Wednesday, June 01, 2016

A Longtime Gay Classic

In the 1980s, the rise of the independent film gave us a window on the world largely unseen in mainstream entertainment and storytelling. Gay-themed stories were being told brilliantly and poignantly in films like Maurice, Parting Glances, My Beautiful Laundrette and Prick Up Your Ears. Longtime Companion (1989) is one of the very best of that period.

The film is among the very first to deal head-on with the onset of the AIDS epidemic; Longtime Companion chronicles its devastating effects on a group of NYC friends and acquaintances, many in the entertainment industry. Without pulling any punches, it illustrates how the horrifying mystery illness began its deadly toll on young urban men, forcing the gay community to stand up and be counted. Visibility of gay people in American life was an important first step in gaining support for combating the AIDS crisis, and would prove to be just as important for the LGBT rights movement overall. 

Willy (Campbell Scott) and Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey)
Longtime Companion is set among these beginnings of awareness and political activism, but is mostly an intimate story about love and loss and friendship and hope, educating heterosexual viewers of the late 1980s that their gay brothers and sisters are truly a part of one human family. (Indeed, one slogan appearing on many of the movie posters was “a motion picture for everyone.”) The original screenplay by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul) is moving, funny and heartbreaking, and brought to life by an ensemble of masterful actors.

Like its counterpart The Normal Heart (the play by Larry Kramer written in the 1980s but not made into a film until 2014), the narrative begins in Fire Island on July 3, 1981, the day the New York Times published its first article about the cancer affecting the gay community. 

Fuzzy and Lisa (Mary-Louise Parker)
Indeed, the HBO film of The Normal Heart pays homage to Longtime Companion’s opening sequence, which depicts the sexy, risqué fun and decadence of a Fire Island summer set to the tune of Blondie’s “The Tide is High.” But flesh and frivolity gives way to serious concern and ultimate tragedy as one by one, friends and loved ones are felled by the dread disease. 

The cast is first-rate, particularly Bruce Davison (Short Eyes, Mame), who earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his portrait of a stalwart caregiver who encourages his partner (Mark Lamos) to let go of the pain and agony at a bedside death vigil. And Campbell Scott’s halting eulogy to the Bruce Davison character later in the film is equally moving, eliciting both tears and laughter.

Bob (Brian Cousins) and Michael (Michael Schoeffling)
Patrick Cassidy as Howard

As the first member of the circle of friends to fall ill with the mystery disease, succumbing to pneumonia,  Dermot Mulroney (My Best Friend’s Wedding) is at first young, adorable and full of lively humor, then devastatingly heartbreaking, struggling to breathe in a tense emergency room scene, underlining the disease’s relentless attack on young men in the prime of life. 

Dermot Mulroney as John
Michael Schoeffling (Sixteen Candles) and Brian Cousins are charming as the young couple who turn to New Age positive thinking, vitamin supplements and naturopathic remedies to help their ailing friends and keep their own personal fears and terrors at bay. 

David (Bruce Davison) urges Sean (Mark Lamos) to let go...

Patrick Cassidy (brother of Shawn and and half-brother of David) is effective as the hunky soap opera actor who watches his lover (John Dossett) die while struggling to live and work under the stigma of HIV. The soap opera scene, where everyone gathers in front of the TV to see the first gay kiss on daytime television (which was not to occur in real life for a decade or more), shows us how hungry gay people were to be represented and accepted in popular entertainment media. (Hard to believe now that to be gay before the 1980s was to be practically invisible in mainstream media.)

A very special episode of the daytime drama "Other People"

Mary Louise Parker, before Angels in America and Weeds, adds refreshing humor and fierce humanity to her role as devoted friend and—pardon the expression—fag hag to Fuzzy (Stephen Caffrey ), an entertainment lawyer, and his new lover Willy (Campbell Scott). Together, they devote themselves to easing the pain of others through volunteering for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

The closing of the film, which brings us back to the beach as the protagonists imagine the joyful day the cure for AIDS is found, is memorable and still sob-inducing for those who lived through these troubled times. 

The ending always makes me cry
Establishment cinema, always slow to catch up with the indie film’s finger on the pulse of collective consciousness, would have to wait a few years before the subject of AIDS became the focus of a major motion picture. It was not until Oscar graced the film Philadelphia (1994) and its star Tom Hanks (our generation’s Spencer Tracy?) that an open discourse on the subject of AIDS and its effect on the fabric of everyone’s lives went mainstream.

Since June is traditionally Gay Pride month, today I’m inspired to share my passion for one of my all-time favorite gay-themed films. If you’ve never seen it, it is definitely worth a look.  


Quiggy said...

June is "Gay Pride Month ? Shows how much my hand is on the pulse of current times. I watched Philadelphia years ago. And recently that one with Matthew Modine (forgot the name). I get depressed too easily to watch very many AIDS movies.

William said...

I have wanted to see this movie for years but perhaps I've avoided it because, as the other gentleman put it, AIDS movies can be distinctly depressing. However, I may finally look at it for my annual Gay Pride list in late June. Anyway, this is another of your excellent write-ups, Chris, making me want to experience the film as you did. These movies were difficult to take back in the day, and I don't know if the passage of time has made them any easier, but a good movie is always worth watching, and we all could use a good cry now and then.

Funny have June has traditionally become Gay Pride Month not just in New York and other major cities, although the dates for the March may not always be the same.

Thanks for another great post!

angelman66 said...

Hi Quiggy - understood. Philadelphia is especially downbeat and not my favorite rendition of the subject matter, either. But even though I love Longtime Companion a lot, there's no way around the harrowing nature of the AIDS beast...

Gay Pride has been a June tradition for many years, in many cities. Probably because the Stonewall riots were in June 1969, or perhaps because Judy Garland's birthday AND death day occurred in June! :-)

Quiggy, I appreciate your support and comments so much!

angelman66 said...

Hi Bill, thanks so much for stopping by!

Perhaps this film means so much to me because of my own personal experiences--I lost my lover of 7 years in 1994 to AIDS, as well as numerous other very close friends and loved ones in the 1990s...Longtime Companion was a brave story for the filmmakers to tell in 1989, when there was a DEFINITE stigma attached not only to people with AIDS/HIV but the fear and loathing extended to ALL gay people, by association. Luckily, I have always been HIV negative because I educated myself about safe sex long before it was fashionable to do so.

Hope you will appreciate this film if you do see it - let me know! I think I'm going to write about another gay classic favorite this month, too--Maurice--and that one has nothing to do with AIDS!!

Bill, I always love hearing from you, and look forward to all your prolific posts on Great Old Movies!

Anonymous said...

Bruce Davison was superb in this movie; his scene where he takes care of Sean and tells him to let go is one of the most powerful moments in cinema.

William said...

Thanks for your kind words, Chris. Again, I'm sorry about your partner -- I have friends who went through the same thing. I remember going to my favorite bar back in the day and having people tell me goodbye, they were going home to their families, going home to die, of course, and it was awful. People and bartenders that you saw every week would suddenly not be there -- and you knew why. At times you felt survivor guilt. Just a terrible period.

On a lighter note, I forgot that I must see this movie because I used to have a tremendous crush on Patrick Cassidy, who starred in the short-lived series based on "Dirty Dancing!"

Quiggy said...

I'm glad my feeble platitudes and comments can be of any help. I basically just hope that I don't make any faux pas that offend you, or your readers. I don't have much contact with the gay community here in small town Texas, so I don't always know how to act. I would hate to ruin what could be a good (albeit long distance) friendship because I said something wrong.

angelman66 said...

Hi Armando, thanks so much for coming by! Agreed, Davison really should have won that Oscar, for that incredibly moving scene alone.

angelman66 said...

Quiggy - no worries, you know how much I appreciate your support! I am a HUGE fan of your Midnite Drive In blog, because we share so many favorites in common. It's a beautiful thing! And I appreciate all comments and observations on the blog, that is the whole purpose. The power of movies is the conversations they bring up, right?