Channel 4’s new series It’s A Sin follows a group of friends
as the AIDS pandemic emerged in the 1980s. On the eve
of transmission ANDY POLARIS looks back at cinema and TV shows that have portrayed its impact. Some of these dramas arrived amid considerable fear and panic when there were few serious examples of gay relationships and lives on screen…
And The Band Played On (1993, HBO)
Dramatisation of Randy Shilts’ critically acclaimed non-fiction book And The Band Played On: Politics. People and the AIDS Epidemic. As a broad survey of the events, the science and the chronology during the advent of the disease in the USA, it had 20 prize nominations, winning 9, including Emmy for Outstanding Made For Television Movie. The impressive cast included Matthew Modine, Anjelica Houston, Lily Tomlin, Alan Alda, Richard Gere and Steve Martin. This docudrama that seems topical in the dawn of the new epidemic we are currently living through. Shilts was an important historian for the culture and died from AIDS-related illness a year after the broadcast, aged 42. Directed by Roger Spottiswoode.
Parting Glances (1986)
One of the first films to address the subject, this independent focused on 24 hours in the life of a New York gay couple and their friends. It features a very young Steve Buscemi. Its first-time director Bill Sherwood sadly passed away due to complications with AIDS without completing another movie.
An Early Frost (1985 )
A landmark film due to its star cast and being the first TV movie on mainstream NBC to deal with the subject in an unsensational way. A young handsome lawyer (Aiden Quinn) who hasn’t come out to his parents (Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara) is faced with having to reveal that he also has AIDS. This sympathetic portrayal won an Emmy (all five actors were nominated) and Golden Globe award amongst others. Directed by John Erman.
One of the best in the list, this French drama is an urgent and captivating look at young activists from ACT UP demanding government action during the peak of the AIDS crisis. Its unapologetic rage and almost frenetic pace plays almost like a thriller. A wide range of characters gives voice to their frustrations and anger as they battle to emphasise the human tragedy unfolding to a slow bureaucratic official response. Central is the love story between young activists Sean (Nahuel Perez Biscayart) and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), the latter having been recently diagnosed. Their relationship develops against the backdrop of fierce protests by the wider group. This unflinching look at the characters’ lives and ferocious grasp to live each moment as if it’s their last is powerful. The title reflects both the precarious heartbeat and the pulsating nightclub music that frees their spirit. The film won six French Cesars the Grand Prix at Cannes.
We Were Here (2011)
A heartbreaking documentary interviews a small group of survivors of the epidemic with painful honesty. Conversations with lovers, friends and activists dealing with loss and the stigma of the disease in the historic Castro district of San Francisco. It is an incredibly tough watch when you realise similar scenarios were being duplicated around the globe. Directed by David Weissman.
Longtime Companion (1989)
The titled is based on the pre-equal marriage term for widowed same-sex partners. Directed by Norman Rene, this was the first wide theatrical cinema release dealing with the crisis by following several characters over a decade. Set in NY some of which was on Fire Island, the movie starred amongst others Dermot Mulroney, Scott Campbell and Mary Louise Parker.
A recent well-observed drama whose plot echoes An Early Frost with a closeted man Adrian Lester (Cory Mitchell Smith) returning from a life in NY to Dallas to reveal secrets to his family played by Michael Chiklis and Virginia Madsen. Shot in black and white with a small cast, this independent is none the less able to reflect on a personal passage so many had to make in a time of fear. Directed by Yen Tan.
Hollywood’s first real A-list foray into the crisis with a personal story about fear and discrimination when Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) is fired from his corporate job due to his diagnosis. The spiky relationship fuelled by homophobia and distrust between him and the personal injury lawyer Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) prepared to take on his case is central to the plot. Antonia Banderas plays Miguel Alvarez his partner in this moving story. Critically acclaimed, the film won numerous awards including Best Actor for Tom Hanks (his first). The sombre theme song Streets of Philadelphia by Bruce Springsteen really captured the tone of the character’s isolation. It went on to win the Oscar (Best Original Song) and four Grammy awards including Song of the Year. The film became the 12th highest grossing of 1993. Directed by Jonathan Demme.
Angels in America (2003)
Tony Kushner’s opus about a group of interwoven characters in the mid 80s in Reagan’s America really defined the era. The Broadway play became a critically acclaimed mini-series for HBO, winning eleven Emmys and five Golden Globes. Directed by Mike Nichols with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino in leading roles, equally matched with Jeffrey Wright (reprising his Broadway role) Emma Thompson, Mary Louise Parker, and Patrick Wilson. It also features a cameo from the late NY drag icon Flotilla De Barge. The play was recently revived as a sold-out run at the National Theatre in London with Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. I do hope this is one that they include on their new NT online channel of past productions since live theatre has ground to a halt due to pandemic.
The Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Based on the true story of Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey), the homophobic straight man whose AIDS diagnosis forces a change of heart during which antivirals were experimental and less was known about the disease. His reluctant friendship with trans woman Rayon (Jared Leto), a drug addict with HIV, is at the centre of the film. We follow their journey smuggling HIV treatment drugs and distributing them to those who require them (Dallas Buyers Club) against the bureaucracy of slow-moving FDA approval. (Interesting when we see how current vaccines have been approved in less than a year with Covid-19.) The film received critical acclaim and won Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, which was repeated for the SAG and Golden Globes. Directed by Jean Marc Valee.
The Witnesses /Les Temoins (2007)
Set in 1985, like many of these other dramas this tracks a tightly knit friend group, gay and straight. The overlapping relationships that ensue in the era are skilfully examined by seasoned director André Téchiné. This French film cast included some well-loved auteurs including Michel Blanc, Julie Depardieu, Emmanuelle Béart and my favourite Sami Bouajila (star of Drole De Felix).
This breakthrough TV series was a game changer, revolving round a group of diverse LGBTQ friends in New York’s ballroom vogueing scene in the late eighties early nineties. Featuring mainly a black and latino cast with several trans women of colour in the leading roles and behind the scenes. In a bold departure, it reflects a community whose stories have been invisible or occasional yet was embraced by audiences. It received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations for Best TV Series, winning a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series for breakout star Billy Porter. Its storyline includes trans women characters living with HIV and season two starts with a revelatory opening scene with the brutal treatment of those who died of AIDS in NY. Pose by director Ryan Murphy has been greenlit for a third season on Netflix.