Like many responses to the HIV/Aids crisis in the 1980s, representation on cinema and TV screens came slowly, hindered by institutional prejudice and fraught with the weight of responsibility. When Aids came to international attention following the first reports in the US media in mid-1981, it was identified as a disease affecting homosexual men, initially named Grid – Gay-related immune deficiency – and would be ghettoised as a ‘gay plague’ for most of the 1980s.
Subsequent reporting ensured that to Middle America this was a ‘niche’ disease, only affecting those indulging in a homosexual ‘lifestyle’ – thus sealing the fate of thousands of gay men who died while the US government dragged its heels. Until a threat to heterosexuals was apparent, the gains of the gay liberation movement since the late 1960s began to disintegrate as the establishment closed ranks. Hollywood, long resistant to depicting homosexuality on screen, was conspicuous by its absence in those early years, with studios literally avoiding the subject like the plague.
Into this febrile climate arrived the first independent feature to challenge the industry’s silence: former porn filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan Jr’s Buddies (1985) follows the friendship of two gay men, one of whom is dying of Aids. Made on a shoestring, the film received a limited theatrical release.
Bill Sherwood’s indie comedy-drama Parting Glances (1986) was also set among New York City’s gay community; Steve Buscemi had his first major role as a man dying of Aids. Both Bressan and Sherwood would succumb to the virus themselves before they could make another film.
Soon after the release of Buddies, NBC broadcast An Early Frost (1985), a drama about a gay man (Aidan Quinn) who must break the news that he is both gay and HIV positive to his parents, played by Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara. Attracting more than 30 million viewers, this was a major step forward in raising awareness in a way the mass media had so far failed to do.
It wasn’t until 1989 that a widely released US feature reflected the grim reality of life with Aids and the devastation of bereavement. Longtime Companion spans several years from the onset of the epidemic to the late 1980s, against the backdrop of the affluent gay milieu of Fire Island, off Long Island, New York; the drama reflected the constant medical crises and the role of support groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and activist organisations including Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), founded by the playwright Larry Kramer in 1987.
The most frequently referenced ‘Aids movie’ remains Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993); Tom Hanks won an Oscar playing a closeted lawyer with Aids embroiled in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit. With a box office of more than $200 million, this was a watershed moment for Hollywood in facing up to institutional homophobia and HIV/Aids.
Yet major US releases were still rare. Aside from the relatively fluffy comedy Jeffrey (1995) and Grease director Randal Kleiser’s low-budget It’s My Party (1996), attention dwindled until Ed Harris played a suicidal poet with Aids in The Hours (2002), which was followed by the 1980s-set A Home at the End of the World (2004); both were adapted from novels by Michael Cunningham.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013), inspired by a real-life story, was a critical and commercial hit, but was dogged by controversy over casting and the veracity of key aspects of the plot.
Television was arguably where the outstanding work was happening, not least HBO’s 2003 miniseries Angels in America, based on Tony Kushner’s epic Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and later its 2014 film version of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart.
In Britain, where the virus was first identified in late 1981, TV documentaries and current affairs series such as ITV’s This Week began belatedly engaging with the crisis from the mid-1980s, while the government’s infamous Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign launched in early 1987. As in the US, mainstream print and broadcast media seem to have been spurred into action largely by the possibility of widespread infection among heterosexuals.
UK television audiences were eventually given access to information on emerging medical developments and some much-needed myth-busting courtesy of Aids Update, which ran for five series on the ITV network from 1988-92, with presenters Muriel Gray, Sinéad O’Connor and Ruby Wax.
The first significant British drama to tackle the subject was Intimate Contact (1987), a four-parter produced for Central Independent Television and directed by Waris Hussein. It follows a straight, middle-class businessman who contracts the virus through sex with a female prostitute; though this scenario was more alarmist than the statistics might merit, the play drew attention to the ignorance at large among the general public and the resulting stigma attached to sufferers.
Intimate Contact was later broadcast in the US by HBO in two 90-minute segments. Sweet as You Are (1988), broadcast in the BBC’s Screen Two drama strand, had a not-dissimilar plot: a university lecturer is diagnosed HIV positive following an affair with a female student.
A breakthrough of sorts came with Channel 4’s Closing Numbers, produced for World Aids Day 1993. Though the story was told from the middle-class, heterosexual viewpoint of sheltered housewife Anna (an impressively nuanced performance by Jane Asher), the revelation that her husband has been having sex with men throughout their marriage was unusually frank for the time.
Anna’s attempts to understand her husband’s behaviour and her own potential exposure to the virus is handled sensitively by writer David Cook. A hesitant friendship develops with her husband’s lover, who in the film’s best scenes educates Anna out of her suburban stupor with the help of a close friend (played by dancer Nigel Charnock), ostracised by his family even in the advanced stages of full-blown Aids.
Though these early productions were weighed down by worthiness, a more deeply personal narrative began to emerge with the likes of Nervous Energy (BBC 1995), about a Glaswegian man with Aids (Alfred Molina) who returns home to tell family and friends; and My Night with Reg (BBC 1996), a faithful adaptation of Kevin Elyot’s hit play, which debuted at the Royal Court in 1994.
One of the most distinctive works to tackle the epidemic emerged from Canada: John Greyson’s time-travelling musical Zero Patience (1993). Led by Victorian sexologist Sir Richard Burton (John Robinson), the film sets out to unpick the semi-mythical figure of ‘patient zero’ – Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas, an early Aids sufferer who died in 1984 and was wrongly alleged to have wilfully spread, or even originated, the virus. This myth was propagated by journalist Randy Shilts in his 1987 book And the Band Played On, itself turned into a major HBO docudrama in 1993, starring Matthew Modine, Ian McKellen and Lily Tomlin.
Amos Guttman’s Amazing Grace (1992) was the first Israeli film to tackle Aids and one of the first to explicitly address homosexuality. Guttman died soon after its release. In France, Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights (Les Nuits Fauves, 1992), an adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical novel, focused on a promiscuous aspiring filmmaker who is bisexual and HIV positive, played by Collard himself.
André Téchiné’s The Witnesses (Les Témoins, 2007) later explored the impact of the Aids outbreak in 1980s Paris. Argentinian filmmaker Anahí Berneri also opted for a period setting for the downbeat A Year Without Love (Un año sin amor, 2005), about an HIV-positive writer roaming the fetish clubs of 1990s Buenos Aires, seeking solace in sadomasochism.
Not all dramas have privileged the experience of gay men with Aids; the range of subjects has run from tear-jerking TV movies about haemophiliac kids (most famously ABC’s The Ryan White Story, 1989) and the wayward teens of Larry Clark’s extraordinary debut Kids (1995) to Joseph Mazzello’s turn as a 13-year-old who contracted Aids from a blood transfusion in The Cure (1995), and Queen Latifah’s injecting drug-user in Life Support (2007). And Aids has been a lingering presence beneath the surface of cinema: allegories abound, from Hollywood’s vampire fixation to the rage-channelling work of artist-filmmakers such as Derek Jarman.
For some filmmakers drama in itself was insufficient to convey the magnitude of the epidemic. Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) introduced documentary elements to explore the massively underrepresented experience of gay men of colour against the backdrop of the Aids crisis.
Silverlake Life: The View from Here (1993) deployed the video diary format to devastating effect, documenting the last months of Tom Joslin and his partner Mark Massi. Journalist David France’s Academy Award-nominated documentary feature How to Survive a Plague (2012) offered a masterclass in using archive footage to tell the story of how Aids activists fought against government inertia.
While the first antiretroviral medication, AZT, was introduced in 1987, it wasn’t until 1996 that the first successful combination therapies prompted a sharp decline in Aids related deaths in those countries that could afford them. Inevitably this shaped how the crisis was represented on screen from the late 1990s, though it’s important to note that people were still dying.
The advent of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) has seen new diagnoses in gay men begin to plummet in the West after a troubling resurgence in the 2000s; yet HIV/Aids remains one of the leading killers globally, not least in Africa – despite a widespread misconception that we’re living in a ‘post-Aids’ world.
How filmmakers continue to respond to one of the worst epidemics in history will doubtless be scrutinised. Most recently we look to France: following Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau’s frank and intimate Théo & Hugo (2016), which weaves HIV/Aids into the concerns of contemporary gay Parisians, Robin Campillo’s justly celebrated 120 BPM (Beats Per Minute) offers a welcome chance to pause and reflect on battles won, and lost.
It’s a Sin is a love letter to 1980s gay culture – and hate mail to the era’s homophobic hegemony
By Alex Davidson
Film of the week: 120 BPM is an enthralling, devastating call to action
By Ben Walters
Expiry and its discontents: Let the Fire Burn and How to Survive a Plague
By Robert Greene
Philadelphia: un-packaging the Hollywood Aids drama
By Amy Taubin
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