June is LGBT Pride Month, and once again, we’re giving in to the temptation to make a list! This year our LGBT feature film is We Were Here, a film about the AIDS years in San Francisco, when a community was decimated by a mysterious and deadly disease about which little was known. For those of us who lived through that time, its easy to remember the panic and fear (can you get it from mosquitoes? kissing? holding hands?) that enveloped the country. Out of that time came some good and sometimes great films that address issues around HIV/AIDS. Here are 10 of the most memorable.
1. Longtime Companion
The cast of this 1989 classic includes our incredible host, Mary-Louise Parker! A gentle and affecting film, it traces the epidemic from its first mention in the New York Times through the most terrifying plague years through a group of friends.
2. Parting Glances
First of all … young Steve Buscemi! A remarkably realistic and frank look at AIDS made very early in the crisis (shot in 1984, released in 1986).
3. Angels in America
Mary-Louise Parker is back! This 2003 HBO miniseries directed by Mike Nichols and based on the Tony Kushner play had an all-star cast: Al Pacino as the homophobic closeted Roy Cohn; Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg, a Rabbi, and an angel; Emma Thompson as an angel, a homeless woman, and a nurse …. The film addressed AIDS, homophobia, and religion.
Tom Hanks plays and HIV-positive lawyer fired from his firm when he reveals that he has AIDS. in this 1993 film also starring Denzel Washington was the first mainstream movie to truly challenge discrimination against people with AIDS. It was well-rewarded at Oscar time. (It also produced a great soundtrack featuring Springsteen’s Oscar-winning “Streets of Philadelphia.”)
5. And the Band Played On
Based on the book by Randy Shilts, this 1993 film docudrama traces the onset of AIDS to Africa in the 1970s and follows it through the death of Rock Hudson in 1986. The story points up the indifference of governments and the inaction that resulted in so many deaths in the early years, because of the perception that AIDS was a “gay disease.” Shilts died of AIDS in 1994.
6. An Early Frost
This 1985 NBC TV movie was the earliest major film to address AIDS. Aidan Quinn plays an attorney who has to come out to his parents (Ben Gazzara and Gena Rowlands) and tell them that he has AIDS. Although the film won the ratings that night and was critically acclaimed (including with a Peabody Award), NBC lost $500,000 when advertisers fled in droves.
Wait, a funny AIDS film? This 1995 film, written by Paul Rudnick, stars Steven Weber as Jeffrey, a paranoid gay man in New York who decides to be celibate in the face of the AIDS epidemic. Of course, that’s when he meets Mr. Right.
8. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
The first AIDS-themed film to win an Oscar, this 1989 documentary by Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman features profiles of several people memorialized in the AIDS Quilt, through interviews with the people who loved them.
9. Tongues Untied
Marlon Riggs’s unconventional documentary is not technically about AIDS, but it went a long way in starting a conversation in the United States that is still going on today. It ends powerfully with obituaries of AIDS victims and archival footage of civil rights marches (Riggs died of AIDS in 1994). The film, which aired on POV, became a political lightning rod when Pat Buchanan attacked PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts for using taxpayer money toward the film, which he characterized as “pornographic art.”
This 1985 film technically predates An Early Frost as the first film about AIDS, but very few people saw it. Directed by Arthur Bressan Jr., Buddies is about 32-year-old Californian dying of AIDS in a Manhattan Hospital and the 25-year-old volunteer who befriends him.