With HBO’s “The Normal Heart” coming on May 25th, expect the film, based on Larry Kramer’s profoundly important play, to bring the message home once again that the AIDS epidemic is as important a place in our recent history as other events. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the film stars Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, Taylor Kitsch, Jim Parsons, Jonathan Groff and Julia Roberts and, if early word means anything, the film is sure to rock our world.
But, thankfully, films dealing with the HIV and AIDS crisis have been around since the plague began back in the 1980s so here’s a list of 10 important films you should see to get different points of view while getting one common message that we’re all in this together. And, of course, I know there are more than 10 films that could be listed here but here are some of my personal favorites that impacted me as well as audiences.
“Angels In America” (2003): The big name cast in this award-winning 6-hour HBO miniseries includes Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson but the powerful storytelling of Tony Kushner’s play, here directed by Mike Nichols, is the true Godsend. Weaving together stories of fictional and real people (Pacino plays a closeted Roy Cohn to Streep’s Ethel Rosenberg) the message of love prevails.
“We Were Here” (2010): David Weissman’s powerful documentary about the AIDS crisis in San Francisco includes not only a historical account of how AIDS swept through the California city but humanizes it more than ever before. Five survivors of the ‘gay plague’ tell their stories that are both personal but also shed lite on the time in terms of social and political change that had to occur. Brilliant.
“Philadelphia” (1993): Groundbreaking for the A-list talent brought in to tell a story about a gay man (Tom Hanks) who desperately tries to hide his HIV status at a top level law firm, the film helped the mainstream public realize that the struggle not only to be openly gay but to not be penalized for it or your HIV status is profoundly important. Hanks deservedly got the Oscar and Denzel Washington, as Hanks’ ambulance chaser lawyer, shines as a straight man having to acknowledge his own homophobia.
“Dallas Buyers Club” (2013): Think we’re done being reminded how horrific the AIDS epidemic was in the early days? Nope. This film, much heralded at this year’s Oscars for stars Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, reminds us that even when looking at the past (the film is set in the 1980s), today’s perception of the LGBT community is still not perfect and there’s more work to be done. (Plus, Leto rocks heels!)
“Longtime Companion” (1989): If one film taught me both the horrors of the AIDS crisis as well as the hope to survive it, it’s this indie film that starred Campbell Scott, Mary-Louise Parker, Dermot Mulroney and a heartbreaking Bruce Davison, who earned an Academy Award nomination and won the Golden Globe. As we follow a group of people – some friends, some who cross paths later – and how they deal with the announcement in the NY Times on July 3, 1981 about a ‘gay cancer,’ we watch the confusion and devastation as well as how lives and attitudes are changed on a personal level. And just try to keep a dry eye at the final scene of the film where the survivors and those they’ve lost are reunited one last time.
“Vito” (2011): If you don’t know the name Vito Russo, then watch this Jeffrey Schwarz documentary to see how gay activist/film scholar Russo examined LGBT representation in media. His landmark book “The Celluloid Closet” is a terrific read and the film is a must see for film lovers. Russo is also featured in the documentary “Common Threads: Stories From A Quilt” where he spoke of the life and death of his lover Jeffrey Sevcik.
“Boys On The Side” (1995): The film, written by Don Roos and the final directing effort of Herbert Ross, isn’t often remembered for what it says about people living with HIV but Mary-Louise Parker’s uptight real estate agent Robin portrays the shame and fear that comes along for anyone living with AIDS. Robin is also straight, which was still something of a new concept since AIDS was known in the early days as a disease that only gay people got. With the always charming Drew Barrymore and Whoopi Goldberg (as a lesbian!), the film has moments of comedy and drama and is worth a second look. (And, yes, a young McConaughey co-stars as a cop!)
“Precious” (2009): One of the most brilliant films in recent memory but also one of the hardest to watch as you see the abuse that overweight teen Precious (Best Actress nominee Gabourey Sidibe) endures as she tries to make something of her life. Already a mother (after being raped by her father), she finds herself pregnant again with little hope she’ll see a happy life. And while the film is an example of one person bringing themselves up out of dire situations, when Precious finds out her father has died of AIDS (resulting in her HIV positive status), she doesn’t let it defeat her. Sidibe’s performance is breathtaking and Mo’Nique (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar) will put fear in your heart as the abusive mother.
“An Early Frost” (1985): I was in high school in Indiana when this made-for-TV film came on NBC and I remember there was a lot of hubbub about a gay man (Aiden Quinn) who comes out to his parents (Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands) not only as gay but also as having AIDS. But it only goes to show the power of television bringing a big issue into our homes as we see an All-American family dealing with AIDS. Also the portrayal of Quinn as a masculine, non-stereotypical gay man was an eye opener for some who thought all gay people were flamboyant drama queens since that was the typical stereotype we usually saw in film and television. Still fantastic.
“And The Band Played On” (1993): HBO’s film adaptation of Randy Shilts’ book, “And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic,” takes us inside the medical and political world to show how the epidemic was first ignored and how the shift happened where the people in charge realized it was not a disease for a niche group. Another all-star cast including Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Ian McKellan, Lily Tomlin, BD Wong, Richard Gere and Anjelica Huston showed Hollywood that films like this matter and people will tune in to watch.
“The Normal Heart” airs May 25th on HBO.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.