, Dr. Who) stars as the gay lothario whose frank depictions of male genitalia and BDSM were favorite targets of the religious right. Ondi Timoner directs the film that follows Mapplethorpe from his beginnings as an artist and a denizen of the Chelsea Hotel where he lived with poet, author, and rocker Patti Smith (who wrote the gorgeous memoir Just Kids about their friendship) through to the height of his fame, his relationship with art collector and curator Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), and his death from AIDS in 1989 at age 42.
Jeff Kaufman directs this documentary about the life and career of playwright Terrence McNally that is absolute catnip to theater devotees. With McNally as the central interview subject, the film charts his beginnings as a gay boy growing up in homophobic Corpus Christi, Texas, to his move to New York City and his increasing success in the theater world amid the LGBTQ civil rights movement and the AIDS epidemic. The film is peppered with archival footage of some of McNally’s greatest work, such as Master Class and Love, Valour, Compassion, his beautifully incendiary play about a group of gay male friends navigating love and life at the height the epidemic. The film features interviews with acting greats, including F. Murray Abraham, Christine Baranski, Rita Moreno, Nathan Lane, Tyne Daly, Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, and the list goes on and on.
FX's Pose, from wunderkind producer Ryan Murphy, is nothing short of revelatory, featuring the largest cast of trans actresses ever assembled and shedding light on the lives of trans women who shaped the New York City ball culture of the late '80s. More than any series in history, the show also depicts the minefield that was HIV for trans women and gay and bisexual men in the '80s. Starring MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross, and Billy Porter, Pose features several HIV storylines as it brings queer history to generations who weren't even born at the height of the epidemic.