When Larry Kramer premiered The Normal Heart in 1985, America was four years into a plague with no end in sight. Faced with a rising death toll, ever-dwindling funds, and a government insistent on ignoring the crisis, Kramer used his platform at the Public Theater to sound the alarm about the ballooning AIDS crisis. As the gay community floundered in the face of a virus that refused medical treatment, the blistering polemic of The Normal Heart was Kramer’s antidote for the other evil at the heart of the crisis: public indifference. The Normal Heart represented the moment that the gay community’s response to AIDS moved out of backdoor bureaucracy and into public action, epitomized by ACT UP, the revolutionary direct action group that Kramer would help found shortly after The Normal Heart closed.
Two weeks after The Normal Heart’s final performance Off Broadway, Hollywood star Rock Hudson announced that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. Within three months he’d be dead. Hudson was the first national celebrity to come out as a victim of the epidemic, and his disclosure rocked Hollywood with the same sense of urgency that Larry Kramer’s play had produced in New York. Hudson’s friends and fellow stars were among the first to offer their celebrity as a means of securing funding for AIDS research. But even as benefit dinners sprang up across the Los Angeles landscape, the backlash to Hudson’s diagnosis circulated through agents and whispers.
Before his announcement Hudson had booked a spot as Linda Evans’s love interest on the smash hit soap Dynasty. Hudson and Evans shared a kiss, and Hudson didn’t disclose his status. Despite the protests of AIDS activists that saliva alone could not transmit the illness, kissing became an industry controversy. Screen Actors Guild President Ed Asner said he knew of kissing scenes being written out of scripts, and both SAG and AFTRA, the two largest labor unions for actors, wrote clauses into their bylaws that allowed for performers to refuse to kiss screen partners based on their potential or perceived AIDS status.
And so Hollywood entered the fray, one foot in compassion and the other in panic. For the better part of two decades, that formula would remain largely unchanged.
Maybe unsurprisingly, the first films to address the impact of AIDS in America were made in the burgeoning independent market, produced on shoestring budgets, and distributed by start-up firms. Parting Glances was one such film. Directed by out gay activist Bill Sherwood, the film focused on Nick, an HIV-positive man (played by the then-unknown Steve Buscemi) living with his ex-boyfriend and caretaker in New York City.
The film, which begins with two men having sex in a shower, was one of the pioneering movies from young gay filmmakers made in defiance of Hollywood’s foot-dragging on AIDS and gay issues. This movement, dubbed New Queer Cinema by critic B. Ruby Rich, coincided with the explosive rise of Larry Kramer’s protest group ACT UP. While ACT UP advocates disturbed the fatal silence with “die-ins” and political funerals, queer filmmakers like Derek Jarman, Gus Van Sant, Donna Deitch, Marlon Riggs, and Todd Haynes were shaking up Hollywood with films that placed queer sex, queer theory, and queer style in the foreground.
But even though the noise around gay culture was at a fever pitch through the 1980s, Hollywood’s major studios took their cues from President Reagan and stayed silent. Worse than silent even, as gay became synonymous with unmasculine, weak, and evil in Hollywood films. Hollywood suits and stars were happy to provide funds to AIDS researchers in private, but publicly the industry was wedded to the homophobic panic that swept the nation in the wake of AIDS.
Removed from their immediate context, films like William Friedkin’s Cruising or David Lynch’s Blue Velvet can seem exciting and transgressive—at present cinema is so decidedly unsexy that there’s something liberating about the dangerous aggression of Frank Booth and Steve Burns. But in the era of AIDS paranoia these sexually ambiguous killers were part of a public branding of homosexuality. If you were to go by what Hollywood seemed to be saying, it wasn’t AIDS that was tearing apart the gay community. Death was just a product of their perverse nature. Even more common was the gay panic that insinuated itself in Hollywood’s comedies, as casually policing “fag” jokes and gay rape humor abounded—even films marketed to teens like Revenge Of The Nerds and Sixteen Candles are littered with “fag” humor.
It wasn’t until 1990, a full decade after the onset of the AIDS crisis, that a major studio released a film directly addressing the effect of AIDS in America. By the time Longtime Companion hit theaters, AIDS had killed over 120,000 people in the United States alone.
Longtime Companion was an ensemble drama following a gay group of friends through the 1980s as their lives are affected by the spread of AIDS. Though the film lacked the kind of incendiary energy of The Normal Heart or the frankness of the New Queer films, the moving performances and sympathetic, informative script were a significant change from Hollywood’s usual attitude.
The film was widely praised by critics, and managed some success at the box office, but like a closet case after his first kiss, this flirtation with compassion would only lead Hollywood into a new wave of homophobic panic. Despite a couple modest successes like the underrated 1991 romcom Frankie And Johnny—which introduced future star Nathan Lane in a supporting role as a gay man trying to maintain a love life in an AIDS-stricken New York—there was little change in Hollywood studios as ever more prestigious films, from Oliver Stone’s JFK to Jonathan Demme’s Silence Of The Lambs, continued the tradition of gay monsters at the box office.
However, the activism of groups like ACT UP was beginning to have unforeseen effects. ACT UP’s ferocious commitment to life was a humanizing force, and their raucous tactics attracted public attention to gay rights in a way that would have been unimaginable before the AIDS crisis. In 1988 the U.S. government distributed materials detailing AIDS safety to 107 million homes, and the 1992 election saw ACT UP activists speak at the Democratic National Convention.
AIDS had officially hit the mainstream, and Hollywood was quick to capitalize with Demme’s Lambs follow-up, the AIDS courtroom drama Philadelphia. A moving, if sometimes improbable tale about a lawyer forced out of his job upon being diagnosed with AIDS, Philadelphia was a hit with audiences, critics, and industry professionals alike—a film that everyone seemed to love. Well, everyone besides the gay community. Within the gay community, the film was the source of much controversy, and the pervading sentiment was that Philadelphia was just too little too late. Larry Kramer writing for The Inquirer perhaps summed up the backlash, offering, “A 6-year-old—after going to the malls, watching a million television movies and episodes that handle this subject matter better than the film, and living intimately with all those series on the Fox network—knows gay people don’t live and look and act the way Philadelphia shows them. And that they are much, much more interesting.”
But in spite of gay condemnation, Hollywood did start to make more gay films. It doesn’t seem like coincidence now to look back and note that Philadelphia debuted within two weeks of British filmmaker Derek Jarman’s final film, the self-eulogy Blue. Jarman, the quintessential queer outsider, was one of the few remaining gay filmmakers to predate the plague and his work shaped an era of filmmakers. A visionary even after AIDS complications left him blind, Jarman’s Blue could serve as a eulogy not just for himself, but for an era of gay life. For better or for worse, we were entering a new era of gay representation onscreen—an era where the outsiders were being asked to come in.
Once Hollywood studios realized that gay life could be identifiable to middle-class audiences, new kinds of gay films began to appear alongside the trusty evil queer thrillers. Films like The Birdcage, In & Out, and As Good As It Gets established a new norm for gay characters in media. This new gay was white, generally male, middle class, fashionable, funny, and sexless.
Hollywood’s “gay best friend” era is an easy target for criticism, but these films represented a fundamental shift in the way that gay life was seen onscreen. For the first time in Hollywood history, gays were portrayed not as freaks, but as friends and brothers and neighbors and daughters. Also around this time, Hollywood began to put the pioneering filmmakers of New Queer Cinema on their payroll. Suddenly Gus Van Sant was an Oscar nominee, and it was Fox Searchlight, not queer-friendly Strand, that was distributing Kimberly Pierce’s transgender love story Boys Don’t Cry. Attendance at gay film festivals—the epicenter of the queer film movement—began to dramatically decline. What was the point of Outfest when you could see the next Todd Haynes movie in the multiplex? Even better, why not just stay home and watch gay characters on TV?
By the time Ang Lee’s gay romance Brokeback Mountain hit theaters in 2005, ushering in an era of mainstream gay films that featured fully developed gay characters coping with gay issues, Massachusetts had already become the first state to legalize gay marriage. The campaign for gay recognition had turned into a campaign for gay rights.
As gay rights moved to the center of the cinematic and cultural landscape, AIDS began falling out. The advent of the AIDS cocktail, along with safer sex practices ushered in by decades of activism, meant that the rate of mortality among gay men with HIV had drastically declined. Increasingly AIDS was becoming an epidemic for black Americans, but Hollywood and news media alike turned a blind eye. While the groundbreaking documentaries Paris Is Burning and Tongues Untied had made a stir in the early ’90, it wasn’t until 2005—25 years after the AIDS crisis began—that a studio touched a film with black characters with HIV, and though Rent had been trailblazing when it premiered off Broadway, the candy-colored, sugarcoated Hollywood adaptation was anything but.
It took until 2009, with the premieres of Lee Daniels’s Precious: Based on The Novel Push By Sapphire and Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls Hollywood gave black filmmakers a chance to reflect the black experience with AIDS. Perry’s film, which applied his usual conservative brush to Ntozake Shange’s 1975 play examining black issues including AIDS, was a modest success. But Precious—a modern melodrama with a hugely sympathetic HIV-positive teen at its heart, was a hit with critics and audiences. Since 2009, the only other multiplex film to address AIDS in the black community was Tyler Perry’s Temptation, a remarkably retrograde cautionary tale about a woman whose infidelity leads first to drugs and then HIV, finally ending with her total alienation. Despite the lack of any major stars, the film was still a hit, which speaks to the unsatisfied hunger that exists for black films that tackle AIDS and other socially relevant subjects.
This weekend, HBO’s adaptation of The Normal Heart premiered in a world that bears little resemblance to the one that surrounded Larry Kramer in 1985. If Kramer’s play was an urgent cry in the dark for recognition, Murphy’s film plays as a reverent, emotional tribute to a lost generation. With its slick production values and all-star cast firing on all cylinders, particularly Matt Bomer in a remarkable turn as the dying Felix, The Normal Heart fits all the criteria of a classic prestige picture. It’s HBO’s prize pony for this Emmy season, but this time it’s a gay director telling a gay story, and the cast includes as many gay stars as straight ones. Murphy’s film is only groundbreaking in the sense that it is not breaking any ground. To borrow from another Murphy project, men loving other men is no longer a revolution—it’s the new normal.