Many of the younger generation know World AIDS day to be a global acknowledgement of the devastation caused by HIV. However, those of us who came of age during the genesis of the American AIDS crisis recall the numbing isolation, the abject terror, and the knowledge that no on cared–or even worse, that they wished the disease on us.
However, as Hollywood began to bring the horror of the disease and its myriad of personal stories to mainstream audiences, that began to change––not only for the world, but most acutely for a battered gay community.
I was one of those men in the early 80s who desperately wanted to know that I was not alone and that the rest of the world did indeed care. In these movies, I and many of my friends (some who had HIV and some that did not) found the touchstones that somehow pulled us through.
Here’s my top 10 list of groundbreaking films about HIV/AIDS, from 1985 to present day.
An Early Frost, 1985
An Early Frost is the first major film (made-for-television at that!) to address the topic of AIDS. Michael Pierson is a successful lawyer living a seemingly happy life with his boyfriend in Chicago. But after suffering a coughing fit at work and being taken to hospital, he discovers from a doctor that he most likely has AIDS. Remember, in 1985 standard HIV antibody blood tests were still a few years away from becoming available to the public, so diagnoses were largely made based on symptoms.
The film was impressively the most-watched program the night it aired on November 11, 1985 in the United States, and was subsequently nominated for 14 Emmy Awards, of which it won three, as well as a Golden Globe.
I was a senior in college and mostly in the closet in 1985, primarily due to the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic. I watched it in the Student Union with handful of other students, and walked back to my dorm, inconsolable.
Longtime Companion, 1989
Paving on from the foundation set by An Early Frost, Longtime Companion still rattles me to core.
It is the first wide-release theatrical film to address the subject of AIDS. The film is split into nine sections, with each depicting a different day in the lives of a group of gay men during eight years between July 3, 1981 and July 19, 1989––the heart of the epidemic.
From initially dismissing the rise of “gay cancer” in 1981 as a rare disease, the film’s cast of gay men is gradually whittled down through the years, with many of them dying of AIDS-related illnesses. The deaths of the characters are rarely shown on screen or specifically mentioned, but rather implied by the characters’ absence–-perhaps a softening strategy employed at a time when AIDS hadn’t even yet reached its peak.
GET THE TISSUES: The final scene on the beach at Fire Island Pines will wreck you.
Philadelphia saw Tom Hanks take home the Academy Award for Best Actor for his starring role as Andrew Beckett, a senior associate at a law firm in Philadelphia who has acquired an AIDS-defining illness – Kaposi’s sarcoma. Beckett is dismissed for “incompetence” but suspects the true reason for his termination is his HIV status.
Deftly directed by Jonathan Demme, the power of this film lay in its ability to make the subject area more palatable to a wider and previously unexposed audience during some of the most deadly years of the AIDS epidemic, in part by casting household names Hanks and Washington as the lead characters, but also by casting 53 people living with HIV and AIDS in supporting roles.
I saw this movie in the theater accompanied by two close friends with HIV, one of whom would be dead within a year. The other is alive and well due to the advent of effective pharmacology.
Boys on the Side, 1995
A touching drama focuses upon the relationships of three strong, independent women, this was the first mainstream film that dealt with the rising impact of HIV on the straight and women’s communities. It centers on three women (Mary Louise Parker, Drew Barrymore, and Whoopi Goldberg) who come to love and need each other on the way to Southern California. Parker’s character, Robin, jus contracted HIV, and when she becomes terribly ill, the three must stop in Tucson where they set up a house. Jane, played by Goldberg, must come to grips with her romantic feelings toward the ailing Robin.
Boys opened many eyes as it presciently portrayed the coming of the next phase of the AIDS crisis: to the heterosexual, down low, and women’s communities.
By the way, Mary Louise Parker makes her screen debut in Longtime Companion, above. She also appears on Angels in America, below.
It’s My Party, 1996
It’s My Party is a gentle, and very sad, the story of a man who discovers that he has a short time to live, and throws a party for family and friends, so that he can say goodbye before committing suicide. Written and directed by Randal Kleiser (director of 1978’s Grease), the film is based on the true events of the death of Harry Stein, accomplished architect and designer, who was actually director Kleiser’s ex-lover.
Featuring a star-studded cast including Margaret Cho, Olivia Newton-John, Gregory Harrison, Roddy McDowell, Lee Grant, and Bronson Pinchot, it is Eric Roberts who has the honors of playing the lead. The story is not so concerned with his disease or his decision as it is with recording the emotional tones that surround it. Watching the film is uncannily like going through the illness, death, and memorial service of a loved one.
Ultimately, it is about a story about dying with dignity, an experience that I had sadly more than one first-hand experience with during the AIDS crisis.
Angels in America, 2003
Based on playwright Tony Kushner’s 1991 award-winning play, the HBO miniseries Angels in America has been cited as among the “best of the filmed AIDS portrayals.” Released on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the start of the AIDS epidemic, series runs for six hours and revolves around six New Yorkers whose lives intersect in 1985.
Its protagonist is Prior Walter, a gay man living with AIDS who is visited by an angel. A wide variety of themes from the day are explored in the fantastical series, including the spreading AIDS epidemic, Reagan era politics, internalize homophobia, and the fast changing social and political climate of 1985.
In 2004, Angels in America won 11 awards from 21 nominations at the Emmys – at the time, the most Emmys awarded to a program in a single year. On top of this, the miniseries maintains a 90 per cent ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 20 reviews, with an average rating of 10/10.
While not easy to watch, in the end it ultimately offers redemption and hope.
Life Support, 2007
Life Support is an HBO film produced by Jamie Foxx and starring Queen Latifah loosely based on the real-life story of Ana Wallace, a HIV-positive woman. Debuting at a time when AIDS became the No.1 killer of black women between 25 and 34, it’s a heart-wrenching study in the invisible struggle against the disease that people of color endure.
Queen Latifah was nominated for several awards for her performance, which is raw and real in a gritty, tough love movie. It’s not subtle or in your face, and it’s exactly what was needed–and still is–to portray the impact of AIDS on the black women’s community.
Dallas Buyers Club, 2013
Earning Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto the Academy Award for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor respectively, Dallas Buyers Club was a critically acclaimed and commercial success – grossing just over $55 million worldwide against a relatively minuscule budget of $5 million.
The film’s protagonist is Ron Woodroof (McConaughey), a straight man who acquires AIDS in 1985 when HIV/AIDS treatments were hardly researched. As part of an experimental and underground AIDS treatment movement, Woodroof smuggles unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas to treat his symptoms, and also distributes them to other AIDS patients while facing hostility from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The depictions of adversity and isolation experienced by those living with AIDS at the time is staggering, and the performances by McConaughey and Leto are supreme.
The Normal Heart, 2014
Depicting the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984, The Normal Heart is centered on a group of gay men, as well as physician Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Julia Roberts), and the confusion and fear they face in the early days of the epidemic––a time in which the causes of HIV and how it is transmitted were still largely unknown, and also pre-1985 when the first HIV antibody test became available.
Beautifully shot and with an ever-engaging plot line, this film was lauded by film critics. It also reminds me of why I joined ACT UP and have been a lifelong HIV/AIDS activist since.
BPM (Beats per Minute), 2017
While I have not seen it yet, critics adore this French film exploring love affairs, political maneuvering, and AIDS activism in Paris during the early 1990s. The writer and director based it on their personal experiences in ACT UP. It hit theaters in October 2017 and is now streaming on Hulu and Amazon prime. Take a look and let me know what you think!