Funny, Touching and Vital, Longtime Companion is the best American movie so far this year. It is also, astonishingly, the first major feature to detail the gay community's battle against the AIDS epidemic. The disease has been killing homosexual men for a decade now — 50,500 at last count. Artistic responses have been varied, ranging from the decorous TV drama An Early Frost (1985) to Larry Kramer's angry off-Broadway play The Normal Heart (1987). But Hollywood, ever fearful of risk, has kept silent.
Playwright Craig Lucas (Three Postcards, Blue Window and Reckless) had watched many of his friends fall victim to this disease. When top studios courted him, Lucas said he wanted to make a movie about AIDS. No one was interested. Enter Lindsay Law, the executive producer of PBS's American Playhouse, which had adapted Lucas's Blue Window for TV in 1987 and which had also produced such features as El Norte and The Thin Blue Line. Law was so impressed by the idea for Longtime Companion that he arranged its financing even though the budget ($1.5 million) was twice the norm. Because the film would be shown later on public television, two versions were shot to allow for adjustments in language and levels of intimacy. Otherwise, Lucas worked without restrictions.
The result is overwhelming but determinedly life-size. Lucas hasn't joined Kramer, one of the founders of ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), as a voice of gay rage. There's no denying the film's political agenda (government response to the epidemic has been woefully inadequate), but above all Lucas wants to bear witness to the courage of those afflicted by AIDS and those who stand by them. The movie's title is taken from the euphemism used in obituaries of AIDS victims to refer to the surviving partner; it's considered less threatening to nongays than lover. Despite the title, Lucas and director Norman René, who has staged all of Lucas's plays, have chosen not to go gentle in their film debuts. Though humor underscores the grim subject, their approach is unflinching.
Longtime Companion has eight major characters (four of whom will die) and spans nearly a decade, beginning on July 3rd, 1981, when the New York Times reported on the outbreak of a rare cancer (Kaposi's sarcoma) among forty-one homosexuals. In Manhattan, Howard (Patrick Cassidy), an actor, is distressed by the news and stops on the way to an audition for a TV soap to phone his roommate, Paul (John Dossett). In an antique shop, Lisa (Mary-Louise Parker) calls her pal Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey), a lawyer staying with friends on Fire Island. Also on Fire Island are David (Bruce Davison), an investor who shares his beach house with Sean (Mark Lamos), a TV-soap writer. Their weekend guests are Willy (Campbell Scott), who works at a health club, and John (Dermot Mulroney), who is between jobs. Willy and John are friends, not lovers; Willy has his eye on Fuzzy. This group tries to laugh off the report that many of the cancer patients used drugs or had frequent sexual encounters. But the hot atmosphere on this July day has definitely been chilled.
With remarkable economy, Lucas sets up a complex intertwining of character and incident. His structure – the film shows us one day in each year from 1981 to 1989 – is as episodic as a TV movie. But his people are real. Often confused, scared and inarticulate, they lack a TV character's ability to sum up and solve a problem before the commercial.
Lucas shrewdly uses the sweetly impressionable Willy as the film's focus. Willy first recoils from the AIDS specter, then gradually learns to face his fears. It's a daunting role, but Campbell Scott, who played Joe Kennedy Jr. on the TV miniseries The Kennedys of Massachusetts, is vigorously up to its demands. The son of George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst, Scott allows the panic and hope of a gay generation to flicker across his expressively foursquare face without a trace of actorish grandstanding. His quietly devastating performance is unforgettable.
Willy feels helpless at the hospital to which John has been rushed with pneumonia. He is enraged that John has been kept waiting twenty-eight hours for a bed because he doesn't have insurance, but all Willy can do is tear a phone off the wall in frustration. John, with tubes extending from his nose and mouth, is the first AIDS victim the film shows. The sight of him awake in the dark, watching in quiet terror as machines monitor his breathing, haunts the memory.
And still there is humor – silly, bitchy, cathartic – the kind these people enjoyed before AIDS changed their lives and need even more now. Alone at home, Fuzzy indulges in a burst of supreme joy as he dances and lip-syncs to the title song from Dreamgirls. Howard frets about being "the first butch gay person on TV." And Willy and Lisa, tearfully choosing something for a friend to be cremated in, find a beaded dress the deceased had worn at a drag party and suddenly burst into laughter. "Oh, it needs a hat," says Lisa. Parker, in the only major woman's role, is a radiant actress of rare spirit and sensitivity. But then the entire cast takes care never to become exploitative. The grief underlying the mirth is most apparent at an AIDS fund-raiser in which a classical trio does a slow version of the Village People's gay anthem "Y.M.C.A." that begins as a lampoon and ends as a lament for a vanished lifestyle ("You can do whatever you feel").
The film reaches an emotional peak when David, who has cared for Sean at home, begs his lover to stop fighting for life. Emaciated and incontinent, Sean has lapsed into dementia. Mark Lamos's superb delineation of Sean's wit and sophistication makes the transformation particularly harrowing. David merely sits at Sean's bedside, stroking his hair and repeating the words, "Just let go," but Bruce Davison, a keen actor sadly known best for the rat epic Willard, makes the scene unbearably moving. He gives a performance of startling depth and conviction.
Lucas's romantic fantasy Prelude to a Kiss – now on Broadway and easily the finest play of the season – has a similar scene of transformation. On her wedding day, a bride (strikingly acted by Mary-Louise Parker) finds her soul has migrated to the body of an old man dying of cancer. The groom (Timothy Hutton) now finds his "in sickness" vow sorely tested. Prelude never refers to AIDS, but Lucas is wrestling with the same theme: courage in love.
Lucas and René are clearly major new film talents. But when Longtime Companion took the Audience Award at the United States Film Festival (sex, lies, and videotape won last year), some grumbled that the first movie about AIDS wasn't the last word. Lucas never intended to cover all the ramifications; he simply wrote what he knew about the bravery shown by a community of white, middleclass New York homosexuals and their friends. Others carped about the false hopes raised by a penultimate fantasy scene in which the living and the dead gather to celebrate the discovery of a cure for AIDS. But the scene quickly reverts to reality. "I just want to be there," says Willy, referring to a day when he could wake up and stop thinking, "Who's sick now, who else is gone?" It's a measure of the extraordinary achievement of Longtime Companion that it can dream with Willy without forgetting the effort and understanding still required to make that dream come true.