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)|
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.