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AIDS on film and TV: Hollywood has released a variety of depictions of the pandemic in the last four decades

UPDATED: Tue., June 1, 2021

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, has been depicted in Hollywood for decades, and, while the majority of the films, a number of them award-winning, have included deaths, some of the works have also infused comedy, insight and even musical numbers.

This list of nine is by no means exhaustive, but it does include films – all very Hollywood vs. documentary – that I have watched over the past four decades, some of them more than once and some of them absolutely unforgettable.

“An Early Frost” (1985)

The NBC movie is considered a landmark, as it is the first major film to dramatize the AIDS crisis in the U.S. Starring a young Aidan Quinn (remember him in “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Legends of the Fall”?), Gena Rowlands and Bill Paxton, it won four Emmy Awards and drew a TV audience of more than 34 million viewers.

“An Early Frost” is the story of a young attorney (Quinn) who tells his parents that he is HIV and gay. The topic was so controversial that NBC reportedly lost $500,000 in revenue from advertisers (how times have changed for the good). The film is thought-provoking and thoughtful in a decade not known for either.

“Longtime Companion” (1989)

“Longtime Companion” in 1989 is noted in cinematic history as the first wide-release film to chronicle the AIDS crisis in America. Directed by Norman Rene and with a screenplay by Craig Lucas, the film spans the years 1981 to 1989.

Bruce Davison received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, and the cast of the film, about the lives of several gay men and the title taken from the New York Times’ description of the partner of someone who has died from AIDS, also included Dermot Mulroney, Mary-Louise Parker, Campbell Scott and Michael Schoeffling (Jake Ryan from “Sixteen Candles”).

“And the Band Played On” (1993)

“And the Band Played On,” based on the bestselling nonfiction book by Randy Shilts, was considered a TV landmark just like “An Early Frost” before it and “Angels in America” on HBO after it and offered a panoramic, almost epic view of the disease.

The film is the story of HIV/AIDS from the discovery of the first cases in Africa in 1976 through the political, social and scientific incidents in the 1980s, and the cast includes Matthew Modine, Alan Alda, Richard Gere, Phil Collins and Angelica Huston.

“Philadelphia” (1993)

One of the best-known films about AIDS, director Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” won Academy Awards for Tom Hanks as best actor and Bruce Springsteen for his great song “Streets of Philadelphia,” although Neil Young’s “Philadelphia” is the more haunting song of the two.

I recently watched the film again, which made more than $200 million at the box office, and it remains a tear-jerker. Denzel Washington’s homophobic lawyer representing Andrew Beckett (Hanks), is jaw-dropping, and Hanks’ performance is affecting and heartbreaking.

“Jeffrey” (1995)

Finally, a film that is mostly uplifting – although there is a death, but that even manages to be OK – Paul Rudnick’s “Jeffrey” directed by Christopher Ashley is a romantic comedy about the search for love and intimacy in the era of AIDS centered on the titular character portrayed by Steven Weber (NBC’s “Wings”).

The star-studded cast is fun and game and includes Patrick Stewart (“Does this scarf make me look like some sort of gay superhero?”), Sigourney Weaver, Kathy Najimy, Robert Klein, Michael T. Weiss and the always great Christine Baranski.

“Angels in America” (2003)

“Angels in America,” HBO’s 11-time Emmy Award-winning miniseries based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tony Kushner, stands out as one of the most poetic and powerful onscreen adaptations of the AIDS pandemic.

Called “a truly monumental piece of filmmaking” incorporating the Bible and historical figures, the storylines are at center stage alongside a stellar cast that includes Emmy winners Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Jeffrey Wright and Mary-Louise Parker. Kushner also received a statuette for his writing, as did director Mike Nichols.

“Rent” (2005)

Jonathan Larson’s “Rent” is one of the most beloved and iconic musicals of its time and a beautiful story of friendship and community in the AIDS-ridden East Village. The memorable score and album include “Seasons of Love” (aka “525,600 minutes”), “Light My Candle,” “One Song Glory,” “Today 4 U,” “La Vie Boheme” and “I’ll Cover You.”

The cast in Chris Columbus’ film includes Adam Pascal from the Broadway cast, Idina Menzel, Taye Diggs, Rosario Dawson and Anthony Rapp. My only inconsequential grip is the film was released a decade after the Broadway musical, but it’s still a joy to see the wonderful songs performed by the talented cast.

“Dallas Buyers Club” (2013)

The Academy Award-winning 2013 film “Dallas Buyers Club” is the story of Ron Woodroof (a hellraising Matthew McConaughey), an HIV-positive heterosexual cowboy who started trading in non-FDA-approved AIDS remedies.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee’s film won Oscars for McConaughey, best achievement in makeup and hairstyling and for Jared Leto, the 30 Seconds to Mars frontman (and forever Jordan Catalano from ABC’s “My So-Called Life”) who portrayed Rayon, a fictional trans woman with HIV.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

Say what you will about director Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – critics say the movie is hazy in its details surrounding charismatic Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s HIV diagnosis, and the storytelling shamed his HIV status, his sexuality and him – it nonetheless is one of the few biopics focused on a person of color living with HIV.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” won four Oscars – for best achievement in film editing, sound editing and sound mixing (how could you not with the legendary rockers’ soundtrack?) and best actor for the riveting and captivating Rami Malek as Mercury.

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